|Customers place orders at a McDonald's outlet in HCM City. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoang Hai
by Gia Loc
HCM CITY (VNS)— Fried chicken, hamburger and pizza are often the first choices of HCM City children when their parents ask them what they would like to eat.
For parent Pham Thi Thu Trang of District 1, the quick service of fast-food restaurants, as well as free toys, play areas and other perks such as air conditioning, are appealing to busy, working adults.
"Fast food is quick and convenient," Trang said. "And I'm too lazy to cook on weekends."
Another working parent, Nguyen Thi Thu Hong of District 3, agrees that the convenience of fast-food places makes them highly appealing.
Like Trang and Hong, many parents not only take their kids to fast-food restaurants to celebrate birthdays and special occasions, but also to meet their own friends there, according to W&S Market Research, a Japanese company that surveyed 272 people in Ha Noi and HCM City.
Dr Hong Thi Tin, head of HCM City Paediatrics Hospital's nutrition ward, said busy parents often ordered fast food or processed food to save time.
The plethora of TV commercials and advertisements for fast food restaurants is also contributing to the problem, she said.
Children are especially vulnerable to such advertisements, she said.
Besides young kids, older children also prefer fast-food restaurants as a substitute for their schools' canteens during the day or as a place to study in the evening.
And many young adults meet each other for dates at fast-food shops.
Tran Dinh Huy of Thu Duc District, 26, who lives alone in HCM City, prefers to meet friends and have a meal at these cafes.
According to research, the longstanding customers of fast-food shops are aged 24 to 29.
With more than 90 million people and more than 65 per cent under the age than 35, Viet Nam has great potential in the fast-food sector.
More and more fast food shops have opened in recent years, first appearing in 1997.
The latest is the American global giant McDonald's, which opened February 8 in HCM City. Along with Burger King, another American fast-food chain, Thailand's Minor Food Group Pizza Company opened shops last year.
The growth rate of fast-food restaurants in Viet Nam rose somewhat in 2012 compared to the previous year, and is expected to continue, according to a report from Euromonitor International as quoted in several local newspapers.
With such expected growth, particularly in larger cities such as HCM City and Ha Noi, healthcare experts are concerned about the rising obesity rate.
Speaking at an international conference held in HCM City last year, Professor Le Thi Hop, former head of the Viet Nam Nutrition Association, said that obesity had risen among pre-school to high school students, both in urban and rural areas.
She blamed the problem on the proliferation of fast-food restaurants.
According to a report from the Institute of Social and Medical Studies, the rate of obesity and overweight children is higher than the average rate in Asia.
In HCM City, for example, the rate for both categories (obesity and weight over the accepted standard) is 9.6 per cent.
In the city's inner districts, the rate has risen to more than 12 per cent, while the global rate is 6.9 per cent.
The HCM City Nutrition Centre said the rate had risen ninefold over the last decade among primary school students in the city.
Dr Tin of the city's Paediatric Hospital's nutrition ward said that fast food was high in calories, fat and sodium as well as starch, which can increase appetite.
Such restaurants often serve meals with a soft drink packed with sugar. Few vegetables and fruit are offered, she said.
With a higher caloric intake, children and adults must exercise or be engaged in more physical activity to burn off the extra calories. If they do not, the surplus energy is turned into fat.
Dr Nguyen Thi Thu Hau, head of Paediatrics Hospital No. 2's nutrition ward, said that fast food did not contain enough vitamins and minerals as well as micro-nutrients.
She also noted that fatty foods can raise lipids in the blood, leading to hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Meals can also be full of salt, which can lead to hypertension and other problems.
Hau said that children's bones were more susceptible to weakening because of obesity. Moreover, a diet heavy in fast food can contribute to early puberty and lowered immunity against chronic non-infectious diseases.
Tin added that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is common in children with obesity.
Although mostly benign, some children with NAFLD develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which may advance to cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Of 1,748 children with obesity treated at Tin's hospital between 1998 and 2008, 30.6 per cent were diagnosed with NAFLD, she said.
Tin said that the number of advertisements of fast food and processed foods should be limited on television and in publications.
Treating obese children is especially difficult because they often refuse to follow treatment and maintain schedules, she added.
A 2012 study by the University of British Columbia, the results of which were published in the New York Times and other media, showed that banning fast-food advertising to children could be an effective deterrent.
The research found that a 32-year ban on fast-food advertising on TV and in print publications in Quebec province in Canada resulted in a 13 percent reduction in fast-food expenditures and an estimated 2-4 billion fewer calories consumed by children in the province. The province has the lowest obesity rate of children in Canada, the university said. — VNS