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China grapples with rise in childhood obesity

China grapples with rise in childhood obesity
May 22, 2016

Rising affluence in China has seen a dramatic rise in obesity among children and adolescents with around one in six boys and one in 11 girls found as being obese in a new study.

The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, involved nearly 28,000 rural students from Shandong province and compared obesity rates today with those from the 1980s.

Fearing that China is paying the price of adopting a Western lifestyle, Professor Joep Perk, cardiovascular prevention spokesman for the European Society of Cardiology, stated “this is the worst explosion of childhood and adolescent obesity that I have ever seen.

“The study is large and well run, and cannot be ignored. China is set for an escalation of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the popularity of the Western lifestyle will cost lives.”

Professor Joep Perk, cardiovascular prevention spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology.

Dr Zhang Yingxiu, leader of the investigation team at the Shandong Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Shandong University Institute of Preventive Medicine in Jinan, Shandong, added “China is a large agricultural country and our findings have huge implications for the entire nation.

“The rises in overweight and obesity coincide with increasing incomes in rural households and we expect this trend to continue in the coming decades in Shandong province and other regions of China.”

Data for the study was obtained from six national surveys of schoolchildren carried out by the Department of Education in Shandong between 1985 and 2014. A total of 27,840 rural students aged seven to 18 years had their height and weight measured.

The prevalence of being overweight and obesity in boys increased from 0.74% and 0.03% in 1985 to 16.4% and 17.2% in 2014, and in girls increased from 1.5% and 0.12% in 1985 to 13.9% and 9.1% in 2014, respectively.

Rising childhood obesity is not unique to China. In the United States, a new study published online in the journal Obesity shows that overweight and obesity among children aged two to 19 has been continually increasing since 1999, reaching 33.4% in 2014. In particular, the prevalence of severe obesity - correlated to an adult body mass index of 35 or higher - has seen the sharpest increase.

In Hong Kong, the rate of overweight and obesity among school children is lower, according to statistics from the Centre for Health Protection. Among primary school students, the combined rate of overweight and obesity rose from 16.1% in 1995/96 to 22.2% in 2008/09 and fell to 20% in 2013/14. For secondary school students, the corresponding rate increased from 13.2% in 1996/97 to 19.5% in 2013/14.

However, China’s enormous population and diverse regions compound the situation.

Dr Zhang explains “rural areas of China have been largely ignored in strategies to reduce childhood obesity.

“This is a wake-up call for policymakers that rural China should not be neglected in obesity interventions. We need to educate children on healthy eating and physical activity, and monitor their weight to check if these efforts are making a difference.”

The authors speculate that boys are fatter than girls because they are given preferential treatment. The Chinese 2005 National Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance reported that 4.3% of boys and 2.7% of girls frequently had soft drinks, while 12.7% of boys and 4.3% of girls spent more than two hours per day playing computer games.

Dr Zhang adds “traditionally the societal preference, particularly in rural areas, has been for sons. 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.”

Professor Perk “the problem is that kids sit there with a two-litre bottle of fizzy drink. To burn those calories they would need to walk 46 kilometres but they don’t.”

Rapid social and economic change in the past 30 years in China have been accompanied by nutritional changes, Dr Zhang believes, adding “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.”

Professor Perk concludes “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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