In China, battling the girth of a nation

Western fast foods and a changing lifestyle have meant more overweight Chinese youth - and weight-loss clinics.

Ho Fang is 20 years old and 265 pounds. And he's hungry.

During three years studying commerce among the barbecues and supermarkets of Melbourne, Australia, he gained 88 pounds. So, on his return to Beijing, his mother sentenced him to a regimen of 6 a.m. workouts at Shanghai's Xiang Shan hospital, which specializes in expensive cures for China's growing obesity problem.

After a long history of famine, the Chinese now have an emerging weight problem. Chinese health officials recently released a national health survey that said more than 10 percent of boys, and 5 percent of girls aged 7 to 18, were obese, roughly double the figures from 1995. Another study released last year said 30 million Chinese over age 20 were overweight.

Experts here say the increase in obesity is not only a result of Cultural Revolution parents spoiling the so-called "little emperors" of China's one-child policy. China's consumerism boom is creating a fast-food culture that mirrors that of the West.

"This has only happened in the last two to five years," says Xi Bai Shun, a nutritionist at Zhongshan hospital in Shanghai. "Before, people didn't realize the harm," he says. "But now more and more know it's not healthy [to binge on fast food]."

Beyond the grounds of the Xiang Shan hospital, the 50 young, overweight patients are surrounded by a smorgasbord of temptations. The 155 non-Chinese restaurants and cafes listed in local dining guides include six French restaurants, 12 Italian, 30 McDonald's, and nine Brazilian-style all-you-can-eat beef buffets.

But Ho and his ward mates are forced to dine on small bowls of plain rice and green vegetables as part of a daily regime that includes basketball, stair climbing, rope jumping, Ping-Pong, traditional Chinese medicines, and two daily massages.

The problem for people in Shanghai, as elsewhere, says Dr. Xi, is that "the rhythm of life in the city is faster than before," he says. "It's impossible for us to make it slow again. But if we have knowledge about nutrition, we can balance it."

In China - and Shanghai in particular - people are desperately seeking solutions. For example, parents from across China go on waiting lists to pay more than $600 (about two months average wages) to send their overfed offspring to Xiang Shan hospital, and others in Beijing and Tianjin.

Many "children's palaces" in districts across Shanghai send youth to army-style summer boot camps to sweat through war games in Maoist guerrilla combat dress.

And it's not just children. The emerging middle class, especially career-minded women tempted by non-Chinese foods such as milk, cheese, and potato chips, pay $145 for "black goat placenta" a local remedy prominently displayed at a department store next to a McDonald's and Starbucks.

Balance, or lack of it, is the key ingredient in the health crisis, says Dr. Xi. "It's never been balanced. Now, China is an advancing country. Before, people couldn't get enough pork, but had enough beans and vegetables. Now, it's the other way. Now they think that pork and meat is much better than vegetables and rice. We shouldn't live like in the 17th century. But we should use knowledge of nutrition."

Xi says that Chinese culture combined with Western food has contributed to the problem.

"In China, if you do business, first you should be able to drink and eat. A lot of business is finished at the dinner table," he says.

Fitness is one solution. Gold's Gym and others have opened in the last year to offset the city's lack of pick-up athletic games or amateur sporting leagues.

At least two Shanghai hospitals have recently trained nutrition specialists to deal with those who have succumbed to the Western fast- food invasion, like Ho Fang.

"When my mother asked me to go to the hospital, I said yes because I want to play basketball but the other kids are too fast," says Ho, who's favorite player is Michael Jordan. "It's boring here. There's nothing to do, and the food tastes bad. We can't go out after 7:30 at night without a doctor's permission. But I need this; I'm too lazy."

One slim mother in a pin-stripe business suit, who moved from nearby Zhejiang province to monitor the trimming of her plump 15-year-old son, pinches his cheek and encourages him to eat his bland bowl of rice.

While the new arrivals seem forlorn and despondent, the success stories shine with confidence. Ho Fang has already lost 44 pounds in three months, and says he hopes to change his lifestyle when he returns to complete his studies in Australia. And Huang Chu, once known as "the fattest man in Wuhan" province, set a national record by losing a 553 pounds in 15 months.

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