In China, Higher Income Versus Better Health

A version of this article initially appeared in China Daily on November 02, 2012.

There are an estimated 100 million cars on China's roads. (China Whisper)

China's economic growth has led to dramatic changes over the last 20 years. Cities such as Beijing are home to some of the wealthiest people in the world, there are an estimated 100 million cars in the country, and perhaps most dramatically, Chinese people consume more meat, dairy products, processed foods and sugary beverages than ever before.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the period between 1990 and 2009 saw a decline in per capita consumption of cereals, roots, beans and pulses. During the same period, however, the per capita consumption of cheese doubled, that of egg almost tripled, chicken quadrupled, and beef increased nearly five-fold.

This nutrition transition, or the increased consumption of animal protein and foods with higher fat content, is common in developing and emerging countries. As the middle class grows and people have more disposable income, they tend to eat higher up on the food chain. But the over-consumption of fast food, dairy products and meat can have serious consequences on health. There are now more than 4,000 KFC and 1,400 McDonald's outlets in China.

Loading up on hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza and other high-fat food can lead to heart disease, obesity and type II diabetes. Roughly 92 million people in China suffer from type II diabetes, a disease that was nearly unknown in the country until recently. China has 30 million more type II diabetics than India, the world's next most populous country.

A 2010 study by the Columbia University Medical Center estimates that heart disease and stroke rates in China will increase by up to 73 percent by 2030. "China's standard of living and life expectancy have improved but aging, dietary changes and reduced physical activity are leading to more heart disease and stroke," says Andrew Moran, the lead author of the study. In addition, according to the report, a 64 percent increase (3.4 million cases) in deaths related to coronary heart disease is expected between 2020 and 2030.

The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition's double pyramid model for healthier diets and healthier environments. (Click to enlarge)

China's shift to a high-meat diet has a grave impact on the environment, too. The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition's "double pyramid" model shows how less healthy foods, including meat, dairy products and high-fat oils, can take a huge toll on natural resources, leading to land degradation, soil erosion and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial animal production, or factory farming, in China has generated large amounts of manure, leading to dead zones along the country's coast.

Besides, food waste is growing in China. Restaurants and consumers throw away an estimated 60 million tons of food per year - enough to feed 200 million people, or 15 percent of China's population. Because many cities and towns are not equipped to process such large amounts of waste, food waste ends up in landfills contributing to methane emissions.

Though there is much progress to be made, several existing initiatives provide insight to into how school programs can tackle poor eating behavior early on. Teaching children, for example, starting in kindergarten about healthy eating choices can curb childhood obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The Dandelion School in Beijing has partnered with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to run a successful micronutrient intervention program for poor migrant youths. The center has also set up the National Initiative of Healthy Lifestyle for All to coordinate salt-reduction programs in Chinese households in order to inform people about the long-term risks of high salt consumption.

China has an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that its economic development does not come at the expense of environmental and public health. It is crucial that local and national programs are established to promote healthy eating habits among consumers. Otherwise, the food system will bite back.

 Danielle Nierenberg and Hitesh Pant| November 02, 2012

Homepage image: The changing face of China resembles something we've seen before. (Arabian Gazette)

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