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Chinese obesity on the rise

5th August 2008

More than 25% of Chinese adults are overweight or obese, a new study has found.

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Driven by fast economic growth, Western-style food and less physical activity, obesity levels in China are rising fast and burdening the health system, researchers say.

Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, says that while the percentage of obese Chinese adults is still lower than countries like Egypt, Mexico, United Kingdom and United States, the numbers are growing at a faster rate.

In an article published in the journal Health Affairs, Popkin's team found that more than 1.2% 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.

The study said that the number of obese and overweight adults in China would double by 2028 if serious measures were not taken to address the issue.

Popkin said that China's lower and middle classes have seen their incomes grow and have more access to cheap vegetable oils and animal-derived foods than their counterparts in other developing countries.

He said people were taking on more sedentary jobs than before, and private car ownership was soaring, resulting in declining physical activity.

China has also seen a rapid expansion in supermarkets and junk food outlets in the past decade.

Meanwhile, a Chinese expert has warned that childhood obesity is also a fast-growing problem in the country.

Ding Zongyi, leader of the Chinese National Task Force on Childhood Obesity, warned in a study presented to the WHO that almost one in five Chinese children under seven is overweight and more than 7% are obese.

In Chinese culture, the word "fat" is taken as a compliment when describing a baby or toddler, and parents are increasingly taking their children to fast food chains, adopting Western 'couch potato' lifestyle.

China's draconian family planning rules have limited most urban couples to a single child, giving rise to the "little emperor" phenomenon in which the child is showered with treats and luxuries.

The price for the obesity epidemic is large increases in hypertension, stroke and adult-onset diabetes, putting pressure on China's healthcare system.

Popkin estimates that the economic costs caused by obesity-related diseases may be up to 4–8% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

He called on policy makers in Beijing to prioritise the issue in the country's public health agenda, even though it was politically less appealing than reducing hunger.

But Wang Yuying, a researcher at the International Life Science Institute Focal Point in China, said the situation in China was more complicated than that, although he welcomed Popkin's study.

He attributed the rapid increase in obesity in China to a very low baseline at the start of political reforms, not long after the political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, when very few people managed to stay overweight.

Popkin recommended taxing private transport while improving public transport, and providing tax breaks to soybean products, fruits and vegetables while boosting taxes on items like sugars and fats.

 

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