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China sees childhood obesity 'explosion' in rural provinces

Is the Western diet causing obesity in Chinese children?

It's quite possible, according to a 29-year study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

The study, which went public on Tuesday, noted that while China may be seeing rapid growth in its rural economy, it's also seeing a massive spike in childhood obesity.

In 1985, less than 1 percent of boys and about 1.5 percent of girls in the Shandong province were considered obese. By 2014, almost 17 percent of boys and more than 9 percent of girls were categorized as such.

"This is extremely worrying," Joep Perk, cardiovascular prevention spokesman for the European Society of Cardiology, said in a statement. "It is the worst explosion of childhood and adolescent obesity that I have ever seen...China is set for an escalation of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the popularity of the western lifestyle will cost lives."

The study, which documented around 28,000 children and adolescents, cites three major reasons for the uptick in childhood obesity: cultural background, poor diet and and a lack of physical activity.

"Traditionally, the societal preference, particularly in rural areas, has been for sons," Ying-Xiu Zhang, leader of the investigation team at the Shandong Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement. "That could result in boys enjoying more of the family's resources. In addition, boys may prefer to have a larger body size than girls."

In addition, this younger generation has adopted a more "Western" diet, according to researchers, and consume soft drinks frequently. Researchers noted that the traditional Chinese diet is shifting towards foods that are high in fat, have high energy density and are low in fiber.

Along with this change in dietary behavior, children are exercising less and spending more times on their computers.

"Computer games themselves are not the issue," Perk said. "The problem is that kids sit there with a two [liter] bottle of fizzy drink. To burn those calories they would need to walk 46 km (about 29 miles) but they don't."

Perk and his colleagues suggest that children and parents need to be better educated about healthy eating and seek the aid of Chinese policymakers.

"This calls for a catastrophe committee in China to stop the alarming rise in childhood and adolescent obesity," Perk said. "They need to return to their former nutritional habits instead of eating junk food. Parents must take some responsibility and point their children in the direction of healthier choices."