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Economy

Will 'grass-eating' help Chinese win the battle of the bulge?

Appetites for low-calorie, high-fiber meals are surging amid high obesity rate

China's economic growth over the past few decades has caused eating habits to change, sometimes for the worse as obesity rates are climbing.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- Health-conscious Chinese are starting to turn away from meat and carbohydrates in favor of fruit, vegetables and cereals as obesity rates in the country swell.

Driven largely by younger Chinese, the trend has been jokingly referred to in the media as a return to the "grass-eating economy" of China's past, when famines under a harsh Communist regime often decimated the country until as recently as 40 years ago.

Now, with more than 30% of Chinese adult males considered overweight, along with a concurrent rise in diabetes, many are changing their eating habits.

Chia seeds, quinoa and other "superfoods" that have been touted by the health industry as being full of benefits have become a popular dietary choice. Avocado consumption is skyrocketing, with imports surging to 43,900 tons in 2018 from 31.8 tons in 2011. Broccoli, tomatoes, mangos and buckwheat are also finding a place at many tables.

Chicken and seafood are also increasingly replacing meat as a source of protein. This low-calorie fare cooked simply is a far cry from some traditional Chinese dishes that are heavier and greasier.

Online food-delivery company Meituan Waimai reported that its "light" meal orders topped 26.62 million in 2018, up 158% from the previous year. The company said that more than 62% of its users were born in the 1990s and later, and more than 70% are women.

But these new eating habits -- heavily reliant on imported food -- are drawing flak from the government. In August, People's Daily Online, a Communist Party mouthpiece, carried an article that stressed the importance of a balanced diet, urging people not to rely too heavily on avocados, chia seeds, quinoa and other health foods that may be nothing more than a fad.

The website took particular aim at avocados, saying they are high in calories and will not help consumers to lose weight. Some observers said that authorities are rankled by the preference for foreign food over China's farm products, a trend that has become too entrenched for the Communist machinery to ignore.

The term "grass-eating" harks to the days of severe food shortages when many resorted to eating grass just to stay alive. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, tens of millions were estimated to have starved to death, with food shortages continuing through the 1970s.

Each adult male requires about 2,000 kilocalories a day, but in 1961, China's daily per capita calorie intake was just 1,439 kilocalories, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

China's daily per capita calorie intake topped 2,000 kilocalories in 1978, coinciding with sweeping economic reforms and liberalization. This rose to 3,108 kilocalories in 2013 as both agricultural output and imports increased.

But that jump has led to a rising rate of obesity. The World Health Organization considers a person overweight if his or her body mass index, or BMI, is 25 or higher. In China, 9.9% of adults aged 18 or older had BMI that measured equal to or higher than that figure in 1975. This rose to 32.3% in 2016.

One of the associated problems is diabetes. In 2017, about 114 million Chinese -- 11.6% of the adult population -- were estimated to have the disease, according to the International Diabetes Federation. According to another estimate, this is likely to worsen, with half of adults likely to become diabetic.

But as tastes and attitudes change and more Chinese take to healthy eating, those rates may start to reverse as the term "grass-eating" takes on new meaning in China.

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