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Weight Watchers comes to China

Almost a quarter of all Chinese adults are overweight or obsese (pdf). That’s something of a surprise when only 50 years ago, China had a harrowing encounter with mass starvation in the Great Leap Forward. By U.S. standards, 25 percent is nothing — a Gallup survey this year found more than 63 percent of Americans ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a quarter of all Chinese adults are overweight or obsese (pdf).

That’s something of a surprise when only 50 years ago, China had a harrowing encounter with mass starvation in the Great Leap Forward. By U.S. standards, 25 percent is nothing — a Gallup survey this year found more than 63 percent of Americans to be similarly hefty — but Chinese citizens are putting on the pounds more quickly than any other nation, apart from Mexico. So what’s to blame? According to some researchers, the growing availability of meat, eggs, cheese, and other animal food products that previously existed only in small quantities.

The explosion in food choices has set off a wave of self-consciousness about weight gain in China. And who better to fix the problem than one of America’s darling dieting firms, Weight Watchers? The company drew in nearly $900 million in China in 2008, and overseas observers say the sky’s the limit (paywall):

"In China, young girls think their weight is a big problem, even if they look tiny," says Jackie Mao, a Weight Watchers teacher. Sophia Sun, 29, is one such member. She is trim and petite but says: "I don’t think to be slim is good enough. I don’t want to be skinny, just a little slimmer than before. Every ­caterpillar has a dream to be a butterfly."

"Milk" Pan, 18, also has a dream: "I want people to call me mei nv [beautiful girl]" – instead of what her high-school gym teacher sometimes calls her: pang pang, or fatso. She says she has tried everything: diet pills, acupuncture, weight- loss belts and fasting. Only Weight Watchers, which assigns points to individual foods and a daily points budget to each dieter, has worked, she says. […]

David Kirchoff, Weight Watchers’ chief executive, says building a diet business in China is not unlike building one in France – another country whose fat people look slender to the rest of us. The biggest hurdle in China is building a nutritional database to assign points to such a vast and complex cuisine, which contains such unfamiliar dishes as kung pao chicken and "husband-and-wife lung slice".

Anyone know how many points a plate of Peking duck is worth?

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