Childhood Obesity Is Now a Problem in Rural China Too

April 28, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Chinese boy lets grandfather pull him in a cart
Photo credit: Remko Tanis/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 1985, fewer than 1 percent of children in China were obese. By 2014, this number had soared to 17 percent for boys and 9 percent for girls. What happened?

The results of a rigorous 29-year study, including nearly 28,000 children and adolescents, indicate that adopting a western lifestyle has not done China’s younger generation any favors. The findings were published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

“China has experienced rapid socioeconomic and nutritional changes in the past 30 years,” Ying-Xiu Zhang, lead researcher on the study from Shandong University Institute of Preventive Medicine in China, said in a press release. “In China today, people eat more and are less physically active than they were in the past. The traditional Chinese diet has shifted towards one that is high in fat and calories and low in fibre.”

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Data were obtained from six national surveys in schoolchildren carried out by the Department of Education in Shandong Province, China, between 1985 and 2014. Obesity was defined using cut-off points set out by the Working Group on Obesity in China, the International Obesity Task Force, and the World Health Organization.

There was clearly a steeper spike in obesity for boys than for girls, which the authors say might be attributed to societal preference for sons. According to a report by the Chinese 2005 National Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance, 4.3 percent of boys and 2.7 percent of girls frequently had soft drinks, while 12.7 percent of boys and 4.3 percent of girls spent more than two hours each day playing computer games.

“Traditionally the societal preference, particularly in rural areas, has been for son,”said Zhang.  “That could result in boys enjoying more of the family’s resources. In addition, boys may prefer to have a larger body size than girls.”

The rising obesity corresponded to increasing wealth in rural households – a trend that is expected to continue. Zhang notes that the rural areas of China tend to be ignored by policymakers when it comes to developing strategies to combat childhood obesity

Joep Perk, cardiovascular prevention spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology, said: “This calls for a catastrophe committee in China to stop the alarming rise in childhood and adolescent obesity. They need to return to their former nutritional habits instead of eating junk food. Parents must take some responsibility and point their children in the direction of healthier choices.”

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