Fuelled by rapid urbanization and changes in dietary and lifestyle choices, chronic diseases have emerged as a critical public health issue in China. The Healthy China 2020 programme recently announced by the Chinese government has set an overarching goal of promoting public health and making health care accessible and affordable for all Chinese citizens by year 2020. One of important components of the programme is to reduce chronic diseases by promoting healthy eating and active lifestyles. Chronic diseases not only affect health and quality of life, but also have economical and social consequences. With a limited infrastructure for chronic disease care, China is ill-equipped to deal with the escalating chronic disease epidemic, which threatens to reverse the gains of economic development in recent decades. Population-based intervention studies conducted in China and elsewhere have demonstrated the efficacy and effectiveness of several preventive strategies to reduce risk of chronic diseases in high-risk individuals and the general population. However, translating these findings into practice requires changes in health systems and public policies. To achieve the goals set by the Healthy China 2020 programme, prevention of chronic diseases should be elevated to a national public policy priority.