Weighing China’s Economic Development on the Obesity Scale

By Kelly Ieong

My feelings of wanderlust compelled me to travel alone to China this summer. It was quite the accomplishment. From eating exotic food like insects and pig intestines, to threading my face for one dollar, I can say that this summer was eye opening. I made many observations and learned much about the rich culture in China. The culture their is very different from the United States, that’s a given. But, what I realized was that Chinese culture was conforming towards a more western, globalized culture.

China’s rapid development and massive economic growth for the past three decades are ubiquitous. However, the environmental and health issues that have come with this development are often not as exposed. I vividly recall images of tall majestic mountains, pristine rivers and powerful gorges as I trekked through China. The picturesque landscapes can conceal the environmental damage, however, an obvious implication that is observable is obesity. Obesity is killing America, and China follows suit as it mirrors the United States.

Obesity rates are soaring as the nation becomes wealthier. Researches at the Johns Hopkins University conducted a study in 2011 that revealed 20 percent of the children in China are overweight or obese. In 2004, only two percent of the kids were overweight. The escalating obesity rates are detrimental to the future of China. In Fat China: How Expanding waistlines are Changing a Nation, Paul French pinpointed the cause of obesity to the “developing and generally improving society” (French, 2010). As the nation is wealthier, families are richer, and obesity rates are climbing. Fat is considered affluent in the Chinese culture. In the past, China was scarred with food insecurity that wiped millions of people. Fat people demonstrated that their family was able to provide for them. As a result, chubby husbands and fat babies were considered more appealing. With this mindset, China will take longer to grasp the detrimental effects of obesity.

An article from PBS, Reporter’s Notebook: Obesity on the Rise in China, indicates that changes in social and environmental factors play a huge role in the obesity epidemic. The one-child policy limits each family to just one child. With additional disposable income, there’s more food to go around, and the single little emperor is spoiled by 6 people: 2 parents and 4 grandparents. Changing diets and physical inactivity also triggers this obesity epidemic. During my trip, I was startled to see that there was a KFC on almost every street corner, and KFC opens a new restaurant in China every 18 hours. The rapid expansion of Western fast food chains puts the population at a very high risk of consuming unhealthy meals. Also, meat consumption increased by more than 400% within two decades. Schools do not place an emphasis on physical education. Cultural, social, economic and environmental factors triggered China to join the Western world in the race to the scales. The obesity epidemic in China is yet another cost to the ongoing development, and an expression of the so-called problem of “globesity” spanning the globe.

Obesity will be a severe problem for China. It is a complicated condition because diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension are just some of the diseases that come along with it. Each obesity-related disease requires long-term intervention, hence, it’s expensive. These complications will overwhelm China’s health-care system.  Many will not be able to afford the impending costs. If China does not change its sedentary and glutinous lifestyle, then its future looks daunting. The government has to increase nutrition awareness, and not overlook this issue. This obesity epidemic, fueled by economic development, will ultimately bring the nation to death by affluence. Is the supposedly “developing and generally improving society” of China really improving, or are the ever growing social, environmental, and health problems actually weakening the almighty China?

Kelly Ieong is a first-year student from Cornell’s College of Human Ecology majoring in Human Biology, Health and Society. She is very interested in nutrition and health education.

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