Fact: About 41.1 percent of Chinese men are overweight or obese, compared with 27.7 percent of Chinese women, according to a study published on August 17 in the medical journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, state-run news portal China Daily reported. Fact: Like the waistlines of Chinese adults, the girth of the country’s youngest generations, too, continues to expand. Fact: For many young Chinese students, the July-August school vacation was not a time for play, fun excursions, amusement park shenanigans or discovering new, uncharted territory, but rather a period of intense workouts–at weight loss camps. Time to size up the phenomenon of China’s childhood obesity.
It’s September, which means one thing for kids in the Northern Hemisphere: Back to school! “My dad took me to Beijing Universal Resort!” “Well, MY parents took me to Shanghai Disneyland.” “That’s nothing, MY family went to Europe for three weeks!”
As the playground of one Beijing elementary school buzzed with tall tales of summer on the first day of the new school year, 10-year-old Xiao Han (pseudonym) stood silently, even looking a bit bashful. He wasn’t enthusiastic about sharing his summertime anecdotes, but his peers have observed that he’s sporting a noticeably lither look than at the end of last school year. Much to the dismay of those who’d long treasured taunting him about his weight. Xiao Han had been to weight loss camp.
The above is a figment of this author’s imagination—and it has been quite some time since she last set foot on a playground. But she didn’t pull this story entirely out of thin air, either…
Around 8 p.m. on any given day, the following, real scenario will unfold before the eyes of yours truly at her Beijing compound: a slightly plumper young boy runs around the compound’s fengshui styled garden for five minutes, followed by one minute of jumping rope. He keeps this up for half an hour. All under the eagle-eyed supervision of mom– Mrs. Wang.
Wang said her 11-year-old son had attended a 21-day weight loss camp for pre-teens in the suburbs of Beijing in late July. The idea had been hers, and she’d had no qualms about sending her kid away to try to get him in shape. Under the supervision of very strict Chinese trainers, campers swim, run, lift weights and do other exercises on a daily basis—accompanied by non-sugary drinks and nutritious, hold-the-carbs meals.
While many may disagree with Mrs. Wang, this author considers it food for thought…
With the increased prevalence of overweight and obese Chinese children, the Middle Kingdom, as of this year, had 2,000 registered weight loss camps for children, and these camps became popular “vacation destinations” over the recent summer break, according to PubMed, the most popular bibliographic database in the health and medical sciences.
The Sedentary Stats
Fact: the extreme popularity of these “bootcamps” for kids tells that childhood obesity today is actually an alarming trend in China. Fact: according to a report on childhood obesity published by the National Health Commission in 2020, one in five Chinese youth aged 6-17 was overweight or obese, up from just one in 20 in 1995. Fact: by comparison, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents aged 2-19 in the U.S. between 2017 and 2020, was also one in five. Globally top-ranked American healthcare organization the Mayo Clinic defines the body mass index (BMI), a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters, as the accepted measure of overweight and obesity. A BMI of 25-29.9 is considered overweight and one of 30 and over obese.
This increasing chubbiness of Chinese youth is driven by multiple social factors. Heavy coursework at school and the ubiquitous, ready availability of digital devices are planting the country’s younger generations firmly in their seats, steering them towards a more sedentary lifestyle. Then there’s the age-old belief that more food consumption equals better growth, which has led many parents to “pamper” their children with an unlimited supply of junk food and late-night snacks. But it’s not just the parents…
Grandma and grandpa’s sugary, savory, super-processed tasty treats, too, can have a detrimental impact on their beloved grandchild’s diet.
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity concluded that Chinese children who had two or more grandparents living with them had a 70 percent higher risk of being overweight or obese, compared to those with no “live-in” grandparents.
It’s not uncommon for three generations to live under one roof in China. In fact, many parents rely on grandparents to look after their offspring when they’re at work. But this can create a problem, especially in the aftermath of China’s one-child policy (1979-2015).
