Child obesity in rural China on the rise

In 2014, 17 per cent of boys and 9 per cent of girls were obese, up from under 1 per cent for both genders in 1985.
In 2014, 17 per cent of boys and 9 per cent of girls were obese, up from under 1 per cent for both genders in 1985.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Western diet to blame for explosion, say researchers who studied 29 years of data

PARIS • Researchers raised the alarm yesterday about an obesity explosion among children in rural China as a Western-style diet high in sugar and carbohydrates starts taking its toll.

A 29-year survey in eastern Shandong province revealed that 17 per cent of boys and 9 per cent of girls younger than 19 years old were obese in 2014 - up from under 1 per cent for both genders in 1985.

"This is extremely worrying," the European Society of Cardiology's Dr Joep Perk said of the study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. "It is the worst explosion of childhood and adolescent obesity that I have ever seen."

The data comes from six government surveys of some 28,000 rural schoolchildren (aged seven to 18 years). The percentage of overweight boys has grown from 0.7 per cent to 16.4 per cent, and the percentage of overweightgirls has increased from 1.5 per cent to nearly 14 per cent, it found.

The study used different measures of body mass index (BMI) for overweight and obesity than the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard. BMI is a ratio of weight- to-height squared.

WORRYING TREND

It is the worst explosion of childhood and adolescent obesity that I have ever seen.

'' DR JOEP PERK from the European Society of Cardiology.

For the United Nations' health body, a BMI of 25-29.9 is classified as overweight, and 30 upwards is obese. The study authors used a stricter cut-off of 24 to 27.9 for overweight, and 28 and above for obese.

This means it would be difficult to compare the numbers with other countries, but does not invalidate the obesity trends observed in China itself, said Dr Perk.

The WHO says being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, diabetes and some cancers. "China is set for an escalation of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the popularity of the Western lifestyle will cost lives," said Dr Perk.

The study found that the trend was growing faster in children aged seven to 12 than in adolescents. And they speculated that the higher prevalence among boys could be the result of a "societal preference" for males, which "could result in boys enjoying more of the family's resources".

A 2005 National Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance had found that 4.3 per cent of boys and 2.7 per cent of girls enjoyed soft drinks. Nearly 13 per cent of boys and 4.3 per cent of girls spent more than two hours a day playing computer games. "The adoption of Western foods, notably American junk food high in calories and sugary drinks, is the cause of this phenomenon," observed French obesity expert David Nocca.

The authors warned that the findings had implications for the entire nation, with almost half of its 1.36 billion population living in rural areas in 2014.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline 'Child obesity in rural China on the rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe