BEIJING — According to the latest reports from the World Health Organization, China has the world’s second highest number of obese people. Even more alarming is its growing childhood obesity: 15.7% of Chinese girls under 18 years old and 23.9% of boys are overweight. This is a significantly higher percentage, for example, than their peers in France (13.1%).

Such high proportion of childhood obesity also means there will be a high rate of chronic diseases and this will create a heavy health care burden. The Weigh to Go research project, committed to the long-term observation of overweight children in China, showed that 1.9% Chinese minors aged between 12 and 18 suffer from diabetes, which is nearly four times their peers in the United States. The same study also found that 12.1% of Chinese adolescents have a higher incidence of inflammation — a major factor in causing cardiovascular diseases, compared with 8.5% of American adolescents of the same age group.

To put it crudely: Why are Chinese children getting fat?

Many blame China’s rapid economic development and the arrival of “sudden” wealth for prompting us to spoil our offspring. The growing number of gluttonous meals and extended dinners certainly increase fat and sugar intake, are should share in the blame. At the same time, Western fast food chain such as KFC and McDonald's are popping up all over Chinese cities. To hook customers these chain restaurants often add excessive amount of sauce containing sugar, fat, salt and monosodium glutamate. Yes, unfortunately, a growing number of Chinese youth now eat hamburgers or fried chicken as their lunch.

On top of all this, the habit of eating snacks has changed substantially too. From eating traditional beans or nuts, now Chinese school children choose processed and seasoned chips, biscuits, and “spicy-stick”, a particularly popular local nibble made of heavily processed flour, not to mention more and more sugary carbonated drinks. High-sugar, high-salt and high-oil food are subtly changing Chinese children’s diet, yet the majority of them haven’t the faintest idea why they are getting fatter and fatter.

A rich man's disease?

It is interesting to note, however, that Japanese children in comparison are slightly better, 15.3% for the girls and 15.6% for the boys in childhood obesity. Every other modern country faces this plague.

As a matter of fact, Japan preserved its traditional diet even while it was booming economically. Though the Japanese diet continues to contain a high proportion of carbohydrates, the nation's cuisine includes less processing and carbohydrates usually come closer to its natural form, and are thus healthy and fiber-rich. A traditional Japanese meal always consists of very high proportion of dietary fibers such as fresh vegetables, buckwheat noodle and legumes. The fact that Japanese cuisine doesn’t add dairy products to carbohydrates also means that there’s no additional fat.

Miso soup, Tokyo — Photo: City Foodsters

For a long time in China, obesity and diabetes were considered a “rich man’s disease.” The truth is that lower-income groups are affected by obesity more than the high-income groups. Currently, China’s rural areas have many more overweight children and more chronic diseases.

Children lacking self-control are more likely to find comfort in eating.

Then there is the academic element. It is all too common that Chinese parents reward a good school performance with food, creating a "dopamine reward circuit” that associates their favorite food with happiness and thus put them at risk of overeating. The intensively competitive environment for students in China feeds the negative circle, adding excess psychological pressure that can stimulate excessive food intake.

Hans Selye, a Hungarian-born endocrinologist, argues that the human body has an alarm function when confronted with stress, releasing glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids into the bloodstream to cope with extra pressure. But once one’s energy is all used up, the body will continue to have a greater desire for high-calorie foods. This helps explains why children lacking self-control are more likely to find comfort in eating.

Though most older children are aware of the danger obesity may bring, they don’t know how to change their behavior. Between the ages of 12 and 14, children form many of their adult habits and characteristics. At this age, a small proportion of teenagers will choose and manage to lose weight. But half of the rest will lose confidence they are ever going to get thinner while the other half simply accept their roundness as a ‘fact.’