China is now the fattest country in the world, second only to the United States. One out of five Chinese children over the age of 7 is overweight, and nearly 10 percent are obese. How did a country that struggled with starvation just half a century ago now find itself dealing with an obesity epidemic? There are a few issues here. WATCH VIDEO
First, China has embraced fast food. KFC is the outlet of choice, with McDonald's working feverishly to catch up. It is a status symbol of sorts to say that you have thrown a birthday party for your child at McDonald's. It is a sign of affluence; that you have some extra money and are able to splurge. But that ability to splurge brings with it a hefty calorie count. And instead of sharing food, which is the Chinese norm, when a child eats at a fast food restaurant the pressure is to finish all the food, even if full.
China's one-child policy also plays in the mix. Food is a common reward in a one-child family. It is common for grandparents and parents to dote and reward a child with food. And that reward system, when started early, can be hard to unwind when a child is an adolescent.
Another thing that is changing in China is portion size. In an agrarian economy, with a limited food supply, the Chinese people historically ate small portions and worked off those calories in the fields. Calorie intake and portion sizes have increased at the same time that the economic system has shifted to more sedentary lifestyles. It is the perfect storm for the obesity crisis.
I recently visited a Chinese hospital that treats overweight children. It has a rather straightforward, but perhaps not politically incorrect name -- the Fat Reduction Hospital. Here kids are treated with calorie restriction, exercise and acupuncture. The nutrition education appears to be the weak link of this approach at this time. Patients leave the hospital with a pamphlet, which obviously won't be enough to tackle this huge problem. In order for China to avoid what has happened to the United States, there will need to be integration of health and exercise into the school system and an awareness that an obese nation is not a healthy nation.