LIFESTYLE The Overfed Dragon Once one of the world’s leanest populations, China is now catching up with the West. How did it come to this and what is being done to stop it? By Alex Hoegberg
he Chinese population is internationally known to, on average, be on the slimmer side of the scale. Perhaps this rumor can be stocked up to the countless cabbies and clothes vendors who are quick to comment on their heavier customers’ waistline, or the fact that most clothes in China only fit the tiniest of nonAsian buyers. The chubby West looks at slender China in marvel, wondering if the seemingly magical metabolism is an inherent trait of the Asian ethnicity, or if the secret lies in lifestyle or diet. 16 | that’s China Zhejiang
Well, here's the answer: There is no secret. The myth might have been true once, but it's not anymore. Only a few decades ago, there was hardly enough food to go around, but as the reality of China’s economy changes, so does the average weight of the population. In other words, an improved and rapidly developing economy means that there’s plenty to eat, and the Great Dragon is stuffing himself to his heart’s content. China is getting fat. Obesity, even amongst children, is becoming an increasingly big problem. China’s Ministry of Health says it; the World Health Organization says it; the 47 kg-heavy female graduate complaining about how fat she is says it. The 21st century has given us a fast food culture on the one hand and fat camps and diet pills on the other. Stuck in the middle is a population trying to find a balance between the traditional notion of a tubby body as a sign of wealth, and modern beauty ideals of a slender figure. Before diving into the causes and consequences of the novelty that is ‘chubby Chinese’ it might be useful to define what ‘overweight’ actually is, and how the Chinese situation differs from the West. The international definition of overweight is a body mass index (BMI) between 25-30, obesity begins at 30. In comparison, a BMI below 18.5 is underweight. BMI is a measure of weight relative to height. For example, for a height of 160 cm, 51- 64 kg gives a BMI between 20 and 25. For someone who is 170 cm tall, 58-72 kg would land them a BMI between 20 and 25. (Although, muscle-mass is heavier than body fat, so BMI values aren’t always a correct indicator. A well-built person will, by default, have a higher BMI than your average Joe) There are many disparities between obesity in China and in the West. In the West, obesity is a problem mainly suffered by the lower strata of society. Whereas in China, it’s an issue for the recently wealthy generations that are higher up on the social hierarchy. Urban residents also tend to be more overweight than the rural population (which, again, reflects on the correlation between wealth and weight problems), and the percentage of obese men is much higher than that of women. It’s also worth remembering that although the percentage of overweight Chinese adults is increasing rapidly, it is still nowhere near the percentage of obese adults in the West. Last year, about 38.5% of the total Chinese population aged fifteen or older was overweight or obese, compared to 74% in the same demographic group in the U.S, or 61% in the U.K. Although, compared to some Western countries, the percentage of the population that suffers from a weight problem
The government has chalked the problem up to a low awareness of nutrition and diet, the cultural association between obesity and prosperity, and parents’ tendency to put the emphasis on their children’s schoolwork rather than physical activities
is much lower in China, should the numbers keep rising at this rate, it will be a national health crisis within a few years. For example, in 2005 it was estimated that about 18 million adult Chinese were obese, five years later that number had risen to 100 million. The number of children with weight problems is also rising. Last year the story of Lu Hao a 60 kg (132 lbs) heavy three year old who chugged down three bowls of rice with every meal – was covered by the international media, and became a haunting symbol of China’s out of control weight gain.
What’s the Cause? As is often the case, there is not just one catalyst that can be singled out as the reason behind China’s recent weight-gain. The increasing wealth has changed the conditions of Chinese life, but the change is happening so rapidly that people have simply not adjusted their lifestyles to the new facts at hand.
