Obesity is on the rise among children in China. Data from Johns Hopkins University suggests that 20 percent of Chinese children are overweight and as much as a third of Chinese boys are. A 2004 report from Peking University had said that, in 1985, less than two percent of children were obese. According to The Atlantic, Donna Spruijt-Metz University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, an increase in sedentary activities (watching TV, using the computer) is one culprit, the same as it is for kids in the US.
But other findings from a study of 9,023 middle and high school students in seven cities in China were surprising: Also correlated with a higher incidence of obesity in Chinese children were “more vigorous exercise, less candy and fast food intake, less frequent snacking, more fruit consumption, and higher parental educational attainment.” Certainly in the US, it’s precisely the same things — more exercise, less candy, less fast food, less snacking, more fruit in one’s diet — that are thought necessary to fight against obesity.
The study’s researchers include sociologists and psychologists from East Asia, who speculated about the “cultural and methodological reasons to account for these obesity-related paradoxes”:
Diets rich in vegetables, the researchers suspect, may also be rich in oil as the two most common methods of preparing vegetables is deep-frying and stir-frying. More educated parents, who are likely also richer, may be able to afford fast food, which is cheap in America but not so much in developing countries. Also, overweight children may be underreporting their intake of unhealthy food and may misperceive the quality of the exercise they do.
“Maybe it’s just overall a larger energy intake,” Spruijt-Metz adds. “There’s still a cultural perception in China that it’s healthy and desirable if you’re beefier.”
I didn’t grow up in China but in a Chinese-American family in northern California. Salad is not a feature of Chinese cuisine — come to think of it, the only time I recall seeing raw vegetables at a Chinese restaurant was as the garnish — and vegetables are either cooked or pickled. The Cantonese “peasant” cooking that my parents grew up on was heavy on vegetables; you’d use a bit of meat, sliced thinly, to add flavor and you’d make it go a long way. With China’s growing economic prosperity and Westernization, meat is plentiful (and the Chinese government even keeps a pork reserve).
(Photo of Chinese eggplant by scaredy_kat.)
Children are treasured, especially by Chinese grandparents. With families only allowed to have one child — and with a cultural preference for boys — Chinese children are probably being more doted on than ever, often with plenty of food.
My mother remembers how, as a child, her mother and other relatives (all born in rural China) always gave her brother the fattest piece of pork and other treats; he was overweight for most of his life and, while trying to change his diet and lifestyle, he died in his 50s. My grandparents had all grown up in rural villages in southern China where food (meat especially) was scarce; we knew we had to clean our plates and not waste anything. Being a good eater and not being skinny were seen as signs of prosperity. I suspect a similar mentality might be at work today in China.
The Nutrition Transition project points out that, in China’s urban areas, the vast majority of people now work in sedentary occupations, and diabetes is also on the rise. Noting that the childhood obesity is similar to that in the US, Spruijt-Metz also says,
“What strikes me most about obesity in China is that it’s like watching the U.S. except in high speed. It took Americans many decades to get this fat, and it took them no time at all.”
Memories of wide-scale famine could also still haunt the Chinese psyche, as they did my older relatives. It’s a fast change from famine to feast and, potentially, much more costly than people realize as they give their child that little extra bit to grow on.
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Photo by jadis1958