Late last year, China was named the world’s fattest country. Currently 10.8% of men and 14.9% of women, or nearly 90 million citizens, are considered overweight. Looking at young adults and children under 20, the World Food Program notes 23% of boys and 14% of girls are overweight or obese. While much of this is concentrated in China’s wealthier urban centers, rural habits are also creating problems. One study found that in rural Shandong, obesity grew by 1,700% in boys and 1,100% in girls over the past 20 years.
While there is plenty of room for blame, whether that’s fast food consumption, lack of exercise, or spoiling, the consequences are clear and dire. Nutritionally, people in China are now at high risk of diseases previously unknown in the country. For example, the number of Shanghainese children under 14 with diabetes has tripled since 1990. Economic consequences, although we are unable to see them yet, are just as critical. As waistlines expand, the number of healthy working-age people will drop. Obesity will also place a burden on the healthcare system, which will need to inject an additional $155 billion annually to fight the epidemic.
The Government is not ignorant to the plight of its people. The Healthy China 2030 plan aims to promote “health as habit” by increasing health standards among citizens. Food and beverage companies like Yum! are getting behind the measure, but it is obvious to most that they are a major cause of the problem. The plan also lacks any of the fiscal and structural changes the World Health Organization says China needs to make these moves realistic. Chief among these changes are the need for more physical activity in line with healthier eating habits.
Groups like the China Preventive Medicine Association and China Institute of Sports Science are now more aware of obesity issues, but still lack financial capital to make a difference. Given the country’s five year planning cycles, funding is often difficult to come by for emerging issues. Of the $586 billion 2009 stimulus budget, much went to healthcare but nothing was specifically earmarked for obesity prevention. This means the Government is now counting on community-led initiatives to solve a growing problem.
Getting the Private Sector Involved
Private-sector organizations can play a leading role in curbing the obesity epidemic in China. Although Government initiatives and plans are noteworthy in their attempts to address this issue, true capacity for realizing these ambitions is often lacking. The private sector has unique access to intellectual, financial, and infrastructure capital. To make healthy living a reality in China, though, companies should focus on three key things.
First, start smart. The market is already saturated with a number of fitness clubs, health food products, and lifestyle coaches. Unless you have a real niche draw, however, the likelihood of breaking through will be slim. Understand exactly where you can add value (is it access to sporting stars?), what consumers actually want (it’s not more tai chi), and where the market’s heading (think bodybuilding, protein, and personalized service).
Second, start small. Don’t expect consumers to change their bad habits overnight. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people eating carrot cake for breakfast at my local café. To create truly healthy lifestyles, education and playing the long game are going to pay off.
Third, start local. Countering obesity must really translate to holding hands. For those companies looking to make serious change, get into local communities, educate, understand, and guide. Help local government officials meet their targets as well. These bureaucrats are burdened with goals nearly impossible to meet. By helping them, you also put your business in an advantageous position.
It's clear this monumental issue is going to take more than just a few policies and stump speeches. Public-private partnerships, as well as a great deal of willingness on the part of the people themselves, are all going to be necessary to ensure not only the health of China's citizens, but also its economic and social wellbeing.