The population of China has just got larger – as capitalism fuels an obesity epidemic amongst children, according to new research.

The number of obese boys in China has soared 570 times in less than thirty years.

And the rate among girls has multiplied 75 times as families adopt a western diet, spoiling a generation of single children with the plethora of fast food now available.

The authors, writing in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, speculate boys are fatter because they are given preferential treatment in a society where sons are favoured, leading to them being awarded more treats.

The 29 year study of almost 28,000 youngsters shows more than 17 percent of boys and nine per cent of girls were obese in 2014, compared to just 0.03 and 0.12 percent, respectively, in 1985.

In the UK a third of children are now overweight and a fifth obese, showing China is fast catching up.

Professor Joep Perk, cardiovascular prevention spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology, said: “This is extremely worrying. It is the worst explosion of childhood and adolescent obesity that I have ever seen.

“The study is large and well run, and cannot be ignored. China is set for an escalation of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the popularity of the western lifestyle will cost lives.”

Data for the study was obtained from six national surveys in schoolchildren carried out by the Department of Education in Shandong Province, China.

A total of 27,840 seven to 18 year olds from rural areas had their height and weight measured to calculate their BMI (body mass index) with those overweight and obese defined using recommendations from the Working Group on Obesity in China (WGOC), the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The prevalence of overweight and obesity in boys increased from 0.74% and 0.03% in 1985 to 16.35% and 17.20% in 2014, and in girls increased from 1.45% and 0.12% in 1985 to 13.91% and 9.11% in 2014, respectively.

Dr Ying-Xiu Zhang, of the Shandong Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “China is a large agricultural country and our findings have huge implications for the entire nation.

“The rises in overweight and obesity coincide with increasing incomes in rural households and we expect this trend to continue in the coming decades in Shandong Province and other regions of China.

“China has experienced rapid socioeconomic and nutritional changes in the past 30 years.

“In China today, people eat more and are less physically active than they were in the past. The traditional Chinese diet has shifted towards one that is high in fat and calories and low in fibre.”

The Chinese 2005 National Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance reported 4.3 percent of boys and 2.7 percent of girls frequently had soft drinks, while 12.7 percent of boys and 4.3 percent of girls spent more than two hours a day playing computer games.

Dr Zhang said: “Traditionally the societal preference, particularly in rural areas, has been for sons. 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.”

Added Prof Perk: “Computer games themselves are not the issue. The problem is kids sit there with a two litre bottle of fizzy drink. To burn those calories they would need to walk 46 km but they don’t.”

The prevalence of overweight and obesity is rising faster in children (7 to 12 years) than adolescents (13 to 18 years), which the authors say could be because teenagers are more concerned about their appearance.

Explained Dr Zhang: “Adolescents generally pay more attention to their body shape and do more exercise than children.”

He went on: “Rural areas of China have been largely ignored in strategies to reduce childhood obesity.

“This is a wake up call for policymakers that rural China should not be neglected in obesity interventions. We need to educate children on healthy eating and physical activity, and monitor their weight to check if these efforts are making a difference.”

Added Prof Perk: “This calls for a catastrophe committee in China to stop the alarming rise in childhood and adolescent obesity. 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.”

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