By Michele Penna
In China, the economy is not the only thing that is on the rise – obesity is growing fast, too. According to the second edition of the China Obesity Index, the People’s Republic ranks second in the list of countries with the highest number of obese people.
Reporting on the launch of the new edition of the index on Sunday, the People’s Daily wrote: “The country’s obesity rate has skyrocketed over the last three decades, resulting in 46 million Chinese adults who are obese, and 300 million who are overweight.” The problem is most serious in cities, where over 40 percent of adults are overweight.
These results are more of a confirmation of previous findings than a new discovery. Last year, a study published by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation came up with the exact same figures: 300 million Chinese adults are overweight and 46 million are outright obese.
Even earlier, in 2013, China Daily reported that a national survey had found an increase of 2 percent in the number of obese people aged between 20 and 39 as compared to 2010. The survey pointed out that 11 percent of the people in this age group are heavily overweight.
Together with obesity, another threat has intensified in recent years: diabetes. According to a study published by a group of Chinese researchers on the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013, the disease has been on the march throughout recent decades:
The prevalence of diabetes was less than 1 percent in the Chinese population in 1980. In subsequent national surveys conducted in 1994 and 2000-2001, the prevalence of diabetes was 2.5 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively. The most recent national survey in 2007 reported that the prevalence of diabetes was 9.7 percent, representing an estimated 92.4 million adults in China with diabetes. Bottom line: The prevalence of diabetes [..] is now reaching epidemic proportions in China.
Changing eating habits are certainly playing a role in these dynamics. Over the past three decades, as China has shifted from an agricultural to an industrialized society, people have begun to ingest more fats and sugars.
“In China, when per capita income grew fourfold after the economic reforms of the late 1970s, the consumption of high-fat foods soared,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “And while incomes grew, the income needed to purchase a fatty diet decreased. In 1962, a diet containing 20 percent of total energy from fat correlated with a per capita GNP of US$1,475. By 1990, a GNP of just $750 correlated with the same diet.”
To put it simply, it has become cheaper and easier to eat unhealthy foods, as demonstrated by the thousands of food stalls and shops lined up on Chinese streets: from roasted meat to western pastries, from fried chicken to sugary juices, everything is available.
Paradoxically, these issues are the product of a positive development: boosted by breakneck growth, China has become richer and more inclined to enjoy the pleasures of life – which, no doubt, include eating excessive quantities of unhealthy food. Long gone are the days of the Great Leap Forward’s famine and abject poverty – even though the latter survives in some parts of the country and among certain social groups. It is now the age of the new, literally fatter, People’s Republic.