Around 341m of China's 1.4bn people are overweight, according to figures published in The Lancet, with the figure apparently “skyrocketing”. Currently, 45m are considered obese—a figure only surpassed by the United States.
Just as concerning, it appears that the rate of growth in the number of Chinese with obesity issues is outpacing China’s economic growth.
China’s GDP increased from $2.75tn in 2005 to $4.99tn in 2009. At the same time, the number of obese people grew from 18m to 100m—beyond a factor of five.
This rise has been blamed on China’s growing trend for Western products and the wide availability of sugary, processed and fast foods.
Eating healthily is becoming an expensive luxury in places like China, where the price of green vegetables has doubled over the past 20 years, said agricultural economist Steve Wiggins of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think tank, which has released a report on the cost of healthy eating in the developing world.
Conversely, the cost of ultra-processed ready-to-eat meals dropped by up to 20%.
The economists behind the study conceded that they could not explain why fruit and vegetable prices had been rising.
Though processed food is getting cheaper because industrial conglomerates have become more efficient in taking cheap ingredients and turning them into food that is “tasty but high in fat, energy, sugar and salt,” said Wiggins.
A lack of exercise, less physical activity and the perception of a fuller body figure as a sign of wealth also compound China's problem.
China’s nutritional transformation suggests the country is following the unhealthy eating trends of the UK and the US. In Britain, the price of an ice-cream halved between 1980 and 2012, for example, whereas that of fresh green vegetables tripled.
To address this fast emerging divide between healthy and processed foods, the report advocated imposing a health tax on processed foods.
“The policy implications are clear,” said Wiggins. “Governments should start using taxes and subsidies to nudge people toward a healthier diet.”
The report cited one British study suggesting that if revenue from a 17.5% sales tax on unhealthy foods were used to subsidise fruit and vegetables, about 6,400 premature deaths a year from heart disease and cancer could be averted.
That, for comparison, is more than three times the number of people who die in road accidents in Britain each year.
China's child obesity rate now stands at 12%. Beijing is home to the greatest number of obese in the country, with almost half of residents having obesity issues.