Chubby in Three Languages Spells Trouble for World's Kids

Study shows children in Russia, China following U.S. lead

TUESDAY, Oct. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The youth of America are leading their counterparts in China and Russia straight to the chubby-sized blue jeans department.

One in four American kids under 18 is either fat or downright obese, and Russia and China are catching up fast, thanks in part to a worldwide epidemic of fast-food restaurants that pedal high fat staples such as French fries, burgers, pizza, potato chips and more, say experts.

Some 15 percent of Russian kids now are fat or obese, while about 7 percent of Chinese children are at the same level, reports Youfa Wang, a researcher at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Oddly enough, however, the reasons for the weight gain in China appear to be the opposite of those causing the extra pounds in the United States.

The study, published this month in the International Journal of Epidemiology, pinpoints socioeconomic factors, including diet, as the leading influence in weight changes in kids around the world. And, as kids grow fatter, their chances of getting diabetes, heart disease and other weight-related illnesses are much greater as they grow older.

"If I had to venture a guess as to what's behind this, it would be hard not to point the finger at the concurrent rise in popularity of the typical American fast-food, junk-food diet that has been slowly gaining a hold in these countries and in many places around the world," says Samantha Heller, a registered dietician and nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.

Wang's study looked at three nationwide surveys of children's health, one in the United States, one in China and one in Russia. The three were the first to use comparable data from children 6 to 18.

China's weight problem began with its economic reform in 1978, when people began eating more high-fat foods, including meat, and grains, says Wang.

Another factor in China is the population limit of one child per family, enabling "parents and grandparents to use all their resources to support this only child," says Wang. That often translates into more food and less activity for the kids, he says.

While not all researchers are convinced that American-style fast food restaurants are completely to blame for the world's weight problem, Wang says those restaurants have had an impact, and that impact is growing stronger.

"In the winter of 1999, I visited Beijing and Tianjin (a big city two hours from Beijing). I was shocked to see that there are so many American fast-food restaurants there compared to five or six years ago," says Wang.

Some folks may not know that the world's largest McDonalds is not in the United States, but in Beijing, just a few blocks from the Forbidden City, he says.

Which kids are getting fat differs from nation to nation. In China, Wang says wealthier children are more likely to be obese, while in the United States, poorer children are fatter. In Russia, he says the problem is both rich and poor children.

Heller isn't surprised by the finding: "In the United States, poorer families are forced to eat cheaper meals, which often means high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods."

In China, she says wealthier kids are more likely to live in larger cities, giving them access to more American fast foods, and they may have less activity than poorer children who live in more rural areas.

Interestingly, obesity seems evenly divided among the sexes in the United States. In both Russia and China, however, more boys than girls appear to be putting on the extra pounds. Researchers say they don't know why.

"A main reason why such a study has not been conducted earlier is due to the lack of a widely agreed standard to define child and adolescent obesity and overweight," says Wang, adding that classifying child and adolescent obesity always has been difficult.

What To Do

To learn more about obesity in children visit the American Heart Association or KidsHealth.com.

For information on how to plan a healthy diet for your child, check this American Heart Association site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Youfa Wang, Ph.D., formerly a researcher at the Population Center and School for Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, currently assistant professor of human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D., nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; October 2001 International Journal of Epidemiology
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