Child obesity is ballooning into a big problem in China as 'little emperors' are increasingly getting an appetite for the Western couch-potato way of life, according to a study presented in Geneva.
Almost one in five children under seven is overweight and more than seven percent are obese, according to a study of the Chinese National Task Force on Childhood Obesity, presented at the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Health Organisation.
"These numbers are higher than in European countries, while the gross domestic product in China is much lower," said Ding Zongyi, who led the study.
"Only the United States have higher rates," he added.
The Chinese experts looked at 80,000 children from 11 major cities, and found an increase of 156 percent in the numbers of obese children between 1996 and 2006.
Meanwhile, the number of overweight children grew 52 percent.
Obesity is defined as 20 percent above the normal weight versus height ratio, while overweight is 10 percent above.
"This rate of increase has gone out of control," Ding told AFP, underlining that the obesity rate has exceeded economic growth.
What tipped the scales were social changes that came along with the transformation of the country since it opened up economically at the end of the 1970s.
"When a poor person gets richer, the first thing he does is to get better food. That's a big driver of obesity," said Ding.
With large swathes of population in the country still poor and many increasingly getting richer, the problem would not reach its full-blown extent until the years to come, he warned.
The adoption of Western couch-potato style of life in the cities is the problem, as parents feed their children with fat and sweet food, according to the scientist.
Children are not only consuming sodas and ice cream, but also not doing enough exercise to work off the calories.
According to Ding, parents and school systems place academic results above sporting achievements. This is indicated in the little emphasis on sports, which takes up less than two hours of the school week.
The one-child policy which has been implemented in the last 30 years further complicates the issue in a country which considers being fat as a sign of good health and prosperity.
A healthy baby, for example, is in the Chinese language described as a "fat baby".
"The one-child policy led parents to overprotect their children. The behaviour of grandparents are of special concern -- they tend to overfeed their grandchildren because they think that being fat is a sign of the family's wealth," said Ding.
The traditional preference for boys is also reflected in the statistics, which show that 22 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls are overweight.
The professor sees about 20 young patients daily at the hospital where he practises in Beijing, but he refuses to impose a diet on them.
His solution is a radical change in the way of life -- one must, for instance, convince parents to make their children do daily chores.
"These kids hate making their own beds," he said.
Ding said it was hard in the beginning getting support to conduct the study, the first of which was done in 1986, and later in 1996 and 2006, each time showing worsening results.
"It was not easy at the beginning, people thought that obesity was a problem of capitalist countries," he recalled.
Since then, the Chinese authorities have acknowledged the problem as a health challenge, but resolving the problem of malnutrition "remains the number one problem for the government", said Ding.
The doctor also regretted the absence of education on food in schools.
In addition, television advertising for a healthy nutrition is put alongside advertisements for rich food, added Ding.