In a country where waistlines seem to be growing as fast as the economy, perhaps it is little surprise that Holland & Barrett have, today, opened their first store in China. Nor is the location a surprise, Shanghai’s Huaihai Road is a premier shopping street for the local middle classes, and it has been the wealthier Chinese who have been piling on the pounds fastest of all the consumer groups in China.

And with the price of a bottle of slimming pills in the region of GB£30 (RMB327), they are certainly not aiming at the mass market. It is the well-heeled urbanites who have largely been through the gym fad, and are moving onto lounging in spas and taking treatments to keep trim who are the target consumers, but who are also still gaining weight.

A 2002 survey by the China Academy of Medical Science found nearly 300 million Chinese people were overweight or obese (7.1% of adults over 18 years old obese and 22.8% overweight). Since then things have worsened, and a survey released by the General Administration of Sports of China in 2010 revealed one third of the adults (32.1%) aged 20 to 59 were overweight and one in ten (9.9%) were obese. The problem is mostly affecting urban, middle income and younger people.

What is the future for health supplements in China?

Consumers are aware of the growing health problem and Mintel’s research has shown they are trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle by eating healthier, exercising regularly and watching what they eat. But this is hard in a country with frequent food contamination scares, and where finding the time (and space) to exercise is also not easy.

Perhaps popping the slimming pills is the easy solution to time-pressed urban Chinese. H&B clearly think they represent a “big” market, because the company is planning to open 322 stores in cities across China in the next five years, starting with ten this year, of which three in Shanghai in this month alone. H&B are focusing on the dietary supplements and wellness products, rather than the snacks and bagged foods they present in other markets, and look to be aspiring to become the GNC of China, only a couple of years after Shanghai Bright Group’s failed attempt to buy that US dietary supplements chain.

Whether there is longevity in this sector in China will depend on a lot of things – of which China’s continued weight gain will be a key factor. What H&B will have to be careful of is avoiding being just another fast fad in China, and making sure that they really do have a sustainable market for over 300 stores across China.

Read more on the middle class in China with Mintel’s Consumer Lifestyles China’s Middle Class 2012 report.