Bhutan today faces a burden of increasing overweight and obesity among children, which places them in the high-risk group of non-communicable diseases (NCD).

This is happening at a time when concerns remain on hidden hunger, from malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, according to the education ministry. The 2015 national nutrition survey showed that 21 percent of children under the age of five are stunted, nine percent are underweight, and 4.3 percent are wasted.

Realising the importance of nutrition in the school, the ministry of education observed the first annual national school nutrition day on March 23. Observing the day themed Healthy Eating-Key to Happiness, the ministry also launched the first Food and Dietary Guidelines for school aged children. Foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji and World Food Programme’s country office head, Svante Helms released the guidelines.

With 44 percent of 6-59 month-old children and 31 percent of adolescent girls anemic, anaemia, a press release from the ministry states, is still a major public health problem.

There are also recurring incidences of vitamin B1 deficiency among school children.

The guidelines, which would be distributed to both feeding and non-feeding schools, would provide clear, simple advice on the amount and kinds of foods school children need each day to achieve health and nutrition.

The day, which was observed at Yangchengatshel Middle Secondary School (MSS) in Chamgang, Thimphu was held to raise awareness on the importance of health and nutrition including the quality of school meals for school children and the community.

Deputy chief programme officer with the school health and nutrition division, Tashi Namgyel said that with 70 percent of the diseases in Bhutan related to NCD, the ministry initiated the guideline.

“The guidelines are based on the health ministry’s food based dietary guidelines, 2011 and modified with nutrition information related to children,” he said.

The guidelines contain information on the importance of a balanced diet, a good mix of all the food groups, serving standard amount of food or drink, and enjoying a wide variety of food.

Tashi Namgyel said schools should refer the guideline to provide meals to the students. However, he said, it would depend on the different types of food available and they could come up with their own menu.

“Before this guideline, the meals provided to the schools were for survival and to keep children in school,” he said. “But now we’ve to diversify the meals and it is about nutrition.”

The guidelines recommend serving food portion according to the age and to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink milk, plenty of water and include fish, poultry, and eggs, in the diet. The document also contains food safety, personal hygiene in the kitchen, cooking and preparation.

The ministry is also working on developing a dietary guideline specifically for feeding schools.

To observe the day, 11 schools from Thimphu and Thromde made presentation on healthy eating and performed skits on the importance of nutrition.

The day will be observed annually. The second week of March is globally observed as international meals week.

Yangchen C Rinzin