Swim and slim: VN tackles child obesity

June, 18/2016 - 09:00

Over the past few years, obesity has spread at an unprecedented rate in the country, which just a few decades ago was stricken by wars and food shortage.

By Tú Lê

A huge number of people, including me, have been rushing to various swimming pools and water parks around Hà Nội to stay cool in the sizzling summer heat. Unsurprised by the fact that adults are outnumbered by children at those venues, I am more concerned about the body size of our next generation: both boys and girls with heavy bodies either staying out of the water or clinging to their parents’ necks. Few show an interest in swimming.

Over the past few years, obesity has spread at an unprecedented rate in the country, which just a few decades ago was stricken by wars and food shortage. According to the Vieät Nam Medical-Sociological Institute, the number of obese children under the age of 5 already reached 300,000 (four per cent of the children in that age group) in 2013. The situation was worse in big cities like HCM City, where the rate of obesity among children is 9.6 per cent and even 12 per cent in the core districts, higher than the global average rate of 6.9 per cent.

I got acquainted with Nguyễn Minh Thư, the mother of Lê Văn Sơn, a roly poly boy floating peacefully in the pool in a red bouy. At the age of 8, he  already weighs nearly 40kg.

"He hasn’t learned how to swim yet. Throughout the school year, he has a lot of schoolwork to do and after classes to take: maths, English, and literature. During the summer break, he has more free time so I try to take him to the pool whenever I have time. I’m glad that he’s comfortable in the water," Thư told me.

Lê Bạch Mai, deputy director of the National Nutrition Institute, says dramatic socio-economic changes have hugely impacted the lifestyle and food choices of Vietnamese people, especially the young. Increased intake of processed carbohydrates, proteins and fat boosted the obesity rate and our kids’ waistline, she added.

Endless hours in classrooms

A recent study by the Institute revealed that over 30 per cent of children in Việt Nam spend three hours a day indoors, sitting while eating, watching television and playing online. The figure is even higher, 34 per cent of children aged 13-15 and half the children aged 16-17. Unfortunately, up to 53 per cent of mothers interviewed in Hanoi are unaware of their children’s excessive weight, according to the Institute.

A heavly loaded national education system places a big burden on Vietnamese children and endangers their health.  Primary school classes start early in the morning, preceded by a hasty breakfast of processed street food. School lunches are often nutritionally imbalanced: with too many carbohydrates and protein and lacking fresh fruit and vegetables. After being inside classrooms almost the whole day, children get absorbed by a plethora of digital devices and indoor entertainment at home.

As the influences of the urban culture, the inactive lifestyle and the popularity of the heavily marketed fastfood chains across the country cause even the young population to be prone to obesity and its related health risks such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

I met seven-year-old Đặng Minh Hòa and her mother, Trương Ánh Nguyệt, at the National Institute of Nutrition. They came for a consultation with nutrition experts to deal with Hòa’s excess weight problem.

"My whole family came together to find ways to help her lose weight. My mother (Hòa’s grandma) came to stay with us and help me cook healthy meals for the whole family. Hòa is only allowed to eat one bowl of rice each meal and all the oily, fried food is limited. Đặng Hoàng Phúc, her dad, wakes her up early in the morning for physical exercises at the park near our house. We tried all the ways we can think of but the situation hasn’t improved much; and Hòa seems unhappy with the new rules," Nguyệt confided.

Obese kids often face great difficulties in their daily life and long-term psychological effects.

"My parents told me to eat less because I’m heavier than most of my friends now. I don’t like the PE class because I don’t do very well. One time I had to go to the medical room because I couldn’t breathe after a running exercise. For Minh’s birthday party (Minh is her close friend at school), his parents took him and his friends including me, to KFC, my favourite restaurant," Hòa recalled.

"Balanced nutrition and physical activities are the keys for any kid to avoid obesity and have optimal health. Avoid and minimize rich foods or processed food such as hamburgers, sodas, butter, candy. Increase a portion of fresh vegetables and complex carbohydrates (wholegrain rice and bread, cereal). Parents should spend more time outdoors with their kids and help them explore and participate in any form of physical activity that they’re interested in," advised Nguyễn Thị Lâm, deputy head of the National Institute of Nutrition. 

In a tropical country with a long summer, like Việt Nam, swimming is a sport most enjoyed by people of all ages. There are many swimming classes, attracting kids and their parents during the summertime thanks to the sport’s health benefits.

"From my years of practice, I can say that swimming can greatly improve the health of the cardiovascular system and bone structure. Swimming butterfly style in 10 minutes can burn 150 calories so the sport is perfect for anyone who wants to lose weight and keep fit. It’s a very enjoyable sport, especially for kids. My little students want to be in the pool all day once they know how to swim," said Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, a graduate of the University of Sports & Physical Activities, now a well-known swimming teacher.

Bùi Nguyệt Nga, a 13-year-old girl, is one of Tuấn’s students. Three years ago, Nga weighed 46kg and suffered from chronic asthma and other seasonal respiratory allergies. She started to take swimming lessons from Tuấn; since then she has transformed into a confident teenager with a fit body; and both the asthma and allergies have greatly subsided.

"It was very hard at the beginning because I was extremely self-conscious. My teacher and my parents encouraged me a lot. Once I knew how to swim, I enjoyed it so much and kept practising. My body started to get thinner and I could feel I got stronger month by month."

Her mother is thrilled.

"It was an eye-opening experience for not only Hòa but also for me and my husband. We used to worry deeply about her weight and health. Thanks to swimming, she is now healthier and performs better at school. Swimming played a big part in her transformation but I would say that changes in lifestyle and eating habits are equally important," Nga’s mom told me. — VNS