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China has seen a rapid increase of obese children.
China has seen a rapid increase of obese children.
Cunfu Riji

BEIJING — Obesity is a worldwide problem. The latest confirmation comes from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which conducted a study in 188 countries that found one-third of the global adult population and one-fourth of all children are overweight or obese. That includes no fewer than 671 million people who fall into the obese category.

While the United States still counts the highest obese population at 78 million, China and India follow with 46 million and 30 million respectively.

In business terms, of course, crisis create opportunities. Several agencies exist already in the Chinese market that help people with weight loss, but almost none of them have created a successful business. The main reason appears to be that these companies focus is on helping customers to look better rather than be healthier.

The typical example is Weight Watchers, the American company offering services and products in for weight loss. Since its entry in China in 2008, the company's business has showed meager growth. By 2012, its stores had all packed up.

In retrospect, Weight Watchers' fatal decision was to target urban, white-collar women with marketing that made fashion and appearance the driving motive of their purchasing decisions. Yet this demographic is typically not obese, per se, but usually just overweight, and do not urgently require help.

The huge potential market for weight loss businesses is in fact among people who urgently need to lose weight to be healthier. This group of people are mostly under forty, urban office workers who have adopted very bad lifestyles, including constant overeating. Even more critical is that health problems such as hypertension, hyperglycemia and sleep disorders, or other chronic diseases caused by obesity are already manifesting among them.

For this group of people, losing weight is an urgent matter indeed, not just for aesthetic reasons. These customers need specialized health management organization to carry out a program for improving their health.

An app for that?

Thus, there are four core issues to be addressed by this market.

First, the business should make health a central focus, instead of purely beauty considerations. It also shouldn't be addressed to women only, but also to men in their 40s.

Second, even more critical is that these health management agencies ought to cooperate closely with hospitals and doctors. Not only should professional weight-loss advisors provide a set of exercises and diet programs, but even more importantly, they ought to work together with hospitals and specialists to provide regular assessments for those plagued with chronic weight problems.

Third is the interaction and interdependence of both online and offline services. Currently many of these health companies, and in particular the Chinese start-ups, are all rushing to get into the market for mobile terminals and launch apps and wearable devices. But users must be able to translate these tests into beneficial health guidance, and should remember that they are only tools that cannot replace face-to-face consultations with a specialist.

Finally there is the huge market potential for child obesity. Due to the improvement of family living standards, doting parents, a blind worship of Western food and a lack of physical exercise, China has seen a rapid increase of obese children. As diabetes in children becomes more prevalent, Chinese parents are increasingly conscious of the need to change their children's living habits. Thus the demand for weight control and health guidance is only bound to keep growing.

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