Obesity in Asia: American Fast Food is Fare for the Rich


Written by Andrew Lam

Each time I visit my homeland, Vietnam, I find that many of my relatives have gotten wealthier and progressively fatter, especially their overly pampered children. One cousin in Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] in particular is raising an obese child. When asked why she was feeding him so much she simply shrugged and said, “Well, we barely had enough to eat during the Cold War. Now that I have money, I just let my son eat what he wants.”

Unfortunately what that entails for her boy is access to an array of American owned chains like KFC, Pizza Hut, Carl Jr.’s, and most recently, Burger King. His favorite meal? “Pizza and Coke,” the boy answered with glee.

Besides the tasty draw of fatty foods and sweet sodas, there’s another reason why such establishments are making inroads in countries that are otherwise known for their excellent culinary traditions. Unlike in the U.S., where fast food is perceived as time saving and cheap and often the preferred meal of the working poor, in Asia places like Burger King and Pizza Hut are the fare of choice for those with dispensable incomes. For a regular factory worker in Vietnam who makes a few dollars a day, eating at KFC is completely out of the question. For those who can afford to eat at one of Pizza Hut’s air-conditioned restaurants in a chic sparkling shopping mall in Hanoi or Saigon, however, eating is only part of the experience. The other part is equally, if not more, important: Consuming American fast food is the proof of one’s economic status in the world.

The writer Ha Jin captured this modern tendency in a hilarious short story called “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town.” It’s about a family of nouveau riche who book their wedding at a brand new fast food chain called “Cowboy Chicken” — never mind that the Chinese know 150 better ways to cook the bird — to celebrate their new wealth in capitalistic China. If the story is hilarious, it is also a sad statement as to how quickly a thousand years of culinary expertise is thrown out for the new – which in this case, is deep- fried chicken and steamed corncobs served up in a paper box.

And if common sense and taste are often the first casualties in a world where western fast food and brand name sodas proliferate at an alarming rate, the ultimate casualty is health itself. According to the World Health Organization, one billion people are malnourished in the world and another billion – many in developing countries—are overweight. At least 300 million of them are clinically obese, and the economic costs of related illnesses are staggering.

While the overall obesity rate in China is somewhere around 5 percent, that number jumps dramatically to around 20 percent in the big cities. Despite the relative small ratio of obese people when compared to that of the U.S., given the size of China’s population (1.35 billion), that 5 percent accounts for about 70 million overweight Chinese.

It would seem that not only are the Chinese catching up with the American economy, but with the American size as well. According to the Chinese Health Ministry, Chinese city boys age 6 are 2.5 inches taller and 6.6 pounds heavier on average than their counterparts 3 decades ago. “China has entered the era of obesity,” Ji Chengye, a leading child health researcher told USA Today. “The speed of growth is shocking.” Almost 100 million Chinese now suffer from diabetes.

In this regard, Vietnam too is catching up with China. While 28 percent of rural children suffer from malnutrition, according to the National Institute of Nutrition, 20 percent from urban areas suffer from the opposite: obesity. “The number of overweight and obese kids is increasing at a fast pace in Ho Chi Minh City [formerly known as Saigon] where the highest ratio of children with the problem is recorded,” Do Diep, deputy direct of the Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Center, told Tien Phong newspaper two years ago.

For many Vietnamese, the irony is all too obvious. Previous generations known as boat people fled out to sea on rickety boats to escape starvation and extreme austerity under communism during the cold war. But they are quickly being replaced by a new generation, one that needs to go to the gym or a fat farm to drop excess weight — or if they can afford it, “flee” abroad to shop for the latest brand name items like Hermes belts and Louis Vuitton Bags.

Years of struggle against imperialism resulted in an odd defeat: Anything western is automatically deemed superior, no questions asked. It is a situation that one intellectual in Vietnam coined as, “Selling the entire forest to buy a stack of paper.” A case in point: When asked what he wanted from the USA, a cousin in Hanoi didn’t hesitate: “Starbucks coffee.” Yes, he’s quite aware that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, second only to Brazil; and yes, on practically every block in the city there’s a coffee shop. “But no one has tasted Starbucks coffee in Vietnam,” the cousin explained. “Everyone wants to know what it tastes like.”

These days one reads quite a few articles about the decline of the American empire and the rise of Asia, and in the same breath, how the Chinese are gaining the upper hand in the global economy. But one wonders if that’s true. Because even if declining, America still manages to sell its “superior” lifestyles to the rest of the world in ingenious ways, from food to movies, from music to fashion — and in the area of food, as least, our obesity problems as well.

This post was originally published by New America Media.


Photo: keepwalking_LJ/flickr


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

Thanks for the share!

Loo Samantha
Loo sam6 years ago


Emily Drew
Emily Drew6 years ago


Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P6 years ago

It's sad when fast food is considered food for the rich..it's really cheap here

Christine Stewart

Please don't follow our lead in the U.S. and eat all that fried crap. There just needs to be a better mascot for traditional foods than fast food's Ronald McDonald and Jack...

Berny P.
berny p6 years ago

This is going to fix the overpopulation problem- slow death by fast food.

Ian Fletcher
Ian Fletcher6 years ago

Sadly, it's the bad habits people adopt first when encountering a new culture.
Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to shrug off the effects thereof.

Tajwer Chaudary
Tajwer Chaudhary6 years ago

well this is not their false..every 1 lust for a better thing..i think awareness in most needed this time

jo Howard
jo Howard6 years ago

This is one part of the Western World that all other countries should block from entering. We certainly do not need America's or any other Western country's junk food in Asia. Okay to visit Asia, but leave your junk food at home.