Nearly 40 years ago, Yang Jian was a young intellectual, sent to the countryside for reeducation.
"I didn’t have anything substantial to eat. I often dreamed of a good meal. Now I’m 60, a retiree. I exercise twice a day on gymnastic equipment at home, in order not to gain weight," said Yang, who lives in Shanghai.
Yang is not alone. Just decades after China saw famine, the country’s weight problem is soaring. In 1992, official estimates put only 12.69% of the population as overweight. Now, 25% of adults are overweight or obese, according to a report in the July/August issue of the journal Health Affairs, which is published by the US-based organization Project Hope. The journal predicts the figure will double by 2028 unless steps are taken.
The situation is equally worrying among children, with China’s Education Ministry reporting last year that 8% of urban 10- to 12-year-olds were obese and 15% were overweight.
"The Ministry of Health is promoting a national fitness program, [while] our association is currently studying proposals to solve children’s weight problem," said Li Ping, deputy general secretary of the China Health Care Association.
Li attributes the weight problem to a combination of excessive nutrition, poor food choices and sedentary working lifestyles. The Health Affairs report noted that Chinese who live in a household with a car are 80% more likely to be obese than those who don’t, which suggests the car and fast food culture has the same effect in China as in America.
These problems have created markets for everything from weight loss supplements to gyms.
Joy Huang, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research firm, reports that slimming product sales totaled US$699 million in China last year, up 74.2% from 2002. Last year, the momentum swung from industry mainstays such as weight loss supplements and slimming teas to meal replacement slimming products, which posted sales of US$9.8 million, up 28% year-on-year. These are nutritionally fortified, often calorie-restricted products. They include shakes, powders and bars.
Herbalife, a US-based nutrition business, is one of the foreign players offering meal replacement shakes and nutrition advice. But it’s not cheap. A basic Herbalife one-month weight loss plan costs US$194, while an "ultimate" five-month plan costs about US$1,000.
By contrast, New VT, a Chinese-made slimming product targeting upper middle-class consumers, sells for around US$30 for a one-month supply.
The domestic market for weight loss products is fragmented. Shantou Great Impression led the way in 2007 with a retail value share of 6%, according to Euromonitor. Shantou’s only weight loss product is Great Impression slimming tea, which has been China’s top-selling slimming tea for five straight years.
Although there have been some concerns about the effectiveness and safety of some slimming products, Euromonitor expects the market to see compound annual growth of 4% between 2007-2012. Meal replacement slimming products are predicted to be the highest-growth segment over the five-year period.
Another approach is offered by WeightWatchers International, which signed a joint venture agreement with France’s Groupe Danone earlier this year. In September, the company opened two centers in Shanghai, the first salvo in a nationwide roll-out plan.
At the time of the joint venture announcement in February, WeightWatchers CEO David Kirchhoff said the company would concentrate on helping people lose weight "as opposed to having a primary focus on licensed products."
"Obesity is becoming a real issue in China and we have an opportunity … to provide lifestyle-based solutions for that market," Kirchhoff said.
Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai, believes these lifestyle-based solutions have potential. A survey carried out by his organization last autumn indicated that 70% of Chinese would be willing to pay 20% more for healthier or safer food and other products.
Many are also heading to the health club. At the China Fitness 2008 trade fair in Beijing in June, Du Wei, deputy chairman of the Beijing Olympic Economy Research Association, said there are about 3,000 gyms in China. The industry is believed to be worth US$300 million.
Not everyone has the patience to stay on the treadmill, though. A glance at the internet reveals all the dubious lose-weight-quickly devises for sale in China: weight-loss shoes, weight-loss belts, slimming patches, a vibrating slimming machine and, of course, weight-loss pills.
Such pills are enormously popular in China, said Paul French, chief China representative for market research firm Access Asia and a regular columnist for CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW. French is skeptical as to whether programs like WeightWatchers, known for its weekly guidance meetings, will catch on.
"It is a long and committed program," he said. "People want fast solutions."
Under the knife
Surgery remains the ultimate quick-fix option. Although surgical procedures have yet to become a major part of China’s weight loss industry, they are relatively cheap and accessible – and French claims that liposuction is currently the most popular. When CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW called Beijing United Family Hospital, posing as a potential patient, the hospital said the procedure would cost up to US$3,600 – but immediately offered a 20% discount.
WeightWatchers may find it hard work carving out a niche in a society that often demands quick results. Why opt for a program when, as French puts it, surgery means "tomorrow I can go back to work at half the size I am today."