When I was young, picky-eaters were often told they should eat because there were people starving in China. And while it is true that the Chinese people spent much of the 20th century going to bed hungry, quite how a child in America eating broccoli addressed that issue never made any sense to me. Adults, I have since learned, don’t bother to make sense very often.
Skip forward 50 or so years to today, and you find that childhood obesity is a problem in China. As its economic growth continues, the People’s Republic is developing First World Problems like obesity among kids (I don’t know about you, but give me First World problems any day — Third World problems really suck). Indeed, by some measures, China is the second fattest nation on the planet.
In America, we have spent years trying to figure out why our kids are fatter than we were at their age. We have blamed everything from high fructose corn syrup to video game consoles. We have studies right, left and center that offer methods of reducing the problem of childhood obesity based on all these different partial causes. Michelle Obama has even taken on fitness, weight and proper diet as her Big Issue as First Lady.
In China, though, there is a factor involved in childhood obesity that we Americans haven’t got. We don’t blame the kids’ grandparents. A recent study from the University of Birmingham in the U.K., however, says that grandparents in China are a leading cause of childhood obesity.
To understand why, you need to know a few things about Chinese society that distinguishes it from most North American and European societies:
1. Grandparents live with their children and grandchildren — and not in a gated community hundreds of miles away. If they aren’t in the same house, they are not very far away. As a result, daycare in China tends to be provided by the grandparents.
2. China embarked on a one-child policy in 1979 to reduce the huge population growth. The nation has 1.3 billion people, and the draconian policy created a couple generations of only-child families. So, you have four grandparents for a single grandchild. Competitive spoiling is the inevitable result.
3. These grandparents were the kids who were starving while I was being cajoled into eating my vegetables. During Mao’s Great Famine from 1959-1961, about 45 million Chinese died of starvation; roughly the same number of people died in World War II, and the famine lasted only half the time.
Moreover, their parents were the generation that experienced the civil war and Japan’s occupation, two events that kept food scarce.
As a result, they equate skinny with underfed, with hungry, with sickly. Fat, to them, means wealth, health and happiness. This is not uniquely Chinese — my own family members who came of age in North Dakota in the 1920s and 1930s were big on cleaning your plate because you didn’t know when the next meal would be.
Put all of these together, and you have a recipe for obesity that is not quite unique to China but certainly creates obesity with Chinese characteristics. The grandparents looking after the one-and-only grandchild, they want the child to have an easier life than they had (this is easily the most universal of all human values), and there is finally enough money in the household for everyday consumption of foods that used to be considered delicacies. And since all of the kids’ peers are being treated the same way, they are all chubby little tikes, so how do you know there’s a problem?
This creates an interesting policy problem for the Chinese government. To address childhood obesity, it won’t be enough to educate the kid in school or even the parents. You’ve got to convince Grandma and Grandpa that too much to eat creates as many health problems as too little. And you will have to have all four grandparents resist the urge to pamper the little darling.
Beijing has an uphill fight on this one. As a grandparent of a 2-year-old, I don’t always (ever) enforce the dietary rules of my granddaughter set by her parents. Ice cream is an appetizer, OK?
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.