BOOT CAMP: Children in Hefei City, Anhui Province, take part in a summer weight loss training camp on July 24, 2006
Ding Wei, an elementary school student in Beijing, is growing faster in weight than in height. One month ago, Ding celebrated her 11th birthday. Standing 1.3 meters tall, she now weighs 55 kg, heavier than her mother Xing Hong.
The standard weight for a child of Ding's age and height should be 30 kg, so she has a serious weight problem.
"I am not yet a fat kid," Ding explained. Indeed, Ding is only the seventh heaviest child in her class. Nationwide, an alarmingly large number of children are fatter than Ding. Data from the Ministry of Education indicate that of urban children aged 11 to 12 years old, 8.1 percent are obese, and 15 percent are overweight. It is reported that the number of fat children in China has surged 28-fold in the past 15 years, doubling every five years.
In the past, the term "fat kid" was used in China to describe cute, chubby children carrying a few extra pounds of baby fat. Now, many kids and their parents no longer like to be addressed with this term, and Ding is one of them. Ding is not proud of the fact that she weighs more than her mother. Recently, she declared a resolution to lose weight.
Ding went to hospital to seek a solution to her weight problem and was only told that she has type II diabetes. "How is this possible?" asked Ding's mother. "She is too young to get diabetes." The doctors told Xing her daughter was not a rare case. Children now account for 5 percent of all the people suffering from diabetes in China, they said, and this percentage is growing by an annual average rate of 10 percent. The worse news is that, childhood obesity is associated with the earlier onset of diabetes-related complications, and a lower quality of life in adulthood.
Economic prosperity has allowed a rising number of Chinese to live an affluent lifestyle. Along with the change in lifestyle have come "rich people's diseases" such as obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And these diseases are affecting people at an increasingly younger age.
"Now families have a higher income, parents would like their children to eat better," explained Ji Chengye, a professor at the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health, Peking University. In his opinion, the occurrence of "rich people's diseases" at a younger age is associated with an unhealthy diet. There is an old saying in China that "disease goes in by the mouth." It used to be said that tainted food could cause illness, and now the sentence has a new meaning. According to Cai Wei, Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Health Bureau, a surplus calorie intake as small as 2 percentage points every day can lead to "rich people's diseases."
Ding proves the point. Endless homework has confined her to a sedate lifestyle. "The imbalance between calorie intake and consumption is exacerbated by television, the Internet and all sorts of snacks," Xing said. "Ding loves oily and sweet snacks, which can be heavy in calories. Among the top 10 worst junk foods listed by the World Health Organization, many are Ding's favorites."
Growing levels of child obesity are in fact an international problem. The classical therapy is a change of lifestyle. Children are growing and fighting obesity without retarding their development can be a complicated issue. For children, the most important prescription is to be more physically active rather than to eat less, according to Ji. "We cannot deprive children of the pleasure they get from food. That would be counterproductive," he explained. "Physical activity is as important as a balanced diet. Even if a child has a family history of hypertension, exercise will reduce the risk."
"Childhood obesity is a social problem that needs to be addressed through concerted efforts by different government departments," added Ji. In recent years, he has been one of the key authors of Guidelines for the Prevention and Control of China's School Age Children Overweight and Obesity Problem, at the invitation of the Obesity Working Group of the International Life Science Association of China. The book was published recently and more guidelines on children's health are to follow it.
"Prevention of childhood obesity should proceed from collective prevention," said Professor Chen Chunming, Honorary President of the Chinese Nutrition Society and member of the panel of experts on nutrition for the World Health Organization. While schools are key to the battle, families and communities should contribute their part to changing children's diets and behavior.
Some experts have suggested offering a course on food and nutrition in schools to inject health consciousness into children. Li Duo, a food and nutrition professor at Zhejiang University holds that the government should enact laws to tackle the problem. Drawing upon experience of other countries, this February five health experts at Hangzhou submitted to the local government a proposal restricting the sale of carbohydrate drinks and calorie-rich fatty foods on the campus of primary or middle schools. It was a small step, but an important one in the battle against obesity across China.