Why Food Education Is Key in Obesity Prevention

Amy Lauren Smith 

When I revisited a local school in China last week, I noticed a definite shift in the appearance of a large percentage of the 2nd graders (whom I’d met before) who rushed out to say hi. I had read that the obesity rates among Chinese youth were increasing, but this was the only time I had seen it first-hand.

I spoke with their teacher, asking whether there had been any major changes to their school schedule over the last few years. But there had been no PE cuts, and in their painfully long school day, they were still given time to play.

So if a lack of physical activity wasn't entirely to blame for this new issue, what was?

I began to think about the factors that led my own students to maintain a healthy weight. Many of my students, though from international backgrounds, are also of Chinese descent. So if the problem wasn't purely genetic either, was it a socio-economic one?

Not entirely. Even in poorer communities here in China, we don’t have a lack of fresh produce as we do in some parts of the states. In fact, it's the opposite. Wet markets, with their cheap and plentiful supply of fruits and vegetables, are on practically every corner.

But in the 11 years I've lived in China, the changes to the food landscape have been immense. While we still have an abundance of fresh produce, there's fast food on every corner, and processed food now fills the aisles, and not just in the big cities, either.

I took my 8th grade classes to the grocery store the other day to analyze food packaging. One of them, a Chinese student raised in California, grabbed a box of Post Blueberry Morning cereal. He explained to me that when his mother had learned of his desire to eat healthy, she had started buying him this.

He wanted to know if it was a good choice, so we took a closer look. On the front, there were many claims—Whole Grains! Fresh Blueberries! Hand-Selected Almonds!—that made it appear to be a healthy choice. But upon further inspection of the nutrition label, we saw that one serving had 16 grams of added sugar, over half of his recommended daily allowance.

He set down the box, looked up at me, and shook his head. "Man, my mom never learned about this stuff. All she sees is the front of the box."

Like the tobacco industry infiltrated Cambodia after the revolution—distributing free cigarettes in an attempt to get everyone hooked before a government was established to put regulations in place—“Big Food” has targeted China. They see that with little nutritional education, increasing amounts of disposable income, and a penchant for brand names, the Chinese market is a seemingly endless revenue stream.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., we had to discover the truth about the food industry the hard way. (The CDC indicates that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years!)

Yet, through education and consumer awareness, the rates of sugary drink consumption are declining in the U.S, and the obesity rates have started leveling off. While we still have so much work to do, parents, communities, and schools are rallying together to teach our children to be wary of food advertising and to love real food.

What we’re seeing now in China is further proof that processed food has a direct impact on childhood obesity, and that nutritional knowledge is key. We need to be advocates for food education for all of our kids—at home in the states, and in the rest of the world.

For more on the food industry and its role in the obesity epidemic, be sure to check out the powerful documentary, Fed Up.