China's rapid economic growth is linked to a rise in the number of overweight children and adolescents, according to research published in the journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.
Improvements in socioeconomic markers were also linked to reductions in stunting and thinness.
Researchers used data from the Chinese National Survey on Students' Constitution and Health to evaluate the nutritional status of about 1.1 million students from between 1995 and 2014 in relation to shifts in socioeconomic indicators. The students were 7 to 18 years old.
Over the course of the study period, the mean prevalence of overweight and obesity rose to 20.5% from 5.3%. Meanwhile, stunting prevalence decreased to 2.4% from 8.1% between 1995 and 2014, and thinness prevalence dropped to 4.1% from 7.5%.
According to the report, the overall increase in the prevalence of obesity and overweight is associated with easier access to high energy food and less physical exercise amid economic growth.
"This suggests a pressing need for policy responses that may include taxation of food and beverage with added sugars and fats, subsidies to promote dietary diversity, and strategies to promote physical activity and health education," said Peking University professor Jun Ma, who co-authored the research.
Lindsay Jaacks of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also said better regulation of the food industry and policies aim to promote healthier life style should be the priority of China and other countries that are striving to end malnutrition.
The research also found that more economically developed areas in China in general have higher rate of obesity, though the gap is narrowing with investments in nutrition programs in rural China, convergence of lifestyles and other factors.
However, there is a chance the trend will reverse as socioeconomic status improves, the researchers said. Such reversals can be seen in the U.K. and even in some places in China such as Beijing and Shandong, where obesity is linked to lower socioeconomic status.