At a recent news conference, National Health Commission officials said more than 50 percent adults, and about 20 percent children in the 6-17 age group and 10 percent of those aged below 6 are either overweight or obese. That China in all likelihood has 600 million overweight people means it faces a serious health problem. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents 2021 say that obesity has become a big threat to Chinese people’s health.
Obesity can be the cause of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. Obesity is defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation, which presents a risk to health. Obesity, in most cases, can be attributed to the imbalance between the intake and burning of calories, especially fatty and sugar-laden food.
A person’s body weight is closely related to his or her diet and the amount of physical exercise he/she does. As for food habits, they can be influenced by economic development and lifestyle.
In the past, many Chinese people suffered from malnutrition as a result of the country’s underdevelopment. Now, thanks to China’s rapid economic growth, people consume more nutritious foods, including carbohydrate-rich, high-fat and low-protein foods. So they are more likely to consume foods that are high in energy, fat, salt and sugar.
Also, thanks to the growing popularity of online takeout platforms, people are becoming used to foods with excessive fat, and tend to over-consume foods very high in calories.
Besides, there is no official definition or classification of unhealthy foods, which are easily accessible to children. To make matters worse, many TV programs and advertisements are full of images of unhealthy foods, many of which are endorsed by celebrities. As a result, many children become regular consumers of such unhealthy foods.
Obesity is also related to the lack of physical exercise. Economic development brings with itself fierce social competition and a sharp decline in physical activities. Adults and schoolchildren are forced to work and study over time to adapt to the fast-changing society. And many children skip physical education classes and sports to focus on academic studies－this has long been the norm in Chinese schools. Worse, thanks to their early exposure to electronic goods such as smartphones and tablets, many children lead a sedentary lifestyle, as they prefer screen-based leisure activities to outdoor games.
In the era of food insecurity, obesity was linked to affluence. For decades, the Chinese authorities’ efforts were directed at ensuring enough food supply and treating malnutrition. But in recent years, the Chinese government has realized that obesity has become a social and health problem, and initiated policies and activities to reduce obesity among the people. For example, the government’s Healthy China 2030 blueprint outlines the importance of obesity prevention and control among schoolchildren, and vows to reduce the obesity and overweight rates by 2030.
And while the National Nutrition Plan (2017-30) issued in 2017 aims to encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle by reducing their daily salt intake by 20 percent, an action plan for 2019-30 proposes 15 special campaigns to “intervene in health-influencing factors and prevent and control major diseases”, and cultivate good eating habits to prevent people from becoming overweight.
The Ministry of Education, on its part, has pledged to increase the weighting of PE vis-à-vis academic subjects in the senior high school entrance examinations, and conduct studies on the feasibility of including PE scores in the college entrance exam. The authorities have also introduced a National Nutrition Week, observed in the third week of May, to make people aware of the importance of nutrition for human health.
In recent years, the government has formulated policies and taken measures to address the obesity problem, demonstrating its adherence to people-oriented governance. The aim is to reduce obesity and address childhood weight control issues.
However, the measures to prevent and reduce obesity are not free of problems. For example, food processors focus more on delicacy and less on nutrition, and per capita playground was only 1.8 square meters in China in 2020. Plus, there are no policies for educating people how to choose food with low-sugar, low-salt and low-fat content. The medical treatment for obesity, too, is not well-developed.
Therefore, all relevant government departments should collaborate and cooperate to implement obesity prevention policies, and educate the people about daily nutrition intake and the importance of physical exercise.
In a nutshell, China needs to optimize policies aimed at preventing and reducing obesity, and creating a supportive environment to encourage people to voluntarily choose to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The author is deputy director of the School of Public Administration at Nanchang University.
By China daily.