Malaysians live to eat, and their passionate love affair with different cuisines has become an increasingly unhealthy relationship.

To be labelled as one of Asia’s fattest countries is certainly worrying.

Not only are we outweighing our South-East Asian neighbours, our children are also following suit.

Obesity is a medical condition described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as abnormal or excessive body weight in the form of fat accumulation that presents a risk to an individual’s health.

In 2013, the Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM) and Nestle Malaysia carried out a study called My Breakfast Study, which looked at the breakfast habits of 8.705 Malaysian schoolchildren aged six to 17 years.

The findings revealed that a high proportion of primary and secondary schoolchildren are overweight or obese – 28% of them, with more boys (32.9%) overweight than girls (24.7%).

Paradoxically, there is also a significant undernutrition problem among them.

One of the most important findings of the study was that breakfast consumption is associated with body weight status.

“Regular breakfast consumption confers important benefits to children and adolescents.

“However, a previous study found out that breakfast is the most commonly skipped meal among schoolchildren in Malaysia.

“From the study, one in four schoolchildren (24.3%) skip breakfast three times a week.

“This means they skip breakfast between three and seven days a week.

“Children who skip breakfast are 1.34 times more likely to be overweight or obese,” says NSM president and the study’s principal investigator Dr Tee E Siong.

Another important finding was the levels of physical activity among the children.

“One in three children (34.8%) in Malaysia have low physical activity levels, and with that, the prevalence of overweight and obesity is higher among children with low physical activity level.

“Participation in physical education should be compulsory for every child.

“Classes intended for physical education should be strictly utilised for this purpose,” says Dr Tee.

According to Ece Durukan, a nutritionist and regional nutrition and external affairs manager for Nestle, the belief that skipping breakfast can lead to weight loss is nothing more than a common misconception.

“It does not work, not in children and not in adults.

Breakfast eaters are less likely to be overweight or obese compared to those who skip breakfast.

“In fact, having breakfast reduces obesity by 20%,” she says.

The study also indicates that the intake of wholegrains is important during breakfast.

Wholegrain is a cereal grain that contains the germ, endo-sperm and bran that gives not only energy, but is also the source of fibre, vitamins and minerals.

The study found that the intake of wholegrain lowers the risk of obesity and other diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It also found that four out of five children were not getting any wholegrain in their diets, and 99% of them did not meet the recommended intake of 48g per day.

Not only does breakfast reduce obesity in children, it is also the fuel that gets them going so they can start the day right and carry out their daily activities.

Durukan explains that breakfast leads to better performance for children in the classroom.

“Children who eat breakfast performed better at school.

“They have lower absenteeism and tiredness, and they can learn more easily.

“They can concentrate and focus on the lesson.

“Breakfast improves school performance and overall health.

“It can prevent diseases like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at later age,” she says.

Eating breakfast is essential because the brain and body needs to refuel in order to function at full capacity. The problem with breakfast is that, for many, it is an inconvenience.

She says children who skip breakfast will have difficulties learning their lessons because they cannot concentrate, and by skipping the morning meal, it will immediately affect their school performance.

“In reality, mornings are the most chaotic time of the day for both parents and children because they’re preparing for school and parents are trying to cook something for the children. Kids don’t want to eat as soon as they wake up,” she says.

What children eat in the morning also makes a difference.

Durukan suggests children should have carbohydrate, fruits and milk in their breakfast.

She adds that to further improve the quality of breakfast, children should also have wholegrain and micronutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamin B, to get the “right” energy.

Children often learn by example, so parents have to set a good example and have a nutritious breakfast every day too.

Inculcating the habit of having a complete and healthy breakfast in children will not only aid them in their life as students, but also benefit them when they reach adulthood.