Think America’s obesity crisis is bad?
On the tiny Pacific island of Nauru a stunning 78.5 percent of adults are obese, according to data collected by the World Health Organization. That’s more than double the U.S. rate of 33.9 percent, which puts us at eighth on the list of the world’s most obese countries. (Other nations in the top ten include American Samoa, Tonga, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.) Latitude News has compiled a selection of the world’s fattest and skinniest countries using data from the WHO. Check out our interactive map below:
Most of the countries ahead of the U.S. are also Pacific islands nations. In Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating writes that the fast pace of globalization in the South Pacific has contributed to a worrying rise in obesity. As the old life of subsistence farming fell by the wayside, processed food and Western imports like rice, flour, sugar and beer have replaced fresh fish and fruit, a narrative being repeated in parts of the Middle East too. It doesn’t help, Keating writes, that Pacific cultures consider physical size to be a sign of wealth and good fortune.
It’s not just the Pacific. Expanding waistlines and associated health problems like diabetes and heart disease threaten lives worldwide. A 2011 study in the Lancet, a British medical journal, found that obesity is now a bigger problem for global health than hunger.
“The so-called ‘Western lifestyle’ is being adapted all around the world, and the impacts are all the same,” one of the paper’s co-authors told CNN.
Is the problem us or our food?
Some commentators suggest obesity isn’t just about changing what we eat, but changing who we are. In the right-leaning British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, Theodore Dalrymple bemoans a culture in which families eat in front of the TV and children don’t know how to use a fork and knife.
But as fast food outlets move into shuttered grocery stores around the world, regulators argue it’s time for the law to step in. New York City’s ban on oversized soft drinks was just the beginning. In Brazil, the state of São Paulo has made it illegal for restaurants to give away toys with their food. That means trouble for McDonald’s “McLanche Feliz” (Happy Meal).
Another measure in São Paulo will forbid radio and TV advertisements promoting foods with high fat or sodium content between 6 AM and 9 PM. And Westminster, a borough of London, has floated the idea of withholding government benefits from obese people if they don’t work out regularly. (Fat chance of that proposal going through.)
At a basic level, all these regulations acknowledge that higher obesity rates lead to higher public health costs and higher taxes for thin and fat alike.
But some countries don’t need consumption laws: the world’s skinniest nations include Vietnam, India and Laos, where hunger remains a major problem. The gap between those countries and the U.S. is staggering. As the Daily Telegraph reports: “While the US makes up only five per cent of the world’s population, it accounts for almost a third of the world’s weight due to obesity. In comparison, Asia has 61 per cent of the world’s people but only 13 per cent of the world’s weight.”
For people who can afford it, the simplest solution is best: eat healthy foods and work out. Figuring out how to make those opportunities available to everyone might be the 21st century’s most important public health challenge.