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Fast food in Shanghai
Fast food in Shanghai
Jonathan Kos-Read

BEIJING - We all know about China's economic growth. But the country also has the world's fastest growing obese population in absolute numbers, according to data from the World Health Organization. This is not only because China has the world's biggest population, but also because it has seen proportionately sharp rise in obesity.

In 1980, there were hardly any overweight people in China. By 2005, China already had 18 million people who were obese. By 2009 this number had hit 100 million.

According to a joint research program conducted by China's Academy of Sciences and the University of Northern Carolina, several factors can explain the phenomenon. The first one seems to lie in the cultural aspect: Most Chinese don't regard physical exercise as necessary in improving their life quality. On the contrary, children spend a lot of time sitting in classes while adults commonly work overtime in the hope of boosting their careers.

A survey conducted in 2010 showed that 22 % of Chinese parents believe that their normal-weight children are actually under-weight. Overweight boys are considered as being of strong build. Another statistic also shows that the education level has exactly the opposite effect on male and female adult weight. While few educated women are overweight, Chinese men exhibit a contrary tendency. Some believe that it's due to the fact that many Chinese still believe that to be plump symbolizes being wealthy.

Like in the developed world, television advertising plays a role in people's dietary choices. Adverts of high-calorie, high-protein foods have a disproportionate impact on people's eating habits and in particular on those of youngsters. In addition, as Chinese people get richer, their diet has largely changed. In the past ten years, the consumption of beef has doubled -- and so has the sale of frozen foods that go with the convenient westernized life style. Prepared food generally contains hidden sugar, starch and fat.

Picking up the West's bad eating habits

Meanwhile, western fast food is also conquering Chinese clients. In the eight biggest Chinese cities, 50% of the urban population eats at fast food chain stores. The annual turnover of these chains in China now represents $15 billion. In these eight cities, 21% of the business comes from western-style fast foods, and the majority of their clients are under 25-year-olds.

Consequently, the problem of obesity is much more present among the younger generation: In Beijing and Shanghai, one fifth of the children have been diagnosed by China's Ministry of Health as suffering from clinical obesity.

The scale of obesity in China is going to increase the incidence of obesity-linked diseases, and have a direct impact on China's health care. The rising wave of diabetes will have the most significant consequences of all. According to a WHO estimate, the number of type-2 diabetes sufferers will rise dramatically between now and 2050, making diabetes the disease that consumes most of China's health care resources in the future.

Take a look at the situation in the UK and the U.S. for example. The UK has proportionally the world's third biggest obesity population. According to UK obesity expert Tony Leeds, by 2015 obesity-related health care will cost Britain's National Health System 6.5 billion pounds annually. This does not include the indirect cost -- 27 billion pounds per year -- caused by decreasing productivity. Meanwhile, the United States, with two thirds of its population either overweight or obese, is estimated to spend around $300 billion per year on this problem, taking into account all indirect costs as well as directly attributable medical expenses.

China is on the path to repeating the Anglo-American experience, which has stranded their health systems on a mud bank of high health care costs. The prevalence of diabetes among people of 20 and over in China was 9.7 percent in 2010, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This made it second in the world right after the United States at 10.7 percent. The heavy burden this will bring to China's health care is foreseeable.

*This is a digest item, not a direct translation.

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Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read

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