Study finds Chinese obesity rates soaring

Fast food is becoming more available in China Copyright: Flickr/ernop

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[BEIJING] Fast economic growth, Western-style food and less physical activity are driving up China’s obesity problems and burdening the health system, warn scientists.

In an article published in the July/August issue of the journal Health Affairs, Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, says that more than 25 per cent of Chinese adults are overweight or obese. While the percentage is still lower than countries like Egypt, Mexico, United Kingdom and United States, its growth rate is faster.

More than 1.2 per cent of the Chinese adult male population became overweight or obese each year during the past decade, higher than in developed countries and all other developing countries except Mexico.

Without serious measures to address the problem, the number of obese and overweight adults in China will double by 2028, the study found.

China’s lower and middle classes have seen their incomes grow and have more access to cheap vegetable oils and animal-derived foods than in other developing countries, Popkin told SciDev.Net.

The rapid expansion of supermarkets and junk food stores in China, declining physical activity as people take on more sedentary jobs, and the rise of private car ownership are also taking their toll.

In a separate study, presented alongside the annual meeting of the WHO in late May, Ding Zongyi, leader of the Chinese National Task Force on Childhood Obesity, warned that childhood obesity is also becoming a problem.

The study says almost one in five Chinese children under seven is overweight and more than seven per cent are obese.

According to Ding, more children are taken to fast food chains by their parents, are increasingly adopting Western ‘couch potato’ lifestyle and are indulged due to China’s one-child policy.

Culture also plays a role. A healthy baby, for example, is described as a "fat baby" in the Chinese language, Ding told Agence France Presse.

Obesity and poor diet are resulting in large increases in hypertension, stroke and adult-onset diabetes, putting pressure on the health system, Popkin explains. He estimates that the economic costs caused by obesity-related diseases may be up to 4–8 per cent of the economy.

But obesity has not been prioritised in the country’s public health agenda. "Reducing hunger is politically appealing while obesity, hypertension and diabetes do not have the same political appeal," Popkin says.

While welcoming Popkin’s study, Wang Yuying, a researcher at the International Life Science Institute Focal Point in China, says the situation in China is complex.

The rapid increase in obesity in China could be because so few people were obese at the beginning of China’s recent economic growth, and since China is also in a stage of transition with people doing more sedentary work without regular exercise habits, Wang told SciDev.Net.

Popkin recommends subsidising soybean products, fruits and vegetables while reducing consumption of unhealthy foods via taxes on items such as sugars and fats. Private transport should also be taxed, while public transport should be improved, he adds.