Cambodian Children Suffering Due to Early Sweet Tooth

Shopkeeper Siv Hong wakes up at 4 a.m. each day to begin cooking for her three children. They insist on it, she said.

“Even now, when my daughter is 21, I still cook for her before she goes to work at the bank,” the 45-year-old mother said on Wednesday, adding that she insisted on healthy habits at home.

A young girl waits to purchase potato chips at a shop in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Ben Paviour/The Cambodia Daily)
A young girl waits to purchase potato chips at a shop in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Ben Paviour/The Cambodia Daily)

“When they were younger, I never allowed my kids to drink Coca-Cola or eat junk food like cookies and sweets,” she said.

A new study published this month in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition, based on a survey of 294 mothers in Phnom Penh, shows that Ms. Hong’s perspective is rare among her peers, whose babies and young children are getting hooked on processed food and drinks.

More than half of the mothers of 6- to 23-month-old children surveyed in the study said their children had consumed snack food the day before they were interviewed; over 80 percent said their children had eaten some in the last week. Less than a third of the children met World Health Organization (WHO) standards for a minimal acceptable diet.

These early habits have long-lasting effects in a country where 40 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth, according to the study.

“Beyond contributing to overweight/obesity during childhood, overconsumption of unhealthy foods early in life, such as commercially produced snack food products, can displace consumption of other important micronutrient-rich foods and potentially contribute to undernutrition,” it says.

Siu Hoat said she had long been aware of the risks of feeding her two children—now teenagers—the packaged snacks available outside their schools and at roadside shops.

“They contain a lot of chemicals,” said the 39-year-old toy seller. “The impact is not immediate; it is long term on the liver, stomach and kidneys.”

Not all food carries these risks. The study notes that so-called complementary foods, such as infant cereal, can add much-needed nutrients to the diet of Cambodian children, but that just 5 percent of the children included in the survey had been fed such foods the day before the interview.

Those between the ages of 6 and 12 months especially benefitted from food specifically designed for them; over 85 percent of the children in the age range failed to meet the WHO’s standard for a minimal acceptable diet.

Correcting the situation should be a “national priority,” the study’s authors argue, pointing out that a lack of legislation governing the promotion of food and beverages to children meant that marketers were free to peddle addictive junk foods to mere 2-year-olds.

Such regulation could have an immediate impact. The study shows that mothers with a television at home are over 20 percent more likely to have fed their children packaged snacks the day before.

But a sweet tooth can survive better education, noted Ms. Hong’s 21-year-old daughter, Moni Pich.

“We all know it’s not good, but we like it,” she said with a smile.

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