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Obesity equals affluence in modern China
Toronto Globe and Mail


July 06, 2005

BEIJING - At a McDonald's restaurant in central Beijing, a 42-year-old insurance agent is scarfing down a Big Mac. The remains of his meal are scattered around him: a box of fried chicken wings, a carton of French fries and a large cup of cola, in addition to the large hamburger.

"My family and friends ask me to lose weight, but I don't care," says the insurance agent, named Li, who is 5-foot-10 and weighs about 200 pounds.

"I love meat of any kind," he says. "We have an old saying: 'Eating is good fortune.' Only those in a hospital or the coffin are not eating."

In China these days, it is increasingly those with a fast-food diet who end up in the hospital or the coffin. Obesity and diabetes - the diseases of affluence - are rising dramatically in China, and medical experts are warning that 200 million Chinese could be dangerously obese within a decade.

As recently as 1992, there were only 30 million obese people in China, measured by standard medical criteria. But the number doubled to 60 million between 1992 and 2002, and is increasing even faster.

Today, the obesity epidemic has reached 90 million people - and the number is projected to more than double again in the next decade if current trends continue.

The country that was once known as the "bicycle kingdom" is quickly becoming the kingdom of the couch potatoes. Millions of urban dwellers are living a sedentary lifestyle, dominated by computers, television, the Internet, video games, DVDs and cellphones. Instead of bicycling to work, they are driving cars or riding on new subways. The traditional diet of grains and vegetables is being replaced by a Western-style diet of fatty processed foods.

"Many Chinese still cling to the traditional concept that affluence can be measured by the volume of food available," state television commented recently. "The more food, the better. Nobody wants to upset a host by leaving too much food on the table. Most Chinese see a well-fed child as a sign of health and wealth."

The obesity rate among children is soaring. Under the policy that restricts urban families to a single child, children are often pampered as "little emperors" who can eat whatever they want. In Shanghai, more than 15 per cent of primary school children are obese. The number of obese children across China is rising by 8 percent a year.

Painful memories of the 1960s - when famine and food-rationing were common in many parts of China - may be one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic today.

"When the older generation was young, the living conditions were bad and there wasn't much variety of food," said Deng Aimen, a senior hospital official and physician in Guangdong province in southern China.

"They couldn't eat well when they were young. So when their children want to go to McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken, the parents try to satisfy their wishes. As their financial situation improves, they eat without control."

Not surprisingly, the rate of diabetes is skyrocketing. Almost 3 percent of Chinese adults have diabetes today, compared with less than 1 percent in 1979, before the economic boom began. In the biggest cities, the diabetes rate is more than 6 percent, and in Shanghai the rate is almost 10 percent. It's one of the world's highest growth rates for diabetes. In poorer rural areas, diabetes and obesity are much less common. Most of the 800 million people in China's rural regions are still engaged in physical labor, and few can afford cars. Less than 5 percent of the rural population is overweight. Malnutrition still exists in many rural regions - a stark contrast to the obesity in the cities, and a reminder of the rising problem of inequality within China.

The traditional Chinese notion of plumpness as a sign of affluence, however, is gradually changing. Among many young Chinese people, slimness has become an obsession. In a recent survey of more than 3,800 young people by China Youth Daily, about 70 percent said they wanted to lose weight.

"Obesity has taken the place of famine as one of China's top concerns," the state news agency Xinhua concluded.

Ren Jian, a 29-year-old computer engineer, says he would like to lose 50 pounds. He is 5-foot-11 and weighs about 220 pounds. He loves to eat spareribs - the more, the better - and usually eats half a kilogram of rice and other food at every meal. He says he simply lacks the discipline to go on a diet.

"I know there are many diseases caused by obesity - hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions," Ren says. "When I think about this, I can't help feeling worried and sad. But soon the feeling disappears. I know I won't spend any effort on dieting. It would make me too miserable."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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