Along with their economic growth and introduction to the Western diet (aka, fast food), the Chinese now have reported the highest rate of diabetes and prediabetes in the world: more than 600 million strong, a number almost twice the entire population of the U.S.(313.9 million).
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly 114 million Chinese have diabetes and another 493 million have prediabetes (a condition in which blood sugars are consistently elevated, signaling the potential risk for diabetes). That equals 11.6% of the adult Chinese population, a startling number. Even more alarming is the fact that Chinese are contracting the disease at a much younger age and body mass index than what is typically seen elsewhere.
Over the past decade, China’s outsize economic growth has created a mass migration to the cities and better paying jobs in industry, and a move away from the traditional agrarian lifestyle. This has caused a massive change in diet and activity level. China’s Ministry Of Health reports that the leading causes of death in China used to be infectious diseases and diet-related deficiencies. Now they’re hypertension and obesity.
“China now…has the largest absolute disease burden of diabetes in the world,” wrote study authors led by Guang Ning at the National Health and Family Planning Commission. “Poor nutrition in utero and early life combined with over-nutrition in later life may contribute to the accelerated epidemic… These data document a rapid increase in diabetes in the Chinese population…with the potential for a major epidemic of diabetes-related complications, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease.”
Is fast food to blame for Chinese obesity and diabetes?
According to Dr. Tsung Cheng at George Washington University Medical Center, “fast food and physical inactivity” are the two most important factors fueling childhood obesity in China. Fast food alone didn’t directly cause the spike in diabetes rates, but it sure helped. Consider that no Western fast food enterprises existed in China until 1987, when the first KFC opened its doors (it’s parent company Yum Brands, which includes Pizza Hut, operates more than 6,000 restaurants in China). At that time, the incidence of diabetes hovered around 1 percent. By 1994 that rate had climbed to 2.5 percent, and eventually to the most recent figure. KFC now operates more than 4200 restaurants in China (and 4600 in the U.S., which took 61 years to amass). McDonald’s is building 10 new restaurants every week in China.
It should come as no surprise that a study conducted at the German Institute of Human Health found a link between weight gain and consumption of a Western diet high in processed meats, refined grains, sugar, and potatoes. A 2012 study published in the journal Circulation found that Chinese men and women who consume Western fast food more than twice a week were at higher risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But fast food consumption is only one part of the big picture. Biological and environmental factors both contribute, including access to and knowledge of healthy food and family traditions around food. Juliana Chan, a professor of medicine and therapeutics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said, “Rapid lifestyle changes in China have caused rising trends in obesity, and that is now bringing out the abnormality of a people biologically more vulnerable to diabetes.”
Facts about the Chinese obesity and diabetes epidemic
- In Chinese surveys, the incidence of diabetes in 1980 was less than 1 percent; in 1994, 2.5 percent; in 2001, 5.5 percent, and in 2007, 9.7 percent. Today, 11.6 percent
- Prediabetes is present in 40 percent of adults ages 18 to 29, and 47 percent of adults 30 to 39
- 12 percent of Chinese children and adolescents are overweight and the rate of diabetes in this age group is about four times that of American teens
- 1.7 million children under 18 have diabetes