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Obesity may be China's new scourge By Till Faehnders

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday January 18, 2007

By Till Faehnders, Shanghai- One of China's biggest internet celebrities is famous for his round and rosy-cheeked face. Qian Zhijun, 19, weighs more than 100 kilograms, hails from Shanghai, and is known throughout the country under his nickname Xiao Pang, which translates as "little fatty."

Qian's signature chubby cheeks have been distributed millions of times over China's internet, replacing Tom Hanks' image on a poster for the movie The Da Vinci Code and Johnny Depp's face for Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as icons such as Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe.

The popularity of the involuntarily famous teenager is a sign of China's zeitgeist.

The Chinese, traditionally seen as slim and trim, are increasingly confronted by the sight of pudgy fellow citizens.

Some 60 million Chinese are considered overweight today, about as many as the whole population of France, China's official news agency Xinhua reported recently.

Obesity primarily afflicts males, with one in three adult men being overweight.

An estimated 9.3 per cent of males between 20 and 59 years old are considered obese, while as many as 11.7 per cent of males in the age bracket between 40 and 59 years are similarly beefy, according to a sports authority survey of 245,035 people last year.

However, the Chinese are still in better shape compared to their counterparts in rich western countries.

In the US, 30 per cent of adults 20 years of age and older- over 60 million people - are obese, according to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

China's weight problem is quickly catching up, since 2000, the number of overweight people between the ages of 20 and 59 increased by a staggering 22 per cent, the China Daily newspaper reported.

And, for urban teens like Xiao Pang, the overweight rate is 13.25 per cent for boys and 8.72 per cent for girls.

The underlying reason is primarily attributed to the adoption of Western lifestyles, due to the newly acquired wealth of many Chinese.

China's overweight primarily live in cities along the developed eastern seaboard where lifestyles have fundamentally changed over the past two decades.

Instead of steamed rice and cabbage, the contemporary diet increasingly features meat dishes and fast food.

"A growing number of Chinese are eating more animal fats and fast foods and less cereals and vegetables," said Pan Beilei, deputy director of the governmental Committee for Nutrition.

Furthermore, China's citizens have decreased their physical activity, preferring to drive in their cars instead of walking, using an elevator instead of ascending steps, and loathing any menial labour, according to Yang Guiran, director of the sports department of the Education Ministry.

Increasing plumpness amongst the general population, however, is also having a negative impact on the health of Chinese.

The number of diabetic cases has skyrocketed, with more than 23.8 million diabetics recorded in 2003 and, according to estimates of the International Diabetes Foundation, this figure may well double by the year 2025.

Another issue is the increasing number of people suffering from high blood pressure as some 160 million Chinese were diagnosed with the condition in 2005.

However, Chinese carrying extra pounds still have the advantage of a traditional notion that a well-nourished body is considered a sign of well-being and health, a legacy of the devastating famines that afflicted the country in the past.

This might be one reason why Xiao Pang has become so popular in China, although he admitted that he was initially irritated by the circus over his super-imposed image.

But now the manipulated pictures bearing his face please him.

"I like it when they mount my head on heroes like Russell Crowe," he was quoted as saying by China Daily.

Qian, an intern at a gas station, is now intent on pursuing a career in the entertainment business.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency