Commentary / World

Obesity poses a serious threat to kids' health

by Cesar Chelala

Several studies show that the world’s children are increasingly becoming overweight and obese. According to a U.S. National Institute of Health study, the global rise in childhood obesity has become an “epidemic.” The case of China is paradigmatic. In China, in addition to obesity, shortsightedness (myopia) is also increasing in children posing a serious risk to their health.

Although Japan hasn’t totally solved the problem of childhood obesity, it has made significant advances in its control. One of the strategies used in Japan involved a redesigning of school lunches, which are increasingly planned by nutritionists. They feature fresh ingredients and locally grown vegetables, and include a variety of foods.

In China, a 29-year survey of 28,000 children aged between 7 and 18 was carried out in Shandong province. The study, published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology, found that 17 percent of boys and 9 percent of girls were obese in 2014. This showed a significant increase from less than 1 percent for both genders in 1985. The study also showed that the increase was more notable in children aged 7 to 12 than in adolescents.

This finding was confirmed by the 2014 National Fitness Survey by the Ministry of Education and the General Administration of Sport in China. The survey was carried out among 347,294 students ranging in age from 7 to 22. The survey concluded that obesity rates among Chinese students have risen since 2005. Obesity is not a problem only among Chinese children, however, since 1 in 3 U.S. children are also obese.

There is not one factor that explains the high rates of obesity among Chinese children, although there are several contributing factors with varying importance in different settings and circumstances. For example, many formerly poor families are overfeeding their children, particularly when the grandparents are in charge of their care.

Among Chinese children, one of the most important contributing factors for obesity factors is the high consumption of foods rich in carbohydrates and high consumption of sugary drinks. Widespread propaganda by food chains such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken has made Chinese children and adults very fond of the food provided by these outlets, which are usually rich in calories and poor in nutrition.

Physical inactivity is another important contributing factor, often associated with a significant increment in television viewing. It has been proven that each hour watching television is associated with a 1 to 2 percent increase in the prevalence of obesity among urban children. Many Chinese rural children are engaged in field work, and as a result are more active than urban children.

Children who are overweight and obese are at risks for several serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, asthma and heart failure. It is important therefore to implement a series of measures aimed at increasing the level of physical activity among children both inside and outside school and conduct educational campaigns showing the risks of consuming high calories foods and drinks.

The National Fitness Survey showed another serious problem among Chinese children and youngsters: myopia. According to this report, nearly 30 percent of boys and more than 32 percent of girls aged 7 were found to be myopic, a slight increase from the 2010 rates, and has now reached epidemic proportions. While 60 years ago only 10 to 20 percent of the population was shortsighted, today close to 90 percent of teenagers and young adults are myopic. This problem leads to a slightly elongated eyeball that increases the risks of serious problems such as retinal detachment, cataracts and glaucoma.

Excessive reading and computer work are associated with a higher risk for myopia. These excesses lead to less time engaging in sports and outdoor activities, which worsens the situation. As in many other areas of life, a good balance between study and outdoor activities and sports can reduce this risk. In myopia, as in obesity, parental influence and guidance are critical. The more parents and grandparents know about these risks the healthier the children will become.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a public health consultant for international organizations.