Thursday, 13 January 2011
Expanding Waistlines = Exploding Health Issues
Paul French is the co-author of Fat China, which talks about the impending health issues China will have to face in the coming generations mostly because of the lifestyles of young people in urban areas.
When you think about it, he says, the country has gone from famine to gluttony in two generations.
And with that comes a wealth deficit of health issues like diabetes, hypertension and cardiac arrest.
From 1927-1949 Chinese people got taller mostly due to diet.
After the establishment of the PRC, people got smaller again mostly due to political upheavals that led to famines.
It wasn't until the last few years that the Chinese are getting taller again. Not only that but shoe sizes are getting bigger as well as bra sizes and the latter isn't because of plastic surgery, French says.
He showed a power point presentation filled with lots of numbers:
In 1982, 7 percent of the population was already obese, mostly in southern China. Ten years later it doubled to 15 percent, or 30 million people. In 2002, it jumped to 22.8 percent or 200 million and last year it was estimated the number of obese in China was 190-200 million.
The frightening thing is that preteens are getting diabetes, mostly young girls with onset diabetes.
Eight percent of the population between three and six years old are obese. Ten percent of urban kids are obese, and this is increasing at 8 percent a year.
French boils this down to many factors. The first is the "six pocket syndrome". Due to the one child policy, the two sets of grandparents and the parents all spoil the child rotten. On top of that kids in China are legally not supposed to work until they get out of school. As a result they don't have the concept of having a job on the weekends, or delivering the newspaper or newspaper. There are adults who do all that. And so some $392 on average are spent on a child every year.
He also says the rate or urbanization is parallel to the rate of obesity. Beijing has the fattest people in China at 60 percent.
There is also the factor of people not going to wet markets anymore and preferring instead to go to hypermarkets and convenience stores to buy their food, most of which is processed foods, as they don't have time to cook.
While the retail sales of sugar has actually gone down, the overall consumption of sugar has gone up from eating foods with more sugar in them, such as fast foods, soft drinks and candy.
French points out Chinese food isn't necessarily healthier than western food. For breakfast many people eat youtiao, or deep-fried dough sticks with soy milk. And did you know that eating a hot pot meal is the calorie equivalent of three-and-a-half Big Macs?
The other problem is there is no emphasis on sports in schools. Parents would rather their child study more than run around the field. And if there is a field, sometimes it's sold to a developer to build a luxury apartment building; or, no one is allowed to go on it because there is no budget for maintaining it. How ornamental.
He cites the complaint that Shanghai doesn't have any room to build playing fields. "But Shanghai has 18 golf courses," he points out, saying they are more of a waste of space. Some priorities are not in the right order.
The problem with obesity especially for girls is that while it's cute for them to be pudgy when they are young, but when they become teenagers they are then suddenly expected to be stick thin, leading to lots of image problems and self esteem issues. A lot of money is spent on diet pills, but these diuretics are not regulated nor are they good for your health.
French also goes on to say that while there hasn't been much research done on bulimia and anorexia, there are reports that boys are undernourished because they have been eating junk food all their lives and won't eat properly.
Meanwhile the Chinese health system is not ready to cope with this onslaught of people being diagnosed as diabetics. It's not one of those conditions where you take some medication and are well again -- it's about having to take insulin for the rest of your life. And who is going to pay for that? At this rate, China's health system would have to triple its budget to deal with this.
The other horrific thing is that the government is not educating its people on what they should and shouldn't eat. It feels that it has forced so many messages down people's throats that it doesn't want to interfere with people's consumption decisions. The recent announcement that China would not ban indoor smoking is another. The government has decided it cannot push too far otherwise the people may push back angrily enough to topple them over and it's not a risk it wants to take.
But on the other hand the government will be left with spoiled diabetic brats who will have to monitor their blood sugar levels and take insulin everyday for the rest of their lives. Sounds like the lesser of two evils, but really, if the government wants to look like it really does care for the people, it should suggest healthier lifestyles.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are probably watching and waiting to pounce on a new market that is on the edge of exploding.