On one hand, fast food chains have exploded all over the country, and people in general can afford to go to restaurants and order more (high-fat food is still considered a luxury). As a recklessness with money is a sign of prosperity, people sometimes order expensive dishes and then leave the table without finishing or even touching them, just to show that they can (which, in the sense of fighting weight problems, might be a good thing). On the other hand, more and more people have switched the old and trustworthy bike for a car. Manual labour is also something that the higher strata of Chinese society don’t busy themselves with, and an everexpanding number of people belong to that category. Taking your car to-and-from your Chinese toddler Lu Hao has office job, and then between become a symbol of China's your home and the restaurant, worsening obesity problem doesn’t burn many calories. The government has chalked the problem up to a low awareness of nutrition and diet, the cultural association between obesity and prosperity, and parents’ tendency to put the emphasis on their children’s schoolwork rather than physical activities. Amongst children, weight problems are often caused simply by parents over feeding their little ones, and an insufficient amount of physical education in school isn’t helping to reverse the trend. A bit of baby fat is appreciated all over the planet, but especially in China, where occasionally over-protective parents are known to lavish their only child with attention and spoil them any way possible: this causes weight problems that might have long-term consequences. Children tend to grow out of a normal amount of baby fat, but overweight toddlers will simply face a harder time reaching a healthy weight as they get older. that’s China Zhejiang | 17
LIFESTYLE What’s the Harm?
money out of China’s pudgy middle class.
The government isn’t watching the rising rates of pudgy people with a wrinkle on its forehead because it’s concerned about whether or not the population is living up to modern beauty ideals. A weight problem poses a very real danger to ones health, and with obesity-related diseases rising, the cost of treating these diseases is rising as well. The average health of the population is declining as the strain on the nation’s healthcare costs increase.
Here, as in many Western countries, people are seeking fast solutions to their problems. But rather than just treating the symptoms, China’s leadership wishes to take preventive measures and solve the issue at its roots. The Chinese Nutrition Society - working under the Ministry of Health - conducts research, provides education about nutrition, and offers dietary guidelines to help people improve their lifestyles. An ‘Eat Smart at School’ campaign was also launched a few years back, teaching school children about the importance of a healthy diet. Further efforts to increase and improve physical education for students have been attempted.
People with weight problems have a higher risk of contracting a wide range of diseases such as; gallbladder diseases or gallstones, type two diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides (both are types of fat which, in too high levels, can cause other diseases), coronary artery diseases (the build-up of plaque inside the coronary arteries, which can cause chest pains or a heart attack), certain types of cancer, strokes, breathing problems such as sleep apnea (when breathing stops for a short moment during sleep), and liver diseases.
The government also formulated ‘The National Plan of Action for Nutrition in China’, and together with the Chinese Nutrition Society and the Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene at the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine they developed these eight principles for a good diet (below).
It’s time to put the pudgy dragon a treadmill Overweight children and teens often and push for a shift in diet and lifestyle, if suffer from diabetes, and diabetes in this China is to turn from a once impoverished demographic rises about 10% annually. nation to a healthy nation, rather than to just a Other kinds of weight-related diseases tend heavy nation. to manifest themselves later on in life, but maintaining an unhealthy weight in one’s younger years increases the risks of suffering from any such Obesity is affecting both disease later on in life. men and women.
What’s the Solution? While the government is calling for anti-obesity education and a shift in the attitude towards obesity as a sign of prosperity, so called ‘Fat Camps’ are popping up all over the country, where people spend a considerable amount of money for themselves or their children to partake in various weight-losing programs. Weight Watchers, the world’s biggest chain of diet centres, is also making decent
The Chinese Nutrition Society's 8 Tips for a Healthy Diet 1.Eat a variety of foods, with cereals as the staple. 2.Consume plenty of fruits and vegetables. 3.Consume dairy or bean products daily. 4.Consume appropriate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs and lean meat. Reduce fatty meat and animal fat in your diet. 5.Balance food intake with physical activity to maintain a healthy body weight. 6.Choose a light diet that is also low in salt. 7.Drink alcoholic beverages in limited amounts, if at all. 8.Avoid unsanitary and spoiled foods. 18 | that’s China Zhejiang