China went from famine to fat in a few short decades, until it reached that true pinnacle of economic prosperity: it is on a diet. And now Weight Watchers, the American champion of global weight loss, is trying to cash in.
Sales of slimming products, from weight-loss teas to mung beans, are rising sharply, gyms open (and close) at lightning speed, and traditional Chinese hospitals report a rise in patients seeking acupuncture and fire-cupping treatments to help shed weight.
Slimming product sales grew 10 per cent in 2008 to Rmb6bn ($885m, €690m, £580m), according to Euromonitor, which predicts 6 per cent annual growth for the next five years.
Weight Watchers thinks it has found a formula for dieting that has Chinese characteristics. It recently opened four branches in fat-phobic Shanghai, in a joint venture with Danone, the French food group.
But the merest glance at a Weight Watchers meeting in China makes clear that a model that works in the American cornbelt cannot be transplanted wholesale to Asia. Chinese dieters are just not fat enough.
It is not that obesity is not a huge problem in China: according to a 2008 study, Chinese adults are getting fatter faster than those in any nation apart from Mexico. About a quarter of the Chinese population is overweight or obese.
But most of those who attend the Weight Watchers branch in the basement of Shanghai’s posh Super Brand mall would scarcely qualify as plump. Of the 30-odd people at a recent meeting, only one had obvious jowls and a belly roll.
One recent recruit was clad in skin-tight black jeans that the average western dieter would die for.
The company says more than half its clients have a healthy body mass index before they start, though Weight Watchers will not help members become underweight.
“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.
“It’s amazing, I can eat everything!”, says Sui Sui Yu, a teacher, echoing Weight Watchers’ philosophy that dieters can eat what they like and still lose weight – so long as they do not eat too much of it.
David Kirchhoff, 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”.
Mr Kirchhoff says the “lazy Susan culture” of China makes things more difficult. Restaurant meals tend to be ordered communally, with over-ordering a sign of respect – which makes life hard for dieters.
Many Weight Watchers clients live with their parents, so mum or grandma does the cooking. It can be hard to ask a generation that remembers mass starvation to consider fat and meat the enemy.
Paul French, author of Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation, says many Chinese have a choice to make: get thin quick, through (increasingly popular) liposuction; get thin slowly and alone, at the gym; or get thin slowly in a group, at places such as Weight Watchers, where peer support is an essential ingredient of successful slimming.
He might have added a fourth option: get thin slowly and painfully by having electrodes attached to acupuncture needles stuck in the abdomen or heated glass cups applied to the belly – the traditional medicine methods of encouraging weight loss.
For foreign slimming companies salivating at the thought of 1.3bn dieters, there is money to be made from all of them.
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