Despite the somewhat misleading title, a recent article in The Atlantic describes a recent study comparing childhood obesity in America and China:
For the study, published in the current issue of The American Journal of Health Behavior, Spruijt-Metz and her fellow researchers analyzed cross-sectional survey data on food-intake frequency from 9,023 middle and high school students and one parent from seven large cities in China. They found that sedentary activities, such as watching TV or using the computer, were related to greater odds of being overweight, just as in the U.S. More interestingly, they also uncovered several unexpected behaviors that were correlated with higher incidences of being overweight, including more vigorous exercise, less candy and fast food intake, less frequent snacking, more fruit consumption, and higher arental educational attainment.
People who visit the United States (and certain other Western countries) from China often remark on how many overweight people they notice upon arriving, and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize how prevailing lifestyle habits (junk food, lack of exercise, driving everywhere) contribute to higher obesity rates in certain countries. But, as the article points out, what’s interesting in comparing China and America’s childhood obesity rates is the different co-relations between social class and diet in both countries:
In their analysis, the researchers—some of whom are sociologists and psychologists from East Asia—flesh out these factors, and point to cultural and methodological reasons to account for these obesity-related paradoxes. Diets rich in vegetables, the researchers suspect, may also be rich in oil as the two most common methods of preparing vegetables is deep-frying and stir-frying. More educated parents, who are likely also richer, may be able to afford fast food, which is cheap in America but not so much in developing countries [like China]. Also, overweight children may be underreporting their intake of unhealthy food and may misperceive the quality of the exercise they do.
The conclusion seems obvious, and it’s something we here in Beijing have long known to be true – for all its variety and veggies, Chinese food (at least by today’s standard) is not all that healthy.
Beijingers, for one, have long been known to have a keener taste for salty food (or as they say, "Beijingers have a heavy palate" – "Beijingren kou wei zhong"), particularly compared to such southern Chinese food traditions as Shanghainese and Cantonese. Add an increasingly moneyed populace to the mix, and the net result is a city filled restaurants that now compete on who can make their dishes more "flavorful" by adding profuse amounts of oil, salt and MSG to compensate for using less ingredients in their dishes due to ever-rising food costs
All that junk food isn’t helping either – I recall the opening of Beijing’s first McDonald’s back in the summer of 1992. Big Macs and french fries were considered a luxury indulgence back then, but today Mickey Dee’s, Oreo cookies and syrupy sweet cans of Coca-Cola are as ubiquitously a part of the local diet as baozi. Small wonder, then, that local kids – particularly those who are regularly fed all manner of junk food by their doting grandparents – are getting fat.