The price of capitalism: China’s obesity rate soars

fat china.jpg

One thing I immediately noticed when I got back to America from Asia was the difference between Chinese and American physiques. Most of the Chinese I knew and met were relatively slender, while America seems to be a sea of fat people (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But alas, it seems it’s now China’s turn to pay the price of progress and capitalism as its people steadily put on the pounds.

The number of obese people in China doubled to 60 million people in the 10 years to 2002 with diseases related to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle also on the rise, the government said.

China’s first comprehensive national survey on diet, nutrition and diseases found that 7.1 percent of Chinese adults were obese and 22.8 percent were overweight, Wang Longde, China’s vice minister of health told a news conference.

An estimated 200 million of China’s population of around 1.3 billion were overweight, Wang said.

“Compared with the nutrition survey results of 1992, the prevalence of being overweight has increased 39 percent and the prevalence of obesity increased 97 percent,” Wang said, warning the problem will get worse.

The good news of the survey is that fewer people in China are hungry, and malnutrition rates have dropped. The obesity problem, not surprisingly, is most severe in China’s urban areas where people are eating more fat and fewer vegetables. Thanks, MacDonalds.

The Discussion: 21 Comments

Ha! Capitalism always wins out in the end, and we will crush any enemies with our McDonalds and our other consumer goods.

Once again, good triumphs over evil.

October 12, 2004 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

The funny this is being told almost on a daily basis by the Chinese that we (Americans, Canadians and so on) eat McDonalds and KFC every day… as the only spoken truth. I don’t know a single person that does (Super Size me guy excluded)…

But I do know quite a fair bit of Chinese that go to KFC twice or thrice a week…. scary! Seeing the fat kids on the streets is mind numbing.

I do wonder if it’s only KFC, McDs and Pizza Hut… Chinese food is not exactly low on colesterol, grease and oil!

October 12, 2004 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

I blame it more on cars and elevators than on fat. If I’m on the same routine as my chinese colleagues, I walk 2-3 miles and climb 12-20 flights of stairs everyday. Once a guy gets his high-rise office, a flat in an elevator building, and the Benz, he’s burning prob’ly 1,000 calories less per day.

My scientific sample of one: When Lily moved to the US and got her first-ever car, the first thing she did was gain 15 pounds–still cooking Chinese at home everyday (probably with less fat, since I detest it).

October 13, 2004 @ 12:05 am | Comment

One thing I really noticed when I returned to the US this summer was the immense amount of obese people, and no where was this more evident than walking in Walmart. I used to say that this wasn’t true, but alas, it’s true–we are a nation of lard butts. On the other hand, I don’t exactly see Chinese people as the epitome of good health either, and certainly the prolifferation of KFC and McDonalds goes a long way to contributing to that, but my point is that a lot of Chinese smoke like walking furnaces and generally what little exercise they get, isn’t that strenous. Still Americans outweigh them in the fat department. I am sure in the future some enterprising young entrepreneur can see the demand for civet cats and possibly start marketing their meat into a chain here in China–this could spell doom for the KFCs and McDonalds.

October 13, 2004 @ 12:35 am | Comment

…and civet cats are probably less fattening than beef!

Seriously, “lard-ass nation” I hate to admit it. There are beefy folk in Texas, but the rotund giants in Minneapolis scared me on a stopover there last year. They’re tall AND fat. Ever been to Cincinnati? The city mascot is the pig, and if you haven’t been there, you’d think it was chosen after the four-footed animal. I’ve seen whole families waddling through a restaurant, like little pink penguins with their arms out to the side because they can’t hang straight down.

October 13, 2004 @ 1:37 am | Comment

I tend to agree with Sam on this one.

Once cars come into the equation, the sedentary lifestyle sees no bounds. In Hangzhou, I’ve seen people drive across the street to get to work. No joke.

October 13, 2004 @ 4:23 am | Comment

When I was studying at the Beijing Normal University several years ago, I remember running into these incredibly fat ‘little emperors’ around the Beijing Normal Experimental Kindergarten, which was an extremely expensive private kindergarten.

I would run into these kids all the time while trying to get lunch at the little dumpy roadside stalls. One time, this particularly fat boy started to cry and throw a fit when the vendor gave me my egg-cake first even though I got there before him. Oh God, I wanted to slap him so hard that his Benz-driving senior-CCP official father would wish he was never born.

