The research, published Tuesday, found that while China's rapid economic growth over the past two decades had been accompanied by a decrease in childhood growth stunt and thinness, the country has also seen a four-fold increase in the number of overweight and overweight children.
The authors said they were worried about seeing such a marked increase. "This suggests a pressing need for political responses that may include taxing food and drink with added sugars and fats, subsidies to promote dietary diversity and strategies for promoting physical activity and health education," said the study co-author, Professor of Beijing University Jun Ma.
Increasing income has made it possible for households to spend more on food and urbanization has made it much easier for families to access better care and education.
"Children used their leisure time to play outside, now they are in front of computers and TV. There are many fast food chains in China now and many Chinese people adopt new food like this," she said.
Are grandparents guilty?
Li said that a weakened perception of what was fresh had substantiated the increase in childhood obesity in China.
"Grandparents often live with the family and often get the parents both working, they play a major role in determining which children are eating."
In the study, published in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, researchers used data from more than 1 million Chinese children aged 7-18 years between 1995 and 2014.
It was found that the prevalence of stunting in Chinese children and adolescents due to long-term insufficient nutritional intake and infections decreased from 8.1% to 2.4% below this time period and thinness fell from 7.5% to 4.1%.
On average, the number of Chinese children classified as overweight or obese increased from 5.3% in 1995 to 20.5% in 2014.
Current levels of obesity among Chinese adults are among the lowest in the world, says Lindsay M. Jaacks, an assistant professor at the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, which makes this study particularly worrying.
"The significance of this discovery cannot be underestimated in view of evidence that obesity achieved in childhood is moved to adulthood and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers," she wrote in a comment published together with research.
"In the absence of strong nutrition, China is likely to see a significant increase in the incidence of adult obesity as the current cohort of children and adolescents."