July 8, 2008

Western Ways Making Chinese Fat

By Nanci Hellmich

For centuries, people in China have been fairly lean, but now at least one-fourth of adults there are overweight or obese, a trend starting to take a toll on the country's health care system and economy, says a paper out today in the journal Health Affairs.

In 2006, 26% of the Chinese population weighed too much -- about 275 million people -- compared with 8.8% in 1989, says study author Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition and director of the Obesity Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He bases this on national data from his biennial China Health and Nutrition Survey. Other estimates from 2002 suggest anywhere from 22% to 30% of the Chinese weigh too much.

These percentages are far lower than in the USA, where about 66% of adults are overweight or obese.

People are usually categorized as overweight if they have a body mass index (a number that incorporates height and weight) equal to or greater than 25. That's roughly 1 to 29 pounds over a healthy weight. People are considered obese if they have a BMI of 30 or greater, which is 30 or more pounds too heavy.

A key reason for the skyrocketing incidence of overweight in China is they're adopting a more Western lifestyle, Popkin says. The average Chinese adult has shifted drastically from a diet of grains, beans and vegetables to consuming over half of calories from cooking oils, pork, poultry, beef, mutton, fish and dairy foods. Plus, the Chinese are less physically active than they used to be as more people move into sedentary jobs and buy motor scooters and cars, he says.

As a result, nutrition- and weight-related causes of death such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer are rising and likely to get worse absent major changes, he says.

His analysis of the survey found:

*27.6% of Chinese males were overweight or obese in 2006, up from 6.8% in 1989. That's an increase of 1.2% a year.

*The rate at which adult citizens are becoming overweight is climbing faster in China than in all developing countries except Mexico, and greater than developed nations such as the USA, Australia and Great Britain.

*The prevalence of overweight is greater -- and rising faster -- among the poor and less educated than among higher-income adults.

*The risk of being obese is 80% higher for adults in households that own a motor scooter or car than in those that don't. About 14% of Chinese adults bought a motor scooter or car for the first time between 1989 and 1997.

These changes in lifestyle and diets are having dramatic adverse effects on the health of the Chinese and on world food prices, Popkin says.

China needs to adopt national policies to change this trend or face a dramatic increase in early deaths, disability, absenteeism and medical care costs from weight-related illnesses, he says.