Obesity Explosion May Weigh on China's Future

Sean Markey
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2006
During the summer school break, some parents in China's booming financial capital bundled their kids off to the Shanghai Physical Education Institute.

The four-week weight-loss camp, which opened in July, costs about a thousand dollars (U.S.) per child.

Rare in China just a few years ago, similar camps have sprouted in Beijing, Qingdao, Shenzhen, and other cities.

The reason: China is getting fat.

Today about 15 percent of adults, or 200 million Chinese, are reportedly overweight.

Of these, 90 million—about 7 percent—are obese (though China uses a slightly lower threshold for both designations than the UN's World Health Organization does).

By contrast, 30 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (photo gallery: "Heavy Cost of Fat").

Experts say the obesity epidemic is spreading to children, albeit more slowly than in adults. The trend, they say, will have a huge impact on the health of China's citizens and economy.

"We're seeing a very large proportion of children and adolescents who are quite heavy and aren't moving much," said Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Popkin collaborates on an ongoing health-and-nutrition survey of 16,000 households in China. He says more kids today are overeating and putting on weight "quite quickly."

In just ten years China's childhood obesity rate has doubled, with the greatest gains coming in urban areas.

Official figures suggest that, on average, 8.1 percent of kids in urban areas are obese, compared to 3.1 percent in rural areas.

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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