As the West faces growing concerns over rising levels of obesity, a new study on 19,000 Chinese consumers finds around 18 million adults in China are obese, 137 million are overweight and 64 million have metabolic syndrome.
The researchers, based at Tulane University School, link the rise in obesity and metabolic syndrome to growing affluence.
"Economic development and consequential changes in lifestyle and diet might explain this high and increasing prevalence of the metabolic syndrome and overweight in China," says co-author Jiang He, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
Rising incomes are transforming China's food sector, both domestically and in foreign trade.
There has been an increase in per capita income levels, and the consequent increase in disposable incomes has brought about a shift in favour of branded and packaged food.
Changing lifestyles and growing urbanisation in larger cities have also contributed, bringing a wider acceptance of newer products and driving sales for foods like ready meals, pasta and frozen food.
China food industry sales took off in the mid 1990s, quadrupling from under 100 billion yuan (€9.2bn) in 1991 to well over 400 billion yuan (€37bn) just ten years later.
According to new figures from market research and training body IGD, China will become the world's second largest food retail market by 2020 behind the US.
In 2003 the Chinese food market was 35 per cent of the size of the US market; by 2020 this figure will rise to a considerable 82 per cent.
But as for European and American adults, heart disease is the leading cause of death for Chinese adults.
" The high prevalence of metabolic syndrome and overweight underscore the urgent need to develop comprehensive national strategies aimed at prevention and treatment, to reduce the increased societal burden of cardiovascular disease in China," say the Tulane University researchers, who published their findings in this week's issue of The Lancet.
Metabolic syndrome is characterised by a clustering of cardiovascular risk factors, including abdominal obesity, raised blood pressure and glucose concentration, and abnormal blood lipid levels.
According to national data, approximately one in five adults in the US has metabolic syndrome, compared to 13.7 per cent in China.
For the InterASIA study, 16,000 people, aged 35-74 years from 20 urban and rural areas in China, completed a survey on their health and received a clinical examination.
Men and women residents of northern China had higher blood pressure, bodyweight, body-mass index (BMI), waist circumference, cholesterol and blood glucose levels than their counterparts in southern China.
Reflecting the influence of urban lifestyle on diet, body-weight, BMI, waist circumference, cholesterol levels and blood glucose were substantially higher in urban than rural areas.
And of growing concern, the researchers found that the prevalence of overweight adults in China is currently exceeded that of other Asian countries.