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Food companies use education to tackle childhood obesity

By Zhuan Ti | China Daily | Updated: 2016-09-22 08:10

Although maintaining a healthy diet has become a trendy topic among adults, nutrition-related problems with children remain a big concern among experts, as well as the general public.

According to a study published on The Lancet medical journal early this April, a worrying 90 million of Chinese children and teenagers are overweight or obese, which means one in five pairs of Chinese parents need to think seriously about the diet they provide their children.

"The appropriate ratio of energy from fat would be 30 percent. However, in the case of Chinese children, it has soared to 36 percent, or even 40 percent in major cities," said Zhang Bin, director of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Some chronic diseases are happening at an increasingly younger age, such as hypertension and hyperglycemia," Zhang added.

Now many parents might be aware of overnutrition, but there are other blind spots, such as malnutrition, which goes hand-in-hand with overnutrition even in developed cities, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health at Beijing-based Peking University. "Severe lack of energy and protein no longer exist in most of the urban and rural areas in China now," Ma said. "When we talk about malnutrition, we mean the lack of trace elements."

Yang Yuexin, director-general of Chinese Nutrition Society, pointed out: "During puberty, trace elements are more important for children than adults. But the lack of vitamin A and B, and calcium in the diet is still very common, especially in cities. Half of the students in elementary and middle schools start to wear glasses, partly because they don't take in enough vitamin A."

According to global food company Nestle SA's Kids Nutrition and Health Study, over 95 percent of Chinese children have an inadequate calcium intake, 25 percent to 40 percent of them do not intake enough zinc, and almost one-third of teenage girls lack the necessary amount of iron to help their body to grow, in stark contrast with the mean sodium intake, which is more than double the daily need.

This unhealthy eating behavior and the lack of proper instruction on healthy diet are the main reasons behind overnutrition and the lack of micronutrients, according to experts and scholars.

"People give their children salty and oily food that tastes good," said Yang, "And it's common to find kids who drink more than 500 milliliters of sugary drinks every day."

Zhang also mentioned that people's eating habits need to change. "From our statistics, Chinese children and teenagers' consumption of dairy products is still below a healthy standard."

In order to change eating habits and upgrade dietary patterns, Hao Xiaoming, president of the Nutrition and Health Research Institute of China Oil& Foodstufs Corporation (COFCO), has addressed the importance of nutrition education.

"In countries such as Japan and the United States, the basic knowledge of nutrition has been added into textbooks from elementary school," Hao said. "Compared to many developed countries in the world, we need to put more effort into education and on popularizing the knowledge of healthy diet."

The potential health threats caused by unhealthy diets, especially childhood and youth obesity, used to be regarded as a middle-class problem only happening in urban areas. But, the growing cases of obesity in rural areas have again proved that the lack of education is a key cause. "In rural areas where education on nutrition falls behind rapid economic growth, it is even harder to prevent childhood and youth obesity," said Ma.

In order to tackle the problem of the current dietary pattern, food companies such as Nestle and COFCO have taken action.

"Nestle is not only the biggest food company," said Rebecca Lian, Nestle's general manager of research and development in China. "We are transforming ourselves into a leading figure in nutrition in the global food industry."

Students and senior citizens are the two main groups on which Nestle has been focusing, and its core project to improve the health condition for children, Nestle Healthy Kids Global Program, was launched in China in 2010.

The idea behind this initiative is to enhance the awareness of healthy eating behavior, promote nutrition education and provide guidelines to educational workers for students between 6 to 12 years of age in both rural and urban areas.

So far this program has been expanded to more than 14 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tibet, Xinjiang and Guangdong.

Last year it was implemented in Shandong province. Up to now the program has benefited 30,000 teachers and more than 2.5 million students.

"Leading companies like Nestle and COFCO need to shoulder more responsibility in promoting related knowledge," said Hao. "And the best way is to start education from a very early age."

Ren Xiaojin contributed to the story.

Food companies use education to tackle childhood obesity

Knowledge of nutrition has been added to textbooks in some schools in the country,helping prevent childhood and youth obesity.Photos Provided To China Daily

Food companies use education to tackle childhood obesity

Students play fun games during the Nestle Healthy Kids Program held in various schools in China.

(China Daily 09/22/2016 page5)

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