GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - In a sleepy riverside village in Southern China, three-year-old Lu Zhihao tears around his home; his belly, arms and legs wobbling with fat as he stuffs a pear into his mouth.
“I want to be superman,” said the toddler, a typically cheeky kid, but one scaling in at over 60 kg (132.3 lb), around five times the weight of an average boy his age.
With puffed cheeks puckering up his eyes and mouth, folds of flesh like a miniature Michelin man and heavily bowed legs, the one-meter (yard) tall toddler’s condition is suspected to be partly the result of a hormone imbalance given his height.
His loud and frequent demands for food, however, are often met by his accommodating parents and a constant stream of visitors to their lively courtyard home.
“Yum, yum, yum, yum. I like to eat fish,” he said, grinning with his mouth full at dinner time as he wolfed down several bowls of rice and steamed fish.
With China’s coastal cities booming amid rampant urbanization and industrialization, a new, more affluent generation of middle class families have been raising more and more pampered children like Lu Zhihao, bringing a growing blight of obesity to Chinese society.
“Little more than 20 years ago many people, even in China’s richest cities, were struggling to feed themselves; now they are struggling to lose weight,” wrote Paul French and Matthew Crabbe in their recent book “Fat China: How expanding waistlines are Changing a Nation.”
“The combination of rising incomes, greater longevity and the one-child policy meant that the “six pocket” phenomenon appeared with each child having richer parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - all keen to spoil them.”
Some experts describe this as the “Little Emperor” syndrome, exacerbated by the country’s controversial one-child policy since the 1970s to control a swelling population expected to hit 1.65 billion in 2033.
Hardly any high street in Chinese towns and cities now are without a McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken, and smoking rates are amongst the highest in the world as the country rapidly develops and its economy sky-rockets.
“Obesity is a problem for the wealthy, newly emergent middle-class consumers,” wrote French and Crabbe.
Zhihao’s mother Chen Huan admitted he throws tantrums when he’s denied food, as the toddler sulked on a sofa after he was refused a pack of biscuits after dinner.
“He has difficulty moving up and down stairs. He needs help getting on the bus that takes him to the childcare center. It’s also difficult to bathe him because of the rolls of fat,” said Chen, who works as a factory worker in the Pearl River Delta.
“Of course I worry about him. Basically his legs can’t support his weight ... His heart is also under pressure because of the heavy load,” said Zhihao’s father, Lu Yuncheng, who works on a fish farm.
A 2008 Chinese National Task Force on Childhood Obesity found that almost one in five children under seven are overweight in China, and more than seven percent are obese.
Reporting by Stefanie McIntyre and Gary Ling, Writing and editing by James Pomfret and Paul Casciato