On Friday, the Ministry of Education revealed the eighth national students’ physical health survey, showing a rise in the rate of obesity among middle and primary school students.
This is a worrying trend, especially among the young. According to the report on Chinese nutrition and chronic disease released by National Health Commission in 2020, half of adults were considered overweight or obese in China, almost four times more compared to 20 years ago. In addition, 19 percent of children and teenagers aged 6 to 17 and 10.4 percent of preschoolers under 6 suffer the same problem. With an overweight population of more than 600 million across the country, we should take effective action to address this public health issue.
Modern society comes with multiple risks related to psychological anxiety, nutrition and environmental pollution, leading to the problem of obesity. Because of the huge improvement in the quality of people’s diets in recent decades, people can enjoy variety of foods as well as a longer life. At the same time, people are consuming more energy and fat with less manual labor, resulting in a high risk of obesity already reflected by statistical data. A report from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the obesity prevalence was 42.4 percent of 2017-2018 in America, up 30.5 percent over 2000.
Obesity is a common, serious and costly disease. The annual medical cost for people who suffer from obesity is around $1,500 higher than that of people of normal weight. In addition, the relationship between obesity and income or educational level is complicated, and it affects some groups like non-Hispanic Black adults more than others in the United States.
China is the world’s largest developing country with a population of more than 1.4 billion. Now that the country can feed its people and resolve food shortages, it is now engaging in the rapid industrialization and urbanization process, coupled with a high probability of an obesity epidemic as well. It is not surprising that China has the largest overweight population in the world, but the nation faces the unique challenge of “obesity before wealth”, indicating how Chinese still lag behind socioeconomic conditions while seeing an accelerated rate of obesity growth. Obesity will definitely raise health expenditures and generate social problems such as an increase in the number of people who are physically disabled.
Fortunately, authorities have realized the potential risks and introduced policies, such as the national nutrition plan to advocate for a more scientific diet and healthy lifestyle. However, the policy implementation has not been carried out as expected since a diverse population cannot be measured with such criteria, especially in a changing society, so China still needs time to achieve a broad consensus regarding what constitutes good living habits and how one should balance diet, leisure and exercise.
Legislation seems to be a priority, as the national nutrition act has determined compulsory nutrition labels and extra taxation on specific foods, which can motivate manufacturers to supply healthier options. Food assistance programs for rural areas and low-income groups are other policy tools widely used in developed countries, requiring government funds and social charity. China must realize that nutrition is a challenging social problem in order to mobilize more resources to fight against it at the community level, and ultimately help curb the damaging epidemic of obesity.
The author is a professor at the Chinese National Academy of Governance, where he conducts research on government regulations and public health.
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