October 13, 2004 @ 6:26 am | Comment

I can’t say anything about America, never having been there, but I can agree with what’s said about China, especially Beijing. Even out here in the less developed suburbs I’m seeing almost as much fat as I would back in New Zealand. Almost as much fat, but these people are smaller than your average Kiwi, so it seems (from my decidedly unscientific point of view) that it works out even in that respect.

But what must be remembered is that China’s development so far has been seriously uneven. When I moved to Beijing from Taiyuan (500-odd km to the southwest of Beijing) I was shocked. I looked around and thought, “My God, women here actually have breasts and hips!” While some people are seriously overfed, others aren’t getting enough.

October 13, 2004 @ 7:53 am | Comment

Three simple words. Reform Through Labour. That ought to cut down on the bourgeois fatties. Seriously, a mandatory weekend stint hoeing vegetables all day long in the hinterlands would probably do a lot of good for some people. I seem to remember even reading something akin to this some time ago about obesity in China. Someone had allegedly started a weight loss club/labour camp and people were enrolling into it voluntarily to shed the pounds.

October 13, 2004 @ 9:35 am | Comment

It’s surely no coincidence that the European country with the highest incidence of obesity is the U.K. — which also happens be the most car-dependent nation in Europe.

And — just to fan the flames a bit — whenever I see a really fat person here in Amsterdam, I always assume it’s an English-speaking tourist. And I’m very rarely wrong.

October 13, 2004 @ 10:33 am | Comment

Hey Richard: You state that “America seems to be a sea of fat people (not that there’s anything wrong with that)” and immediately after exclaim “(b)ut alas, it seems it’s now China’s turn…”. If there’s nothing wrong, why the alas?

October 13, 2004 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

Keir, it was a joke, a play on a line from Seinfeld. I wanted to make it clear that it’s no shame to be overweight, and obese people shouldn’t be stigmatized. That said, my sympathy diminished when I watch fat people eating ice cream and potato chips like there’s no tomorrow.

October 13, 2004 @ 5:02 pm | Comment

Asia by Blog

Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Please send me an email if you would like to be notified of new editions. Previous editions ca…

October 14, 2004 @ 12:25 am | Comment

ACB, I’m not so sure about your generalisation of the Chinese. Out in my partner’s village the food is as high in fat and salt as any home-cooked northern Chinese meal, but my in-laws aren’t fat (and my partner cooks me some pretty damn good, if slightly salty, meals- I’m not gaining weight yet, despite her best attempts).

I already mentioned Taiyuan, where the relatively poor quality food and heavy pollution, not to mention the generally under-developed state of the economy, all seem to combine to make Taiyuanren rather thinner and less, umm, ‘physically developed’ than Beijingers.

I would say what you wrote about ‘the Chinese’ only applies to those with enough affluence to become as fat and lazy as your average anglo-saxon (trust me, New Zealand isn’t far behind the US, UK and Australia in the fat stakes). Those with that level of affluence tend to be concentrated in the bigger/more developed cities of the east. If you limit your statement to those parameters, I agree wholeheartedly.

Having said that, I recently found an article at Nation Acts to Resolve Nutrition Imbalance, which includes this statement: “Poverty is not the only problem in the countryside; cases of mothers selling eggs at the market in order to buy sugar or chocolate for their children have been recorded, as well as high levels of vitamin A deficiency despite the ready availability of carrots.”

It’s not just capitalism. China’s education system needs a bit of work, too.

Huh. Contradicted myself.

October 14, 2004 @ 4:32 am | Comment

NOTE FROM RICHARD: I accidentally deleted ACB’s comment while clearing out spam comments, and I’m restoring it here — sorry]

China’s problem come from those three nasty little words on the
ingredients label, Fat, Salt and Sugar.

The Chinese motabalism isn’t used to these things, and the people
aren’t used to controlling them in their diet.

China is eating more and more processed food, be it from a US chians or
from home grown instant food, Chinese people are ALWAYS snacking
between meals and are snacking on unhealthy food.

They don’t realise that even though they are eating what they think is
a normal amount of food (enough to fill them up), they are cramming
themselves full of the most incidious imports from the west.

Salt hardens the arteries, fat clogs the arteries and packs on the
kilos and sugar is easier to burn than carbs, so they start storing the
carbs and fat and burning the sugar.

