Obesity in America vs. obesity in China

Teens from wealthy American families aren't as prone to obesity as their less-affluent counterparts. In China, the opposite is true. Why?

A Chinese man eats at a Burger King in Shanghai in 2005: Obesity levels in China are rising fast, but the epidemic afflicts a different segment of the population than it does in the U.S.
(Image credit: Imaginechina/CORBIS)

Obesity has become a worldwide epidemic, and is a particular concern among children and teenagers because of its association with a lifetime of health problems, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease. A recent study, however, has found that the condition is very different among adolescents in China than among those in the United States. Here, a brief guide:

What did the study find?

In some ways, teenagers in China and in the United States are similar with regard to obesity. Those who sleep fewer hours, and who spend more time in sedentary activities, are more likely to be overweight. But according to the report, published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, that's where the similarities end. In affluent Chinese families with educated parents, teens are more often obese; American teens from those kinds of families are usually less likely to have weight problems. Chinese boys are more likely to be overweight than girls, whereas teen obesity in the U.S. is roughly equal among the sexes. And overweight adolescents in China more often report eating lots of vegetables, consuming relatively few sweets or fast food, and engaging in more physical activity.

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What causes these differences?

China's robust economy is likely a prime factor. Newly prosperous families are now able to buy foods that were unavailable to them just a few years ago. So while teens report eating lots of veggies, they're suspected of also eating larger quantities of many other foods, including deep-fried, fatty meals. Meat consumption has also risen sharply in China; in 1965, meat comprised just 6 percent of the Chinese diet, but in 2005 that figure grew to 27 percent.

How will this affect China?

There's fear of a sharp rise in obesity-related disease among the Chinese. Roughly 25% of Chinese adults are now overweight or obese. (In the United States, about two-thirds of adults share that distinction.) "China is now home to the world’s largest diabetic population, with 23 million diagnosed, up 40 percent from 2001," says Laurie Burkitt at The Wall Street Journal. "The U.S. is home to 20 million diabetics."

Sources: Times of India, UPI, Wall Street Journal

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