Chinese Obesity


Rising incomes in China have allowed the poorest to eat more food but as they become richer, the quality of their diet gets worse, increasing the risk of obesity. It is only the wealthier Chinese who have both more food and a healthier diet. These are among the findings of research by Lei Lu and Melanie Lührmann, presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2013 annual conference.

Their study tries to understand the public health dilemma that China and other fast-growing countries face. Over the last two decades of rapid economic growth, the percentage of China’s population that is overweight has risen by 15 percentage points while at the same time the proportion of the population that is underweight has remained constant at around 6%.

To look at the effect of income on diet, the study focuses on changes to the tax system and weather shocks as these affected the income of rural Chinese agricultural workers but are unrelated to other factors such as liberalisation and the price of food that could otherwise change food consumption patterns.

The research finds that when their incomes rise, low-income households increase their calorie intake by much more than richer households. But at the medium income level, this response weakens: a further income increase leads to a much lower increase in calories, and eventually to a calorie decrease at the top of the income distribution.

Because the increasing consumption of calories by poorer households does not result in increased food spending, the authors argue that this suggests the diet composition of these households becomes more fatty. In contrast, richer households have both more expensive and more nutritious diets.

The authors note the implications for policy:

‘Increasing wealth may not result in increased nutrient quantity and quality at the same speed.

‘Based on our results, targeted income transfers to malnutritioned low-income groups would have mixed effects on the diet quality of poorer households in China.

‘Alternative policies such as food price subsidies and welfare programmes that are targeted specifically at improving diet quality may be more effective.’

The analysis also examines the income elasticity of calories (total calorie, fat, protein and carbohydrate) by gender and household size. Females are in general more income elastic towards the consumption of calories in both sectors.

Couples are the least income elastic in the non-agricultural sector, but their calorie elasticities are higher than those of larger households in the agricultural sector. Singles have an opposite protein intake pattern to that of couples and larger households.



Lei Lu
Mobile phone: 07966 132379

Melanie Lührmann
Mobile phone: 07726894865

RES media consultant Romesh Vaitilingam:
+44 (0) 7768 661095

Figure 1: Trends in household real incomes

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