A recent national report indicating the short stature of Vietnamese children, compared to their foreign peers, has turned specialists’ eyes to the people’s dietary habits, which they say are the root cause of the problem.
Le Bach Mai, deputy director of Vietnam’s National Institute of Nutrition, attributes the substandard height of Vietnamese people to their unbalanced diet of too much sugar and salt, worsened by a scant amount of vegetables.
According to Mai, although rice intake among Vietnamese has declined in recent years, their consumption of white bread, instant noodles, and pastry has doubled in the past ten years, from 16 grams daily per person to 33 grams daily per person.
The Vietnamese also have a thirst for soft drinks, Mai says, with the most recent study showing that as much as 53.6 liters of soda, most of which contain sugar and other deleterious substances, were consumed by an average Vietnamese person in the year 2015.
The beer consumption in Vietnam in 2015 also saw an increase of 400 million liters from 2013 to a remarkable 3.4 billion liters, or 38 liters per person - three times the average milk consumption.
Although there have been no official statistics on the consumption of sugar in the past five years, Mai asserted that there has been a growth in sweets consumption in the younger population.
“Vietnamese children prefer soft drinks to water, and even opt for sweetened milk when they have to drink milk,” Mai says. “This is a very different habit from that of children in other countries.”
“Many families let their kids drink carbonated soft drinks whenever they want, unaware that each can of soft drink contains from 36 to 63 grams of sugar, while the recommended intake of sugar is only 20 grams a day for a single person,” Mai explained.
“The high sugar intake, combined with improper dental hygiene, accounts for the alarming rate of dental problems in Vietnamese people, while the use of refined sugar has led to an increase in diabetes in Vietnam.”
In recent years, diabetic patients in the Southeast Asian country have been getting younger and younger. In the past, the metabolic disease only occurred in people over 40. Now, diabetes is becoming more common in people from 18 to 20 years old, according to Tran Thi Thanh Hoa, deputy director of Vietnam’s National Hospital of Endocrinology.
A recent study in the city of Viet Tri in northern Vietnam showed that its citizens consume three times more salt than the recommended daily intake of five grams per person.
The alarming salt consumption may explain why one in four Vietnamese adults suffers from high blood pressure, of which excessive salt intake is one of the primary causes, while the rate was only one percent as of 1960.
Meanwhile, the intake of calcium, an essential element for height growth, has been stalling at around 500 milligrams per person a day since 1985, which only meets 50% to 60% of the body’s demand.
Those waging a war against unhealthy eating habits in Vietnam are struggling to make it gain momentum, says Professor Le Bach Quang, former deputy director of the Vietnam Military Medical University.
“Solutions are available, but the tools for enacting those solutions are not so readily available,” Quang says. “We advise people to be wise consumers, but we lack portable equipment for them to handily test whether the food is safe to eat.”
Quang also blamed the abundance and appeal of junk food and soft drinks for young people’s unhealthy diet, claiming “nutrition education must be carried out in school, when their eating habits are still forming. Instead we are focusing more on older groups whose consumer habits have been fixed.”
According to Mai, the deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, Vietnamese people are also extremely deficient in vitamin D, with women only meeting eight percent of the body’s demand, while the rate in children is 10.6%.
Mai finds this fact disquieting, considering that Vietnam is a tropical country with ample sunlight throughout the year.
“Nearly 90% of our body’s vitamin D supply comes from dermal synthesis, which depends on sun exposure. Meanwhile, Vietnamese women insist on covering their body from head to toe whenever they go out, even when it’s not sunny,” Mai said.