Supersize China: Obesity climbing fast

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.

Reader Comments

ellena

July 10, 2008 12:05 PM

If Chinese people demand larger elevators,bigger aisles,longer belts, Those westerners especially American will have to require EXTRA larger elevators, EXTRA longer belts..The list goes on and on and on... As per your super great idea, We will charge them more for taking up too much space (i noticed that they all have a huge ass) & consuming more.

POPENADA

July 10, 2008 3:10 PM

Who said it wasn't MCDONALDS AND KFC's fault?
It's like slap yourself in the face with your own hand
Anyone with a brain wouldn't think KFC is a healthy recipe.
at the very least it's a side effect
Frederik Balfour , if you say chinese use belt wrap themselves up twice in 1985, i think you wrap yourself up with three belt chain together.

POPENADA

July 10, 2008 3:22 PM

I have three questions
First, don't you think the fastfood chain is bad for next generation chinese?
Second, i never saw anyone wrap them up twice using belt, where did you see that?
Third,don't you think chinese and chinese american biologically are the same? most chinese are still eat rice and vegetables as main dish right?

Keith Ip

July 10, 2008 11:13 PM

I will concern more about health, especially the people living at the well-developed cities in China. When our society changing from agriculture to business, people diet chiefly consists of grain and vegetables now becomes more meat. The waistline reflects their wealth but also health, how to balance between these is a big project in everyone's life journey.

Jordan S

July 11, 2008 1:27 AM

Reporting from Shanghai:
1) Yes, it is true that many people can wrap belts around them 1 & 1/2 times. Two of my fellow teachers at EnglishFirst are examples. However, this also depends on the belt-size they buy in the first place :)
2) Statistical accuracy. Although "Health Affairs" may very well be a credible institute, I would like to know how they arrived at their stats.
3) The article provides some interesting insight. From my perspective in Shanghai, however, Chinese people are far from fat. They walk or ride bikes everywhere, eat smaller portions, and generally stick to veggies and rice. Personally, I've lost 14 pounds over the 3 weeks that I've been here. Perhaps that's just because chopsticks are frustrating and I'm too impatient to finish my meals.

chenqi

July 11, 2008 1:36 AM

As one of the one quarter of overweight adults in China, if I have a chance, I still hope to have rice and vegetables everyday. However, the problem is, we have nearly no time to do them myself for long time work and the work place are far from home. Second, there are so many fast-food and they are so convenient.Maybe we should be conscious this serious problem and do my possible to have a healthy live way.

P

July 11, 2008 2:27 AM

Popenada,

I'm Chinese American and for dinner today, I ate a double patty cheesburger, animal style, with animal style french fries from Inn N Out.

Thanks for shamelessly stereotyping, btw.

A Di Truth

July 11, 2008 8:33 AM

This is one of the thing with development. You start earning money and look at 'luxury items' like meat and processed foods for example and you want some of that. The thing is all that ends up happening is you spend the money you have earned now in the long run on medication and doctor bills. Same thing here happening in Jamaica. The Westernization of the world while it has some benefits, many bad habits accrue and we pay for it in the long run. I am part chinese and when my grandparents came to china it was all about a bowl of rice and lots of veggies, lots of walking and deep breathing and hard work. Over the years when they adjusted to Jamaican life and started eating the processed foods, they gained weight. Now my uncle who is a 2nd generation chinese has been forced to look health in the eyes and revert to eating a proper chinese diet. More veggies [steamed, boiled or lightly stir fried], boiled rice without salt and a little fish and chicken every now and then and more walking. I do the same. I hardly get sick and have to go the doctor. Just look at American health statistics; they eat too much meat and processed food, take too much meds, eat meats pumped up with drugs and stored for a long time and they are paying for it.

POPENADA

July 11, 2008 9:25 AM

obessity is a big problem across the globe, but i think hint on to blame india and china drinking milk for soaring food prices is way misleading.

china should learn from japan about the waistline restriction, and start exercise programmes.and that can help prevents the imminent threats such as diabetes etc.

And i think most people still love traditional meal rather than junk food.
Fastfood appeals to younger chinese population. i think it at least is a factor causing obessity.i love Mcdonalds when i was a pupil,but now i don't go to fastfood chain eventhough it's cheap.

so i think the obessity problem exists but i think the cause is complicated.

OhioOrrin

July 11, 2008 10:18 AM

I'm sick of gluttons' overcomsumptive lifestyle & the damage to our societies.

At least now, w higher gas prices, the fatties can't afford to hide in overly large vehicles which also serve to kill & main our soldiers in the mid-east.

Wei Forbus

July 11, 2008 6:34 PM


About 8 years ago when I was still living in China, I've already noticed the majority people are already shown the indication of gaining weight from frequently eating out and always over order the food. Most people doesn't engage regular physical activity, but we still riding bikes and walking to the farmer's market everyday. Since nowadays, more and moe middle income Chinese are driving and hardly have regular cardio workout regime, they put on weight easily. They should use more mass tranportation, adding more variety of vegetables and nature source of proteins back into their diet, and be more aware what you put into your body.

Wei Forbus

July 11, 2008 6:34 PM


About 8 years ago when I was still living in China, I've already noticed the majority people are already shown the indication of gaining weight from frequently eating out and always over order the food. Most people doesn't engage regular physical activity, but we still riding bikes and walking to the farmer's market everyday. Since nowadays, more and moe middle income Chinese are driving and hardly have regular cardio workout regime, they put on weight easily. They should use more mass tranportation, adding more variety of vegetables and nature source of proteins back into their diet, and be more aware what you put into your body.

The Amateur Foody

February 14, 2009 1:30 PM

As Michael Pollan once said:

"Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not to much."

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