Chinese grapple with obesity, herbs not a solution

obesity in chinaUnhappy with her weight, Charmaine Tong decided two years ago to try a slimming tea, which supposedly contained only traditional Chinese herbs.

She was overjoyed when she lost her appetite and the bathroom scales began dipping, but her happiness vanished when she began suffering a racing heart beat a month later.

"I chose Chinese medicine as I thought it wouldn't have chemicals and would have fewer side effects, but my heart went out of control," said Tong, a marketing executive in Hong Kong.

She stopped drinking the tea at once, and has since regained the seven pounds she lost, and more.

Pills and teas purporting to "melt away body fat" and help shed unwanted pounds are sold widely across Hong Kong.

Growing affluence, a penchant for eating and a sedentary lifestyle have swollen the ranks of people who are overweight or obese in Hong Kong and China, doctors say.

Thirty percent of Hong Kong's nearly 7 million people are overweight, double the figure 10 years ago, local doctors say.

In China, nearly one in every five Chinese are overweight and there are now at least 60 million Chinese who are obese, according to the British Medical Journal.

It also found that 10 million children from the ages of 7 to 18 were overweight in 2000 in China, 28 times more than in 1985. A further four million were obese.

Obesity and overweight are major risk factors for serious chronic diseases -- such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, and certain forms of cancer -- which caused 60 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2005.

"What we are seeing in our part of the world are people coming in with heart attacks at 40, strokes at 40-ish, kidney problems at 40-ish. Many of these are young mothers still looking after kids and many are breadwinners for the family," Juliana Chan, a professor of medicine and therapeutics at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, told Reuters.

"We are going to see a lot of early deaths, disabilities and there will be an enormous burden on the health care system, which can't cope. Lots of young people will come in requiring bypass operations, dialysis, rehabilitation for strokes and our productivity will reduce."


A billion people are overweight in the world and of these, 300 million are obese, according to the World Health Organization. Cardiovascular disease killed 17.5 million people worldwide in 2005, and 11 million of those were in Asia.

Apart from eating too much, doing too little and smoking, experts say Asia's weight problem is more pronounced than in the West because of a genetic predisposition to obesity.

"For the same body weight, Asians have more body fat than Caucasians, particularly in the viscera (organs in the abdominal cavity)," said Chan.

"Because of the climate, we are not built to store so much fat, so it spills into the liver, muscles and pancreas, which is why you hear so much about fatty liver."

The smaller Asian build gives rise to abdominal, or central obesity, or a concentration of fat in and around vital organs.

"Asians have problems with central obesity. Excess fat goes into the stomach, it surrounds the guts, gets into the liver. If you don't use it, it gets deposited under the skin, around the heart and muscles," Chan said.

"If the heart muscles are stuffed with fat, it can't store glucose, which then stays in the bloodstream, causing diabetes."

But is traditional Chinese medicine a solution?

"There is no magic bullet no matter what people may claim," said Richard Eu, group chief executive officer of Eu Yan Sang, a leading traditional Chinese medicine retailer in Asia.

"It's a lifestyle modification. We have clinics that help in weight management. It's a combination of acupuncture, herbs and modifying your lifestyle. I don't think it's an easy solution."

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