msnbc.com news services
updated 8/18/2006 5:58:26 PM ET 2006-08-18T21:58:26

Nearly one in every five of China's more than 1.3 billion people are overweight or obese and the problem is getting worse among children, especially boys, according to a study.

The study, to be published in the Aug. 19 issue of the British Medical Journal, found that 10 million children from the ages of 7 to 18 were overweight in 2000, up 28 times from 1985.

Four million children were obese in that same age group in 2000, four times more than in 1985.

“China was once considered to have one of the leanest populations, but it is fast catching up with the West in terms of the prevalence of overweight and obesity; disturbingly, this transition has occurred in a remarkably short time,” it said.

Fatter world
As China's population of 1.3 billion packs on the pounds, the country could be facing an epidemic of weight-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, which could spell trouble for one of the world's fastest-growing economies. It's projected that China could lose $558 billion over the next decade due to premature deaths from heart disease, stroke and diabetes, according to World Health Organization estimates.

The report on China comes as rising global obesity is being called a greater health concern than hunger. The number of obese people worldwide has surpassed the number suffering from malnutrition, according to a nutrition expert speaking at the International Association of Agricultural Economists conference in Australia earlier this week.

Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, said the transition from "a starving world to an obese one has occurred with dramatic speed" thanks to a global dietary shift away from cereals and grains to animal products and vegetable oils.

There are an estimated 800 million undernourished people and more than a billion considered overweight worldwide. Governments need to develop economic incentives to address the problem, Popkin said.

Comparatively, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, with more than 60 percent of American adults considered overweight or obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. All that extra weight contributes to at least 100,000 premature deaths from heart disease and diabetes each year, experts say. The obesity rate is rapidly increasing among children and adolescents.

In China, nationwide, 215 million people out of a total population of 1.3 billion were found to be either overweight or obese in a national survey in 2002, based on definitions given by the World Health Organization.

Changes in diet
However, the author of the report, Yangfeng Wu of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, thought the figure should be higher because the WHO definitions were designed for Caucasian populations.

According to stricter measurements given by the Working Group on Obesity in China, about 281 million people in China would be regarded as either overweight or obese, he said.

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The study also blamed China’s bulging waistline on changes in the traditional diet, reduced levels of physical activity and increased sedentary lifestyles that are fuelled by the sharp rise in the use of motor vehicles.

Wu wrote that China’s obesity epidemic might be rooted in lax social attitudes towards body fat.

“In Chinese culture, there is still a widespread belief that excess body fat represents health and prosperity,” Wu said.

“This is perhaps a consequence of China’s recent history, where famine and chronic malnutrition caused the deaths of millions of people in the 1950s.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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