Posted by: Frederik Balfour on July 10, 2008
Thank goodness the sedan chair is no longer in fashion. Earlier this week the health policy journal Health Affairs came out with an article based on a study that found nearly one quarter of adults in China were overweight. More disturbing still, was its projection that the percentage of the population expected to be overweight will double in the next 20 years.
This dramatic increase in the rate of overweight Chinese has serious implications for the country’s future growth prospects, not to mention its health care bills. Worker productivity tends to be inversely proportional to waistlines, as overweight workers are more likely to miss days due to weight-related maladies such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
But lost work days due to increased super-sizing are only part of the story. Health costs in China will soar, and who will pay for these is far from certain. China’s public health system is a joke, and private hospitals for those who can afford them, are a far cry from more developed countries.
What’s driving the increase in body weight? Not, as many might expect, is it the advent of fast-food chains like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken but rather the substitution of meat, eggs and milk into diets that previously derived most calories from vegetables and rice. What’s more, much of the increase in body weight has occurred in the countryside where these fast-food outlets have not yet penetrated.
But who can blame the Chinese for tucking into a good meal now that they can afford it? I remember my first visit to the mainland in 1985, and marveling at a country that seemed to be body-fat free. Back then it was common for men to wear their belts wrapped one and a half times around their tiny waists so the loose end was tucked in a the back. The women were mere sylphs.
At that time, most of the population was engaged in agriculture, a back breaking way to ensure a slim profile if there ever was one. Now with a mass migration to the cities, you see more and more gymnasiums, yoga studios and slimming spas popping up all over the cities. It looks like the weight-loss business is going to become as big in China as it is in the US, where more than two thirds of adults are overweight and one third [or 50% of the overweight group] obese.
But according to a Reuters story citing a study by Dr. Gregory L. Burke, of Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Chinese Americans are far slimmer than other ethnic groups. Only one third of them were overweight, and just 5% obese.
But back in China, manufacturers and service providers better start tooling up for greater girths. It could call for wider airline seats and extender seatbelts on planes [see my earlier post “Should Airlines Charge by Body Weight Too?”, larger elevators, bigger aisles in shopping markets, more demand for leather to make longer belts…The list goes on and on.