When I asked my friend living in China about fast food restaurants there, he responded, “they’re constantly packed with young people.” Though most Chinese know that American fast food is unhealthy and leads to weight gain, the growing trendiness of “Western” fast food among young people in China has contributed to its increased consumption. American franchises such as KFC are thriving. In the U.S., the chain amassed 4,618 locations in 61 years. In China, though, KFC boasted 4,260 locations in only 26 years. China now consumes twice as much meat as the U.S., a whopping 71 million tons per year.
Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, intends to open 20,000 restaurants over the “long term,” according to their Web site. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is expanding in China at the rate of 10 new restaurants per week. These alarming figures reveal how much American fast food culture has already permeated China. And with the burgers and fries come a host of public health consequences.
American fast food chains serve consumers Western-style food products: High in saturated fat, simple carbohydrates, and sugar, with a lot of processing and little nutritional density. In contrast, a traditional rural Chinese diet features plant-based protein, low cholesterol, and some dietary fat. As obesity has become an increasingly common public health concern in the U.S. and other countries, research has shown links between consumption of the Western diet and chronic disease.
For example, 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. 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.
China’s youth are particularly at risk for developing chronic disease. Like the U.S., China has seen an increase in weight gain and related chronic health conditions among youth. A 2012 study in Obesity Reviews Journal compared the risk of chronic disease in China to other countries including the U.S.
The researchers found that approximately 12 percent of Chinese children and adolescents aged seven to 18 were overweight and about 1.7 million children under 18 suffered from diabetes. Additionally, the rate of diabetes among Chinese adolescents aged 12 to 18 was about four times that of American teenagers.
Of course, fast food consumption is only one piece of a larger puzzle. Obesity is a result of both biological and environmental factors, including one’s access to and knowledge about healthy food and one’s family traditions around food. What drives someone to eat fast food is complex, and perhaps in China, this drive is amplified by the one-child policy.
As its name implies, the government’s one-child policy requires families to have no more than one child, barring a few exceptions. Single children are called xiao huangdi, which means “little emperors.” In fact, Wikipedia even has a page devoted to “Little Emperor Syndrome.”