Tie this in with children spending 10 hours at a school desk, and even
more when they get home, and adults sitting at office desks and then in
front of a pirate movies or two later on, and you’ve got a nation that
is not exercising, not working in a physically demanding job, and is
eating badly.


I would disagree with you a little on why the UK is the fat capital of
Europe. The UK has a shockingly high rate of single parent and working
families, the number of families with one parent who works or two full
time working parents is pretty horendous, and this means that more and
more mothers are feeding their kids, and themselves, on junk food.

Children are eating microwave/oven meals, grilled diners and then
snacking between meals on candy bars rather than eating home cooked food
because parents don’t have the time or the energy to cook good food, and
as we all know, processed food is VERY high in salt, sugar and fat. This
makes them obese.

Itally, France, Germany etc all have lower incidents of full time
working familes and a culture of home cooking, and their obesity level is
much lower. The Spnish are reputedly some of the laziest people in Europe
(Sorry, but that’s how many people see Spain), yet they always have
time for health eating, and they are pretty trim.

Take Japan, the consumption of fast food in a city like Tokyo is quite
high especially among teenagers, but it is tempered by a culture of
home cooking in the evenings and at lunch. People are suffering from pile
more and heart desease is on the rise (I blaim this on people drinking
coffee and cola instead of traditional tea), but the level of obesity
is low because there are so many housewives preparing healthy food in
the home rather than instant food and who have the time to teach their
children about nutrition and a healthy life.

Cars don’t make people fat, people without cars take the bus or the
train instead, they don’t walk.

Japan is transport dependant, people only walk to the train station and
little further, and then sit in the office all day, I know that I have
spent hours on the train, and it’s just as unhealthy as being in a car,
and Japan doesn’t have a sporting culture like Britain to burn off the
pounds at the weekend, yet the fat level is far lower than in Britain

October 14, 2004 @ 7:55 am | Comment

Quick question: Do restaurants in Beijing cook with lard? Thanks in advance.

January 30, 2005 @ 12:40 am | Comment

No, usually vegetable oil (peanut and others).

January 30, 2005 @ 10:29 am | Comment

I am from the #1 obese city in America, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the problem i see is all these inventions that are supposed to make weight loss easy, no one wants to work. You have to work to get to whats good.

May 9, 2005 @ 7:51 am | Comment

I think that our country is too fat and yes we need to loose a lot of weight. China doesn’t have all of the fattening restaurants and fast food places we have. Basically,we have no choice but to be fat.

April 26, 2006 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

There is no doubt that the Chinese are eating more U.S. fast food, but Chinese food is definitely as bad – if not worse – in terms of oil, MSG, salt and fat.

It annoys me when Chinese people blame their burgeoning waistlines on McD’s etc, While low grade rubbish, U.S. fast food is not the root cause or even close. Its the increasing amounts of food being consumed, especially meat and snacks. Vaara – the Chinese aren’t used to salt and fat? Are you serious?

In China the fatties are the rich people, the poor are slim. In the U.K. the reverse is true because while the Chinese mention the ‘bosses gut’ sometimes with pride, the more affluent in England are able to make and afford more healthy lifestyle choises.

Of the foreigners I know, Americans and Canadians definitely have the worst eating habits and are the fattest – especially the girls.
C’mon N. American/Canadian tubsters – you make the Chinese think we’re all lardies. It’s embarrassing watching you waddle down the street.

Many western girls complain that western men prefer Chinese girls. Indeed, it does follow that on a superficial first-sight basis only, most men would choose a slim looking (but surprisingly doughy/high in visceral body fat) Chinese girl than a fat looking (obviously doughy/high in visceral and subcutaneous fat) western girl.

Fat people piss me off as much as the excuses that are made for why people are fat.

October 6, 2006 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

i do agree with the price of meat, however i do feel that bush meat (eg monkey) is not for the faint hearted. but if you feel like killing your own dog and eating it, do it infront of of your first born child and serve it to him on his birthday. that reminds me of a story concerning a young boy who got raped by a certain young fellow called mr bibby

all right josh R n B ur now famous
if you ahve any fan maill please send to the following adress (you 2 are the best @ i love you . love

ps hate mail will be rejected and you WILL be tracked down and killed in a horrific in humanic way…!”£%£$%^*”£^

pps if you want a signed pic of us please send some cow sperm in a stamped adressed evnvolope adressed to Bunbury School.
it will be put into good use (involveing some unsuspecting chikens and gerbles)

October 11, 2006 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

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