How Nutrition Education Supports Healthy Child Development

The greatest burden of malnutrition is shouldered by children living in poor communities around the world. Studies show that poor nutrition causes nearly half of all deaths among children under the age of five. In addition, according to the United Nation’s State of Food Insecurity 2020 (SOFI) report, around a third of children under five (191 million) are stunted or wasted – too short or too thin; another 38 million children are overweight.

Children suffering from obesity are very likely to remain obese as adults and are at risk of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. Childhood undernutrition is the core cause of obesity – a growing epidemic that is rising around the world.

It might be hard to imagine that what a 4-year-old consumes today will affect them for the rest of their lives, but recent research from the 1000 Days organization emphasizes that malnutrition’s damage on the child’s physical and cognitive development during the first 1000 days – from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday – is irreversible.

Why Nutrition Education Is Important at An Early Age 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) emphasizes that school programs can play a crucial role in tackling malnutrition, improving diets, and developing good, life-long healthy eating habits. Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Schools reach children at an age when their food habits are being formed, when they are open to new ideas and they learn good practices and new skills.
  2. Good nutrition education helps children to become “nutritionally literate.” They are informed about the value of nutritious foods, how it can be prepared and make it delicious.
  3. Children are able to share their nutrition knowledge with their friends and family and be a role model in leading a healthy living movement.

Spotlight on Child Malnutrition in Malaysia

In my home country of Malaysia, many children are either not eating the right food or not enough of it to get the required nutrition for optimum growth and health.

According to UNICEF’s 2019 State of the World’s Children, Malaysia faces the threat of a double burden:

  1. Stunting: 20.7 per cent of children under five suffer from stunting and 11.5 per cent from wasting.
  2. Obesity: 12.7 per cent of children (5 – 19-year-olds) are obese. 

The importance of education in reducing these numbers is why, as part of our Nutrition for Zero Hunger initiative, we sponsored a 12-week program to encourage Malaysian children to adopt healthy eating habits and daily activity.

Encouraging kids to play and exercise outdoors

The STAR Program: Paving the Way for Children Nutrition Education in Malaysia

Working with organizations that we support through the Herbalife Nutrition Foundation, we launched the STAR program in March 2019 with 70 children participating in the 12-week education program. Each child received a progress booklet which was divided into two categories: good nutrition and active lifestyle. Each category has a set number of activities that the children can complete to collect star-shaped reward stamps.

Activities include drinking enough water, eating all their vegetables and fruits, exercising daily, and refraining from junk food and carbonated/sweetened drinks. The children were given nutritious vegetables, fruits, protein, and healthy carbs to motivate them throughout the program.

Amitabha quote

A Fun Way to Inspire a Healthy, Active Lifestyle

After the end of the STAR Program, we noted positive results such as healthier skin, achieving a healthy weight, and better fitness levels. Positive reinforcement through desirable results is key in behavior patterning – and to further reinforce these habits, we provided the children with 1-liter water bottles and mason jars to take to school and use at home.

Encouraging dance and physical activity as part of a children's education program

“The program was a fun way to encourage children to eat healthily and exercise. Even after the program ended, the children continued the habit of drinking enough water, exercising regularly, and avoided unhealthy food. The children themselves see the difference—many of them are fitter and have healthier complexions,” said Chong Tzer Bin, Principal of Amitabha Charitable Orphanage, a partner organization.

Overcoming hunger and malnutrition in all its forms (including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight, and obesity) is about more than securing enough food to survive. What people eat – and especially what children eat – must also be nutritious. Social, food, education, and health systems need to work collectively hand-in-hand to solve the multi-issue problem that is children malnutrition.

Herbalife Nutrition will be introducing this program to other countries in Asia Pacific, and the Malaysia team intends to continue with STAR Program.

Promoting nutrition education for children at an early age coupled by providing them with nutrition resources and knowledge empowers kids to adopt a life lasting-healthy and active lifestyle.