With fast food and rising affluence, a country only a generation removed from hunger is getting fat. How fat? According to the World Health Organization, the percentage of adults who are overweight and obese rose from rose from 25 percent in 2002 to 38.5 percent in 2010 in a population of 1.37 billion. Urban dwellers account for much of this. WHO projects that 50 to 57 percent of the Chinese population will be too heavy by 2015. (By comparison, 69 percent of Americans age 20 and older are overweight or obese.)
There’s a standing joke, notes Lyn Wren, a physician with International SOS Beijing Clinic, that “Chinese waistlines are growing faster than the GDP.”
Given how impoverished the country was not long ago and how impoverished parts of it still are, “having a problem where people are eating too much — it can seem a little churlish to complain about that,” says Paul French, the Shanghai-based author of “Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation.” French and co-author Matthew Crabbe found that even as recently as five years ago, obesity wasn’t recognized as a problem by health professionals in China.
The Chinese Health Ministry has said it encourages healthful eating programs in schools and the construction of more playgrounds to promote exercise. And the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention makes vague references to “health promotion” and providing “scientific guidance for healthy diets,” but nationwide campaigns about eating healthfully and exercising are not evident.
In fact, pushing the population to lose weight, exercise and cut back on unhealthful foods seems to strike a discordant note to some inside the government, French says. “When I talked to government officials, their argument was: Right now we’re trying to tell them to do and not do a lot of things,” such as not spitting on the street, not dropping trash everywhere and not driving “like complete idiots.”
“They know they can only tell people to do some things... before they get fed up.”
Although the era of famine is long past, many grandparents and parents still push their children to eat a lot.
Setsuko Hosoda, a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, says the parents and grandparents she sees are “always worried that their child is not eating enough.” A 2012 Penn State study of 176 Chinese children ages 6 to 18 found that 72 percent of mothers of overweight children thought their children were normal or underweight.