Obesity Explosion May Weigh on China's Future

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Zhai Fengyian, deputy director of China's National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety in Beijing, says the rate is even higher in major cities.

According to Zhai, in 2002 16.7 percent of school-age boys and 9.6 percent of school-age girls were obese. "In big cities it's a big problem," she said.

Zhai and other experts blame the extra fat on a range of factors, many of them tied to China's rapidly changing economy and culture. (Related: "China's Boom Is Bust for Global Environment, Study Warns" [May 16, 2005].)

The diets of Chinese adults and children are far higher in calorie-laden meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, fats, and sugars than ever before.

In addition, kids—especially city dwellers—are more sedentary today and spend more time indoors in front of homework, television, computer games, and the Internet.

Shuwen Ng is a health economist and doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She says that kids in China now have pocket money, and they spend a sizable portion of it on junk food. Ng adds that advertising and peer groups influence kids' food choices. Certain foods, such as new candies or fast food, have cachet.

China's childhood obesity rate still lags that of the United States, where some 15 percent of kids are said to be obese. But the long-term effects are equally serious.

"These children who are getting obese are really going to be quite debilitated 20 or 30 years later," Popkin, the North Carolina nutrition professor, said.

Excessive weight or obesity increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and certain cancers, among other diseases, and can speed the onset of adult-type diabetes.

"[In] countries like China, diabetes happens already at a younger age than it happens in the U.S.," Popkin said. "And it's going up."

The overall impact on China's economy in direct and indirect costs, such as health care and lower worker productivity, will be "enormous," he said.

"We're talking about a country where about 5 percent of its GNP [gross national product] right now is going for the cost [medical and otherwise] of poor diet, inactivity, and obesity," Popkin said.

Given the blistering pace of China's obesity epidemic, it's only a matter of time before obesity-related spending catches up to that of the United States, which spends 17 to 20 percent of its GNP on related costs, Popkin says.

"What we see is something unprecedented, and we see it happening in 1.3 billion people."

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