Experts blame the Chinese obesity epidemic on lifestyles that include less exercise and increased meat consumption and car use. Today there are 20 million cars on the roads in China; six years ago there were only 6 million. Chinese people also increased their dietary intake of meat from 8 percent in 1982 to 25 percent in 2002, which experts warn could result in an upcoming epidemic of heart disease or diabetes.
"China was once considered to have one of the leanest populations, but it is fast catching up with the west," writes Wu Yangfeng of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. "Disturbingly, this has occurred in a remarkably short time."
Tony Barnett, head of the diabetes and obesity group at Birmingham University in the UK, calls the rise in obesity "incredibly dramatic" and says that part of the problem is "urbanization" in China. "What goes with urbanization is changes in diet and changes in lifestyle, but particularly exercise," says Barnett. "All of the evidence that we have is that it is the reduction of activity that is contributing more, or at least as much, as changes in diet to the epidemic."
China's 2002 national nutrition health survey revealed that 14.7 percent of Chinese people are overweight, with 2.6 percent obese. While those numbers do not compare with U.S. obesity -- where two-thirds of the population is overweight with one-third obese -- Wu says China is catching up quickly. Currently one-fifth of the world's obese people are Chinese.
Wu also says the Chinese cultural attitude that excess body fat represents prosperity and health only makes the obesity problem worse. "This is perhaps a consequence of China's recent history, where famine and chronic malnutrition caused the deaths of millions of people," Wu says.