In Over 35 Years of Economic Growth, China’s Youth Have Grown Taller, and Fatter
Young people in China have been getting taller at a quicker rate than those from almost any other country in the last few decades — but they also have some of the world’s fastest-growing waistlines, new research shows.
The findings published last month in peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet underscore how 35 years of economic growth have brought better nutrition for most Chinese, but also triggered an emerging public health crisis as more people have become overweight or obese.
Researchers affiliated with NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, a global network of health scientists, analyzed more than 2,000 population-based studies to create what they say is a first-of-its-kind comparison of both height and body mass among young people in 200 countries and territories between 1985 and 2019.
They found that the average height of 19-year-old Chinese men had risen by 4.79%, or just over 8 centimeters (3.15 inches), over that period — the largest jump in the world. Chinese women of the same age were 3.85% taller on average last year than in 1985, the third-highest global rise.
The trend means that young Chinese are now roughly the same height as people in developed East Asian economies after decades of lagging behind. The average 19-year-old Chinese man stood 175.66 centimeters tall last year, while the equivalent figure for women was 163.46 centimeters.
More worryingly, the data show that Chinese youngsters are rapidly growing outward as well. Although the average body mass index (BMI) — a measure of body fat accounting for height and weight — falls within a healthy range for both sexes, large gains in the last few decades have pushed more and more people into categories considered bad for health.
Over the period, the average BMI at 19 years old rose by 15.75% to 23.03 among men and by 8.96% to 22.19 among women, bringing China roughly in line with countries like France and South Korea. The highest BMI figures worldwide were recorded in Pacific island nations, with certain Western economies like the United States and New Zealand not far behind.
Obesity, once virtually unheard of in China, has also risen dramatically among young people. The condition significantly increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and many other ailments.
Some 6.41% of male and 2.87% of female 19-year-olds in China were considered obese last year, the study says. By comparison, the respective figures in 1985 were just 0.08% and 0.04%.
The increases chime with rising child overweight and obesity around the world, a trend that the World Health Organization has called “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, other research indicates that Chinese economic growth has driven nutritional gains among young people.
In the space of four decades, the Asian giant has gone from being a regional backwater to being the world’s second-largest economy. Development has contributed to rising incomes, a vast middle class and a flourishing consumer sector.
Those trends have helped reduce stunting and thinness, but have also propelled a “marked increase” in obesity among children and adolescents, particularly in rural areas, according to a paper published in The Lancet last year by researchers at Peking University.
“There is a pressing need for policy actions to extend beyond an emphasis on economic growth alone, and to focus on promotion of healthy diets and physical activity,” they wrote.
In recent years, China has launched a number of measures aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles.
A government-backed initiative called Healthy China 2030 aims to significantly improve the quality of health care, sharpen innovation in health science and technology, and reduce health disparities between urban and rural areas by the end of the next decade.
A national nutrition plan for the coming 10 years also intends to cut the height gap between urban and rural school-age children and control their obesity rate.
Chinese schools have also periodically faced calls to raise the importance of sports in the curriculum as a means of encouraging children to take more exercise.
In October, Wang Dengfeng, an education ministry official responsible for physical education, called on middle schools to gradually increase the weighting of end-of-school gym tests so that they are on a par with core subjects like Chinese, English and math.
However, despite a few exceptions, prodding kids onto the athletics track remains difficult in a culture that places a premium on more cerebral subjects. Even in the wealthy southern metropolis of Guangzhou, where sports play a larger role in testing than any other major Chinese city, the subject is worth a maximum of 60 out of 810 points on the high-school entrance exam, 90 fewer points than the three above classes.
Wan Sicheng contributed reporting.
Contact reporter Matthew Walsh (email@example.com) and editor Joshua Dummer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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