Several studies show that the world’s children are increasingly becoming overweight and obese. According to a U.S. National Institute of Health study, the global rise in childhood obesity has become an “epidemic.” The case of China is paradigmatic. In China, in addition to obesity, nearsightedness (myopia) is also increasing in children posing a serious risk to their health.
Although Japan hasn’t totally solved the problem of childhood obesity, it has made significant advances in its control. One of the strategies used in Japan involved a redesigning of school lunches, that are increasingly planned by nutritionists, include fresh ingredients and locally grown vegetables and include a variety of foods.
In China, a 29-year survey of 28,000 children aged between seven and 18 was carried out in eastern Shandong Province. The study, published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology, found that 17 percent of boys and 9 percent of girls were obese in 2014. This showed a significant increase from under 1 percent for both genders in 1985. The study also showed that the increase was particularly more notable in children aged 7 to 12 than in adolescents.
This finding was confirmed by the 2014 National Fitness Survey jointly carried out by the Ministry of Education and the General Administration of Sport in China. The survey, released last Nov. 25, was carried out among 347,294 students ranging in age from 7 to 22 years old. The survey concluded that obesity rates among Chinese students have risen continually since 2005. Obesity is not a problem only among Chinese children, however, since one in three American children is also obese.
There is not one factor that explains the high rates of obesity among Chinese children, although there are several contributing factors with varying importance in different settings and circumstances. For example, many formerly poor families are over feeding their children, particularly when the grandparents are in charge of their care.
Among Chinese children, one of the most important contributing factors for obesity factors is the high consumption of foods rich in carbohydrates and high consumption of sugary drinks. Widespread propaganda by food chains such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken has made Chinese children and adults very fond of the food provided by these outlets, which are usually rich in calories and poor in nutrition. Many Chinese children can now recognize the image of Ronald McDonald, although they are unable to read in English.
Physical inactivity is another important contributing factor, often associated with a significant increment in television viewing. It has been proven that each hour watching television is associated with a 1–2 percent increase in the prevalence of obesity among urban children. Because of economic necessity, many Chinese rural children are engaged in field work, and as a result are more active than urban children.
Children who are overweight and obese are at risks for several serious health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, asthma, and heart failure. It is important therefore to implement a series of measures aimed at increasing the level of physical activity among children both inside and outside school and conduct educational campaigns showing the risks of consuming high calories foods and drinks.
The 2014 National Fitness Survey showed another serious problem among Chinese children and youngsters: myopia. According to this report, nearly 30 percent of boys and more than 32 percent of girls aged 7 were found to be myopic, a slight increase from the 2010 rates, and has now reached epidemic proportions.
While 60 years ago only 10–20 percent of the population was nearsighted, today close to 90 percent of teenagers and young adults are myopic. This problem leads to a slightly elongated eyeball that increases the risks of serious problems such as retinal detachment, cataracts, and glaucoma.
Excessive reading and computer work seem to be associated with a higher risk for myopia. These excesses lead to less time engaging in sports and outdoor activities which worsen the situation. As in many other areas of life, a good balance between study and outdoor activities and sports can reduce this risk. In myopia, as in obesity, parental influence and guidance are critical. The more parents and grandparents know about these risks the healthier the children will become.
César Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a global public health consultant for several U.N. and other international agencies. He has carried out health-related missions in 50 countries worldwide. He lives in New York and writes extensively on human rights and foreign policy issues, and is the recipient of awards from Overseas Press Club of America, ADEPA, and Chaski, and recently received the Cedar of Lebanon Gold Medal. He is also the author of several U.N. official publications on health issues.