The fat facts are in. Children are getting fatter for a variety of reasons: higher incomes, reduced physical activity, the advent of fast food culture. Though the majority of Western parents are aware of the danger of steadily increasing waistlines, it goes against the Chinese norm to consider plump children as unhealthy. In a culture that has endured severe famine and food shortages, today’s overabundance of food is tantamount to a blessing. In China, fat children are seen as healthy children because infant mortality used to be so prevalent. A baby’s first 100-day milestone was a cause for celebration; it meant the child had a higher chance of survival. Chinese parents have only started to consider weight as a potential health problem.Life in modern Beijing is a far cry from the food shortages of previous decades. Western fast food chains and junk food are the go-to snack for many local and expat kids alike. But China’s youth are starting to pay the price for overindulging. A joint survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and State Statistics Bureau showed the percentage of overweight people in China’s capital cities jumped nine percent between 1992 and 2004. China’s overweight population now rests somewhere above 30 percent. Thanks to rigorous study regimes that leave kids tied to their desks for the majority of the day, China’s little ones are not so little anymore.But being overweight is the symptom of a larger issue, at least according to American Kristi Gallego, the mother of four daughters ranging in age from 6 to 13. She is more worried about her daughters developing anorexia and poor self-images. After the electronic exercise game WiiFit deemed one of her daughters overweight and presented her with a chubby avatar, the 8-year-old now keeps a food diary. The balancing act between food, fitness and self-image has resulted in a plethora of books that claim to illuminate cultural diet secrets. In the same vein as the now-famous book, Why French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, Why the Chinese Don’t Count Calories: 15 Secrets from a 3,000-Year-Old Food Culture by Lorraine Clissold presents the theory that a traditional Chinese diet will leave you happy, healthy and slim. A 2008 study conducted by INTERHEART across 52 countries found an “Oriental” diet high in soy did not increase the risk of myocardial infarction (the destruction of heart tissue that leads to heart attacks) but it also showed no apparent benefits either. A “prudent” diet high in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of heart attack by 30 percent. And predictably, a “Western” diet leads to a 35 percent higher risk of heart attack. Traditionally, the Chinese diet may well have lived up to Clissold’s claims, but the modernization of China has brought with it a raft of new foods and eating habits. A study conducted by the American Heart Association found that compared with rural mainland Chinese, people living in Hong Kong consumed fewer vegetables, less green tea, and more dairy products; as a consequence, their rate of cardiovascular disease was much higher.
But is food the only culprit in the obesity battle? Australasian Science magazine reported that a 12-year-old Australian boy in 2006 was, on average, seven kilograms heavier and 25 percent fatter than his counterpart from 1970. Interestingly, the fat content of the standard Western diet reached its peak around 1965, when it accounted for about 40 percent of total daily calories. The fat content of Western diets has been falling steadily since then and currently sits around 35 percent in most developed countries. If the fat intake of the standard Western diet is falling, why are kids getting bigger? One answer is reduced activity. Energy is being consumed but not released. This is particularly relevant in China where students are expected to study for long hours, leaving little to no time for exercise. Some schools of thought now believe the reported rise in obesity levels is a scare campaign not based on science but on culture and politics. After being drilled to accept that the developed world is experiencing an “obesity epidemic,” a backlash is developing in some popular and academic publications. The Obesity Epidemic, by Australian academics Jan Wright and Michael Gard, claim one reason for this so-called epidemic is that the West is punishing itself for its perceived gluttony and sloth. Because Westerners feel a collective guilt about their wealth, excess and supposed laziness, they assert, various establishments have created a fear of obesity in order to reintroduce self-deprivation and restore the balance. Whether or not the Western world is genuinely facing an epidemic is debatable, but it’s certainly hard to ignore the many and various statistics concerning the rise in obesity. Food has become the boogieman or the security blanket, rather than an enjoyable source of nourishment. Eating healthily and undertaking small amounts of exercise every day is much easier than we like to admit, but instead of counting calories and keeping a food diary, heed the
advice of Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”