Modern day China provides an unfortunate example of the toxic effects of adopting more western-style habits of unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyle: according to a new study, there are now nearly over 200 MILLION people affected by either diabetes or prediabetes.

The China National Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders Study Group published an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine that spells out the details of this metabolic disaster. They conducted an impressively large study of over 46,000 adults from across China, and tested their blood sugars. They found that based on this sample, approximately 92.4 million Chinese adults have diabetes (more than half of these being undiagnosed), and 148.2 million Chinese adults have prediabetes.

When you consider that these numbers total over six times the entire population of Canada, the implications are simply staggering to try to comprehend.

The underlying contributors to this explosion of diabetes in China are several, but one of the dominant themes is the urbanization and ‘westernization’ of Chinese society. With the advent of fast food to this nation, obesity has exploded in this society in a likewise fashion. Similarly, Chinese urban centres are coming more and more to resemble our own: motorized transport, increased use of the internet, less focussed exercise…. all of these elements have sunk the activity levels to an all time, Western-style, low. So, it seems that the bad habits of the western world have had a seriously negative impact on the metabolic health of our Chinese friends.

To add to the difficulty of the situation, people of Chinese ethnicity have a higher risk of developing diabetes, due to a higher genetic disposition to develop insulin resistance at a lower BMI. Diabetes onset often occurs at a lower BMI compared to people of caucasian ethnicity (though this certainly varies from person to person).

The way in which people of Chinese background manifest high sugars also presents a challenge. According to this recent study and studies before it, Chinese people have a disposition towards having high sugars after a meal even if they have normal blood sugars in the fasting state. As the first step in screening for diabetes is with a fasting blood sugar, it is possible that some of these diabetes diagnoses could be missed if sugars are not tested after a carbohydrate challenge as well.

The situation in China raises yet another red flag: the global tendency towards a progressively more unhealthy lifestyle is having a serious toll on our health, and raises potentially grim prospects for our futures unless we turn things around.

Dr. Sue © 2010