It’s a phenomenon often referred to as the “single family treasure,” in which one single child has up to four doting grandparents in addition to their two parents. Chinese grandparents, too, often still believe that the concept of “fattening” is healthful, a misconception that stems largely from their own experiences with food shortages.
A colleague of this author, surnamed Li, mother to a 7-year-old boy, can testify to just that. Her son has always been on the heavier side of the growth curve and, therefore, this mama bear has been keeping a close eye on his diet since he was 2. “When he’s at home, and eats what I give him, his weight remains stable,” she said, before sighing, “But when he’s with his grandparents for a week, like he was during Spring Festival [China’s biggest annual holiday] in February, they tend to spoil him and he gains weight.” She continued it took the boy three months to lose the 2 kilograms he’d gained.
This nuclear family avoids the food traps, the trans fats and steers way clear of the chicken nuggets. Colorful veggies and fruits combined with some very necessary physical activity, as opposed to the “digital sedentary diet” of so many children worldwide, today keep Li’s son’s weight at mid-curve.
Of course Li isn’t the only example of maternal concern about their child’s weight…
Fact: On China’s super popular lifestyle and e-commerce app Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), the hashtag “child weight loss” had racked up more than half a million notes as of August 30. Fact: Notes on Little Red Book often center on the user’s own consumption experience, in this case a parent (usually the mom) reporting on their child’s weight loss journey, which serves as a useful guide for other users. Fact: Other related hot-to-trot tags on the platform, usually with notes from mothers and professional nutritionists, include “childhood obesity” (stating the obvious), “child weight loss camps,” “healthy meals for children” and “best sports for children to lose weight.”
An article in China’s most widely circulated newspaper People’s Daily on July 28 called on parents to closely monitor their child’s weight from an early age so that they can promptly intervene when signs of childhood obesity pop up. “That does not mean parents should rely on intermittent fasting or slimming pills for dramatic transformations. A balanced diet, regular physical activity, limited screen time and adequate sleep are enough to help children maintain a healthy weight,” the piece concluded.
Should they take weight control to the extreme, sooner or later, it may all come crashing down…
On the adult end of the weight loss spectrum, obsession reared its ugly head this summer. Just as the season for skimpier clothes was upon us, an all-too-familiar sight swept across China’s social media platforms: advertisements for adult weight loss camps promising dramatic transformations in a matter of weeks.
But in early June, the tragic death of a 21-year-old influencer known as Cuihua on Douyin (China’s TikTok) at a weight loss camp in Shaanxi Province, northwest China, cast a dismal light on the crash camp concept. Cuihua had set out to lose 100 kg and was documenting her weight loss journey for her online following when she collapsed on the second day of a weight loss workout regime at the fitness boot camp and eventually died in early June. China National Radio later also reported that Cuihua had joined several weight loss camps in various cities in a bid to reach her goal and had lost more than 27 kg in the two months leading up to her demise. Though the cause of her death was never revealed, many believe it was a killing combination of an exceedingly strict diet and too much exercise that took the ultimate toll on her heart.
While these crash programs have become increasingly popular in recent years, experts have raised serious concerns about the safety, effectiveness and lasting effects of these camps, Shanghai-based online magazine Sixth Tone reported in mid-June.
Participants’ physical and mental well-being may be compromised by the extreme exercise regimens, potential nutritional deficiencies and focus on appearance, according to experts. In addition, after their taxing summers, some not-so-happy campers told Sixth Tone that the lack of individualization and the failure to address sustainable lifestyle habits beyond weight loss are reasons for the overall skepticism surrounding these camps, and that they would not be putting their bodies, now their temples, through the grueling experience again.
In the illustrious words of Mrs. Wang:
Everything in moderation, even moderation.
This is an edited version of Elsbeth van Paridon’s article published in Beijing Review, Vol.66, No. 36
FEATURED IMAGE: COLLAGE of childhood obesity related images from Little Red Book
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