China Gets Big and Slows Down


The old joke is that China’s waistline is growing faster than its GDP.   According to a paper published earlier this year in the medical journal The Lancet, out of 188 countries, China had the fourth largest increase in the number of overweight and obese people.  The South China Morning Post writes:

“In 1980, 5.7 per cent of people under 20 years old in the country were overweight or obese; last year, the number was 18.8 per cent. For adults (20 years and above), China had the 10th biggest absolute change in overweight/obesity prevalence, rising from 11.3 per cent in 1980 to 27.9 per cent last year.”

Research suggests that the rapid collective weight gain and increase in obesity related diseases like diabetes is due to the rise in consumption of Western-style fast food offered by restaurants like McDonald’s (as of 2013, 4,618 locations in China) and KFC (4,260 locations).  However, the average daily calorie intake has actually declined from 2,100 to 2,000 calories between 2002 and 2012.  Since weight gain happens when calories in > calories out, there must have been a decrease in physical activity.  A survey by the State General Administration of Sport ( 国家体育总局  / 國家體育總局) found that more than half of people between the ages of 20 and 39 do not exercise.  Reasons include having no time to exercise and the lack of public facilities.  China’s younger generation, especially, is increasingly less likely to exercise.  Concerned parents may send their children to a weight loss camp or maybe find one for themselves.

The Atlantic‘s CityLab highlights an paper in Preventative Medicine that  suggests that urban design is a factor in how active a person may be.  In a comparison between residents of Shanghai and Hangzhou, Mariela Alfonzo, an assistant research professor at the NYU School of Engineering and a Fulbright scholar found that the walkability of an a neighborhood impacted obesity rates:

“Not only did we find that more walkable places are tied to increased walking and less obesity, but we found that middle-income people are particularly impacted by the type of built environment they live in,” Alfonzo writes in an email. “This runs counter to the finding that higher-income people are the ones that are more likely to be obese. We think it’s actually the middle class, as they are the ones more likely to live in less walkable places, and are the ones that are adopting fast food/Western diets. The higher-income people can afford to live in walkable places and they are more aware of what actually constitutes healthy eating. The lower-income people are also often still living in the center of town (more walkable) just in smaller/run-down units and don’t have access to Western food.”

The article says pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly designs are prohibited by regulations and planning guidelines, but the government might might want to reconsider as it tries to deal with its traffic problem and prepares to move 250 million people from the countryside into cities by 2025.

Image: Sculpture from Beijing’s 798 Art District by Stephanie via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons