China is probably not the first place you think of when you hear the word “childhood obesity”. Sadly, it’s a growing problem. Presently, one in five Chinese children aged 7 to 18 are overweight or obese, up from 2.6% in 1985.
More critically, China has a childhood obesity timebomb on its hands – it’s projected there will be 62 million obese Chinese children by 2030. For a sense of scale, that’s close to the population of the United Kingdom.
For all the talk of healthier lifestyles, a combination of doting grandparents, snacking, diet changes and less physical activity equals growing waistlines for China’s children.
A scale shows the weight of a child during a weight loss programme at a hospital in Beijing. Photo: AFP
So, what can brands do to help alleviate this health challenge?
Find thoughtful ways to give the issue more airtime
There’s nervousness about the obesity issue. For instance, large retailers are afraid to stock plus-sized children’s clothing, for fear that they’ll be accused of disparaging Chinese children. However, parents’ desire for managing childhood obesity has never been greater.
This is what leads us to think there’s a massive opportunity to create chat groups in WeChat or even a dedicated online forum or fearless and frank discussion about managing childhood obesity. This is perfect territory for an ambitious nutrition or lifestyle brand to ‘own the space’.
Develop specialized propositions and address unmet needs
The nervousness and shame over obesity means that some products that we might take for granted overseas. Plus-size clothing, low-calorie foods, fitness camps and exercise equipment are all areas where product and brand propositions are underdeveloped.
This is the opportunity for brands to combine purpose, social good and profit. We like the look of this space, and are actively looking for brands to partner with to take them to the next level in China.
Champion effective interventions
Obesity is a monumental challenge, but there is research that suggests effective interventions in a Chinese context. Universities of Birmingham and Bristol worked with Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a 12-month randomized trial. It promoted physical activity and healthy eating behaviours among the children—discovering significant reduction in weight gain among those participating.
We do think large brands are well-placed to champion and enmesh themselves in similar interventions. There are a whole range of digital use cases to record, encourage and reward exercise and healthy eating habits.
Sweeping demographic change means shifts in lifestyles, preferences and opportunity sets. If you’re looking for themes that will grow in relevance to China’s government and people, look no further than childhood obesity.