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With recent history of famine, China now contends with obesity

BEIJING — Older people in China remember the Great Famine of 1958-61, when 15 million to 45 million people died of hunger and related causes.

Today, nearly every street corner in Beijing and many other cities seems to boast a McDonald’s. There are KFC outlets in almost every Chinese city, 3,700 in all. Meanwhile, newly minted members of the Chinese middle class have rushed to buy cars, leaving bicycles that were once a major source of exercise rusting on the street.

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Pizza Hut is considered a fancy date-night restaurant, T.G.I. Friday’s has several branches in Beijing, and cans of Coca-Cola are sold at every corner stand.

With fast food and rising affluence, a country only a generation removed from hunger is getting fat. According to the World Health Organization, the percentage of adults who are overweight and obese rose from 25 percent in 2002 to 38.5 percent in 2010 in a population of 1.37 billion.

Urban dwellers account for much of this. WHO projects that 50 to 57 percent of the Chinese population will be too heavy by 2015. (By comparison, 69 percent of Americans age 20 and older are overweight or obese.)

There is a standing joke, notes Dr. Lyn Wren of International SOS Beijing Clinic, that ‘‘Chinese waistlines are growing faster than the GDP.’’

Given how impoverished the country was not long ago and how impoverished parts of it still are, ‘‘having a problem where people are eating too much — it can seem a little churlish to complain about that,’’ says Paul French, the Shanghai-based author of ‘‘Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation.’’

There is a standing joke that ‘Chinese waistlines are growing faster than the GDP.’

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French and coauthor Matthew Crabbe found that even as recently as five years ago, obesity wasn’t recognized as a problem by health professionals in China.

The Chinese Health Ministry has said it encourages healthful eating programs in schools and the construction of playgrounds to promote exercise.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention makes vague references to ‘‘health promotion’’ and providing ‘‘scientific guidance for healthy diets,’’ but major campaigns about eating healthfully and exercising are not evident.

In fact, pushing the population to lose weight, exercise, and cut back on unhealthful foods seems to strike a discordant note to some inside the government, French says. “Their argument was: Right now we’re trying to tell them to do and not do a lot of things,’’ such as not spitting on the street, not dropping trash everywhere, and not driving ‘‘like complete idiots.’’

Although the era of famine is long past, many grandparents and parents still push their children to eat a lot.

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