New figures released by the UN food security agency suggest that almost half a billion people in the region were identified as undernourished in 2016 — a small increase from 2015, despite a dramatic fall in numbers over the last decade.
The situation is particularly dire for children below five: one in four suffers from impaired growth and development, often as a result of poor nutrition, according to the 2017 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition.
It also warns that obesity is on the rise, with "significant increases" in the prevalence of overweight children over the last 15 years.
This is especially true in South Asia, where the childhood obesity rate has grown from 3% to 7%, and Australasia, where it has doubled to 10%.
In the face of a double nutrition crisis, urgent action is needed to tackle malnutrition and promote the consumption of healthier foods, said Kundhavi Kadiresan, head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Asia-Pacific.
"Good nutrition depends on raising awareness about healthy foods and choices, as well as efficient, affordable and sustainable systems to deliver that food," Kadiresan said.
To meet the FAO's goal of ending hunger in the region, stakeholders "must invest to improve food systems and pool knowledge and resources to meet current food and nutrition challenges head-on," she added.
Course of action
Kicking off a regional meeting in Bangkok organised by the FAO on sustainable food systems, Thailand's Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn urged participants to collaborate to find solutions.
"We must look at improving our current systems of production and patterns of consumption, and set a course of action," she said.
However, the organisers symposium, produced in collaboration with the World Food Programme, World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the World Bank, has been forced to defend criticism.
Addressing concerns that it appears "far removed" from the realities faced by food producers and farmers in the worst-hit countries, Kadiresan said the gathering placed nutrition at the "front and centre of the debate".
"Improving nutrition and diet is a personal responsibility, but it also begins at the desk of the policy-maker and at the sharp end of a pitchfork," she added.
In an editorial penned for regional newspapers, the FAO regional head went on to say that "nutrition is under threat" for both rich and poor, even though healthy foods are available.
She put the blame on food systems that are not properly responding to nutritional needs.
"Bringing together the key players in the food system makes sense, because the policy-makers who can push forward the nutrition agenda need to hear what works and what doesn't from the people who grow our food and those who transport, process, market and sell it," she said.