Obesity 'epidemic' threatens to overwhelm nation's youth

Updated 2017-09-27 09:30:52 China Daily
Children prepare for weight-loss swimming workout at a boot camp in Zhengzhou, Henan province.

Children prepare for weight-loss swimming workout at a boot camp in Zhengzhou, Henan province.

A growing number of young people are becoming overweight or even obese as a result of poor diets and sedentary lifestyles.

After four months of self-harm, followed by 12 weeks' therapy and almost a year quarreling with her parents, Hong Yuan arrived in Beijing in May.

She had traveled more than 1,760 kilometers from her home in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, to attend a boot camp for young people who are overweight.

At 1.63m tall, the 17-year-old used to weigh 82 kilograms, far heavier than most girls of the same age and height. "Every minute feels like hell when you are fat. I can't do a thing because the thought of losing weight haunts me all the time," said the second year high school student.

As she spoke, she was running on a treadmill in a gym. Looking pale, covered in sweat and out of breath, she rubbed her stomach constantly to ease her period pain.

Even though her trainer told her three times to take the day off, Hong turned a deaf ear and continued running for another 40 minutes.

"Despite the upcoming college entrance examination, I have left everything behind to lose weight here. I cannot afford to waste a whole day lying in bed," she said, referring to the gaokao, the grueling national college entrance exam. She drank a little hot water and rested for 15 minutes before starting to run again.

About 20 meters away, in another gym at the complex, 33 flabby children and teenagers were lifting barbells to the sound of pounding music as a trainer shouted through a microphone, urging them to carry on.

A new phenomenon

Thirty years ago, overweight or obese young people were rarely seen in China, so weight-loss boot camps didn't exist. However, they have become common in recent years as a result of unhealthy diets and diminishing levels of exercise.

In 2015, there were 15.3 million obese children in China, the highest number in any country, according to a report published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Experts estimate that about one in four Chinese age 7 and older will be obese within 10 years.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were 300 million people age 19 and younger in China last year.

In June, the Report on Childhood Obesity in China, compiled by a number of bodies, including Peking University's School of Public Health, predicted that without intervention the proportion of overweight or obese children ages 7 to 18 will hit 28 percent by 2030.

The report, based on data from nine mainland cities, said the proportion of overweight people within the age group had risen to 12.2 percent in 2014 from 2.1 percent in 1985, while the rate of obesity had soared to 7.3 percent from 0.5 percent.

"Obesity was neither an epidemic nor a public health problem in the 1980s, but now it's a growing and disturbing health crisis nationwide," said Mi Jie, director of the Epidemiology Research Center at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing.

"Genetics, diet and exercise habits all play important roles in the accelerating incidence of obesity. With no radical changes in genetics, unbalanced nutrition, rich in fats and sugar, and a lack of physical activity are the main causes."

Last year, Hong gained 15 kg because of a lack of physical activity at school and a sedentary lifestyle at home. "I could lie on the bed for a whole weekend watching Japanese animations and reading comic books on my iPad," she said.

She often felt guilty about not exercising and forced herself to accept a strict diet of boiled eggs, vegetables and low-sugar fruits such as grapefruit and kiwis.

"But diets only lead to anorexia or overeating, both of which are bad for one's health. Unfortunately, I tend toward the latter," she said, reflecting on how the diet backfired and resulted in depression, anxiety and weight gain.

In common with many Chinese people, Hong's parents thought a chubby child was adorable and blessed. They didn't realize her weight was an issue until she started provoking pointless quarrels and began self-harming by cutting herself.

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