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Obesity Seen as Serious Problem for Asian Youth - 2004-04-16


Obesity is becoming a problem for Asia's urban youth, particularly in China and Hong Kong where overweight children may be twice as likely to develop diabetes than fat children in the west.

A Hong Kong teenager, heading into a local branch of the fast food chain, McDonald's says he always opts to pay a few cents more for a much larger portion - an option known as super-sizing - in McDonald's outlets.

McDonald's is phasing out super-sizing in the United States to answer consumer demand for lighter meals as they try to lose weight.

But in Asia, fast and plentiful food, along with more sedentary lives, is contributing to sharp increases in obesity and obesity-related disease like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Edmund Li, a nutritionist with Hong Kong University, says a good example are urban Chinese who sit all day in offices then take rapid transport instead of walking.

"It's just not hamburgers and French fries which has to be blamed,"he said. "A lot of the traditional [Chinese] foods are actually very high in fat. One of the many factors is the increase in the availability in food and also the decrease in energy expenditure"

Dr. Li says that in some Chinese cities, where incomes have risen quickly, up to 30 percent of children and young adults are overweight.

He says this is a pressing problem because research from the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows overweight Chinese in Hong Kong are twice as likely to develop diabetes as overweight people in the West.

He says that while a third of the population is overweight, eight percent have diabetes.

Dr. Li says one problem in Asia is how to measure who is obese. Obesity is most commonly measured by body mass index, or BMI, a formula that calculates height over weight squared.

Dr. Li says that in the West, a BMI of 25 and above denotes a person who is overweight, but that a different standard should be in place for Asians.

"The current thinking is that there should be an ethnic factor built into it and therefore for Asians the cut-off should be lower," said Dr. Li. "It [the BMI] would be somewhere between 23 to 24."

Dr. Li says the criteria used to show a typical European or American is too fat should not be used on all Chinese, which may have smaller body proportions than most Westerners.