China is in the midst of a small panic and much self-criticism. A government report finds that the rate of overweight and obese children and adults is climbing. The obesity rate among children under 7 years old rose from 3 percent in the year 2000 to 9 percent last year. The average weight of Chinese children aged 6 and 7 has grown by more than 10 pounds (4 kilograms) since 1970. And the average height of Chinese children has increased by nearly 3 inches since 1970.
With a burgeoning middle class, "convenience foods" modeled after fat-fried American fast foods have become popular with children. But nobody in China is blaming the West.
"Child obesity could affect the functions of the heart and the lungs, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, obesity could increase the chances of diabetes," reports a doctor at the 2nd Hospital of Anhui Medical University.
Chinese parents are worried that their child may be overweight and the sales of weight-reducing medications is on the rise. Meanwhile, doctors are cautioning against such drugs’ side effects. Instead health authorities target a lack of exercise and unhealthy diets. China’s Health and Family Planning Commission released new dietary guidelines in May stressing the importance of a balanced diet.
In China, there is more education about the Basal Metabolic Index (BMI) that assesses weight based on height. They are also more aware of the distinctions made between the two weight categories above normal. "Overweight" is the interval just above normal weight. "Obese" is the extreme range beyond overweight.
Compared to the United States, these new figures for China are almost trivial. According to our National Institutes of Health, over 18 percent of children and adolescents in America ages 6 to 19 are considered to be obese and that rises to about one-third if we include overweight. Over one-third of American adults are obese and more 2 in 3 adults are considered overweight or obese. When it comes to being heavy, the U.S. is indeed Number One.
I do not fret over China’s new (but small) weight problem because I know their not-so-distant history. In 1998, I was the main presenter at a biology teacher conference in central China. This region had not yet modernized and my wife and I were housed along with the other Chinese teachers and teacher-trainers on several floors of an old-style hotel. On each floor was a small group of housekeepers, young girls from the countryside who had failed to complete high school. They cleaned rooms and washed bedding and lived in a small room at the end of each floor, where they worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And they were skinny, their thin bony arms protruding from threadbare uniforms.
The last day was a teachers field trip. The provincial education department provided us with bags of food—too much food. My wife and I agreed that we could barely eat the contents of one, and we stowed the other bag away. That night, back at the hotel and when everyone had settled in, I sneaked down the hallway. Careful that no one would see us, I slipped the bag of food to the girls at the laundry station. I will never forget the thankful and appreciative look in their eyes are they quickly took the food and stored it out of sight.
That hunger should never have happened in 1998 China. Experiences such as this led me to criticize university party secretaries about the lack of good teachers in the countryside that led to a lack of educational opportunity for rural students, especially girls.
But in my recent trips to most corners of that country, I no longer encounter this problem. China’s growing affluence has lifted all diets.
The parents of today’s Chinese college students knew hunger. Some of their grandparents witnessed starvation. But the next generation is beginning to face a different problem.
That there are some Chinese children that are overweight indicates that finally, there is a surplus of food.