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China’s Changing Diet: Environment and Health Impacts

By: Becky Ramsing

In Part 1 of the China’s Changing Diet blog series, we provided an overview of the recent shifts in how Chinese citizens eat and live as a result of economic growth, urbanization and food availability. In the following section, we will discuss the local and global impacts of these shifts and how Chinese health experts have addressed these through the newly-revised Chinese Dietary Guidelines.

Diet changes have lasting impacts on health and the environment locally and globally

In China, the incidence of obesity and its related complications have increased rapidly alongside dietary changes. The overall prevalence of overweight and obesity among Chinese people was increased by 38.6% and 80.6% respectively during the period of 1992-2002.[i] In 2012, 30.1% of adults were overweight and 11.9% were obese. 9.6% of youth were overweight and 6.4% were obese.[ii] Taking into account the sheer size of China’s population, over one fifth of all one billion obese people in the world now come from China.[iii]

A dramatic reduction in physical activity has been a major contributor to the increased prevalence of obesity. Modernization and mechanization have reduced required daily movement for many Chinese citizens. Chinese youth in particular are much more sedentary resulting from greater access to electronics, television and computers.

In a country where malnutrition is still a problem among many of its citizens, obesity and chronic diseases place a double burden on the healthcare system as well as families. Diabetes now affects 10% of the population, high blood pressure over 25% with predicted rapid growth and 10% have COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

China’s current growth and consumption patterns also have immense implications for global climate and other environmental concerns, including water, land used to produce feed, carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels. It is estimated that China accounts for a tenth of all the greenhouse gases and aerosols that have collected in the atmosphere over the industrial era.[iv]

Reversing the trend will involve significant changes in eating habits of Chinese people. The most recent Dietary Guidelines recommends that each person consume 40-75 grams of meat per day, which is half of what the average Chinese person currently consumes. But reducing meat consumption, particularly pork, may not be enough, nor is it the only change needed. To meaningfully reduce GHGs, dairy consumption will also need to stabilize. Furthermore, if pork is replaced by chicken—or even seafood—rather than plant proteins, such as soy, beans and legumes, the benefits of reduced meat will also be lessened. (Current models do not account for fish and shellfish, an important and increasing source of protein in Chinese diet.)

According to calculations based on FAOSTAT food availability data and the GLEAM-i climate model,[v][vi] reducing meat consumption in mainland China by 50 percent would reduce GHG emissions by 240 kg CO2e per person per year, or 318 million metric tons for mainland China as a whole. This reduction would have a major impact and would be equivalent to removing:

  • 92.6 coal-fired power plants running for one year
  • 67 million passenger vehicles driven for one year
  • 47 million homes’ electricity use for one year[vii]

But this can’t be done if China continues to increase and ultimately reach its goals for dairy consumption as its Dietary Guidelines suggest. The 10-fold increase in dairy consumption would increase GHG emissions by nearly 1,000 kg (1 ton) CO2e per person per year, or over 1,300 million metric tons for mainland China as a whole—completely offsetting the benefits of meat reduction.

Health experts in China are working to change the tide

The Chinese Nutrition Society—a non-profit professional organization made up of researchers, experts and health professionals—develops Dietary Guidelines for China every 10 years, which are then supported and communicated by the Chinese Ministry of Health. The latest revision came out this spring (2016) with a renewed emphasis on diet and health.

Source: National Health and Family Planning Commission

“It lays out a nutritious and healthy diet that will help people maintain health and prevent disease,” said Chang Jile, of the commission’s Department for Disease Control and Prevention.[viii]

The 2016 Dietary Guidelines call for less protein and fewer calories overall and highlight six steps for a more balanced diet:

  1. Eat a variety of foods
  2. Balance calories and exercise daily
  3. Get adequate fruit, vegetables, milk and soybeans
  4. Get the right amount of fish, poultry, lean meat and eggs (emphasizing more fish and poultry, less red meat)
  5. Reduce salt, oils, sugar and alcohol
  6. Eliminate food waste; eat more fresh foods[ix]

The 2016 Dietary Guidelines urge citizens to consume meat at a rate of a maximum of 75 grams per day (2.6 ounces). This represents a 50% decrease from current consumption, which is at 173 grams per day (6 ounces). In reality, these recommendations do not differ greatly from the 2007 Dietary Guidelines. However, much emphasis has been made recently of the rapid rise of meat consumption in China, which went from representing just 125 calories of the daily diet in 1971 to representing 691 in 2011. (Representing 6.68 % of calories to 22.86%)[x] Current projections indicate that consumption could reach nearly 9 ounces (254 g) daily per person by 2030 if nothing is done.

According to Liyan Li, a Chinese dietitian and China spokesperson for the American Overseas Dietetic Association, the new guidelines don’t emphasize animal protein reduction, rather they emphasize replacing more red meat with fish. There was a campaign of “Nutrition Week” in May, but the goal was “balanced diets.” Nutrition and health professionals are concerned with the need to incorporate whole grains and overall caloric limitations. The high consumption of alcohol and smoking are also major public health challenges along with the rising obesity and chronic disease rates.

More about the implications of the Chinese diet and how Meatless Monday can be a part of the process in Part 3.


[i] Wu Y, Ma G, Hu Y, Li Y, Li X, Cui Z, et al. The current prevalence status of body overweight and obesity in China: data from the China nutrition and health survey. Chin J Prev Med 2005;39: 316-20. (In Chinese, with English abstract.)

[ii] 2014 report on Chinese resident’s chronic disease and nutrition; National Health and Family Planning Commission; 2015-6-15;

[iii] Wu, Yangfeng; Overweight and obesity in China, British Medical Journal. Vol. 333, 19 August, 2006.

[iv]Li, Bengang; The contribution of China’s emissions to global climate forcing; Nature. Volume 531:7594 17, March 2016.

[v] Emissions intensity factors adapted from the FAO GLEAM-i climate model;

[vi] FAOSTAT Food Balance Sheet, Mainland China, 2013; accessed 7-28-16;

[vii] EPA calculator (CO2 equivalent);

[viii] Xiaodong, Wang; Ministry tweaks eating guidelines; China Daily. Updated: 2016-05-14;

[ix] Chinese Dietary Guidelines (2016) Core Recommendations; Published: 2016-05-12;

[x] China’s agricultural: Roads to be travelled, PricewaterhouseCoopers; October 2015;

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