Can China win the battle against adolescent obesity?

Prior to China’s economic rise, obesity amongst young teens was never a serious problem. Modern lifestyle has heavily influenced the more traditional plant-based Chinese diets.

The rise of obesity in China

According to a recent survey published in 2020 by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, over 10% of children under six were obese or overweight and 19% of those aged between six and seventeen were in the same categories.

The entrance of Western-style fast-food restaurants and the ease of dining out has changed people’s dining habits. Indeed, the increased consumption of meat, refined grains, highly processed sugar, and fatty foods has adapted people’s tastes and diets.

It is predicted that the aforementioned figures for overweight children are almost two to three times more than those observed in the early 1990s.

Whilst China’s economic development is remarkable, it has also facilitated the production and marketing of foods that are generally low in nutrition. It is predicted that the aforementioned figures for overweight children are almost two to three times more than those observed in the early 1990s.

Furthermore, although the overall nutrition of the Chinese public has increased significantly, many children are troubled by weight problems. Obesity is a potentially serious health issue that if not dealt with, can result in long-term conditions and even certain types of cancer.

What has driven this?

Apart from China’s fast economic development which has driven the consequent change in consumption habits in the younger age groups, this compounded with lack of exercise and indulgent grandparents are equally important factors.

Up until recent years, Chinese parents had deprioritised physical activities in favour of pushing their children towards academic performance. Together with schools not having proper gym teachers and a preference amongst children to stay indoors and play video games, exercise levels have noticeably decreased.

With today’s abundance of food, many older citizens associate ‘looking fat’ with ‘being healthy’.

Image: Envato

Grandparents, who play a significant role in the upbringing of children at home, have most likely contributed to this rise too. The current generation of grandparents grew up at a time when malnutrition was extremely acute. Thus, with today’s abundance of food many older citizens associate ‘looking fat’ with ‘being healthy’ and so, many tend to overfeed their grandchildren in the hope that this will ‘prevent’ them from starving.

Whilst there are of course other important driving factors such as stress, and psychological aspects of overeating, the Chinese government has recognised the need to take firm actions to decrease the frequency of obesity amongst young adolescents.

Xi’s action plan

In the second half of last year, China’s government introduced a package of measures to ‘shape’ up the next generation of the youth population through the introduction of a ‘double-reduction‘ policy. The policy banned academic tutoring during weekends and holidays and ordered schools around the country to reduce both the amount and time needed for homework assignments.

In addition, the government has pledged to ‘gradually’ increase the points score of sporting activities in the notorious senior high school entrance exam. On top of this, they are proposing schools run mandatory gym classes and for children to have at least an hour of daily physical activity.

The Chinese government hopes to ‘shape’ up the next generation of the youth population through the introduction of a ‘double-reduction’ policy.

There have been dozens of revisions to the ‘National Sports Law’ to advocate the importance of physical health. Some of the revisions have included increasing national exercise rates, scheduling children’s sports time, and requiring local governments and residential communities to provide sports facilities. Video gaming hours have also been limited and for under 18’s they can only play games for three hours a week.

All of these policies aim to get 20 million more people to participate in regular exercises within five years and to make sure that every county and community has suitable gym equipment.

The ripple effects of these recent policies

Since the revision of the policies, the attitude of some Chinese parents towards academia has dramatically shifted. Unlike before where parents would devote their time and energy for children to attend after-school tutoring, they are now urging their children to take part in sports.

Chinese parents are now keen to pay for extra sports lessons. As a result, the sports tutoring sector has soared.

Likewise, as the ‘weight’ in arts and sports curricula in school tests is rising, Chinese ‘tiger’ mums are increasing enrolling their children in sports ‘tutoring’ and are even keen to pay for extra sports lessons. Indeed, the sports tutoring sector has soared. Data from the Chinese analytic firm Tianyancha shows that since the introduction of these new education policies, there have been more than 33,000 newly added sports and art tutoring companies.

This has led to slight concern from some parents that the more elite families will seek one-to-one tutoring and thus might leave some less advantaged children academically behind. Nevertheless, the emphasis on sports is hoped to bolster children’s health.

A new generation of ‘healthy’ citizens

China’s fitness drive is bound to reap results and the effect has already been seen with the heightened enthusiasm for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. In fact, China realised its goal of engaging 300 million people, the majority of whom were below the age of 18, in ice and snow sports.

Whilst the full effects of the newly introduced policies are yet to be seen, the action being taken to get the young nation fit and healthy is something that Western countries such as the US and UK can learn from.