America May Be Fat, But The Rest Of The World Is Catching Up Fast

This is one competition no nation wants to win.

We tend to think of America as the world’s Fat Champion. But these days Uncle Sam has competition. There are now plenty of countries with waistlines nearly resembling ours.


A new report tracks this alarming progress, and delves into some factors behind the shift. Rising incomes, urbanization, reduced physical activity, and the popularity of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt are all to blame, says the Overseas Development Institute, a British think-tank. And the danger is that the world could be storing up serious health issues–including higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease–if the trends continue.

Image: Chinese McDonalds via Flickr user Oriol Salvador

Between 1980 and 2008, the percentage of adults who were obese or overweight climbed from 23% to 34%, with the majority of that increase coming in low-income countries. The developing world saw the number of obese or overweight increase almost four times (from 250 to 904 million people) over this period, while the developed world saw an increase of only 1.7 times.

As people become richer, their diets tend to shift away from grains and “starchy staples” towards more vegetables, animal produce, and oils. Countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America now have obesity and overweight levels similar to Europe (about 58% of population), with only North America bulging more (nearly 70% of the population). Some of the biggest increases since 1980 have been in Latin America and East Asia. China’s rate, for example, has doubled.

To illustrate its main findings the ODI developed the graphics in the slide show. But in fact its report is a little more nuanced than the headlines. The good news is that not all countries that have become more prosperous have become fatter, suggesting that interventions could be effective in breaking the link. South Korea, for example, has bucked the trend, partly because of public campaigns and training to encourage women to continue cooking traditional meals (what this says about the prospects for gender equality in the workforce there is another question).

The report says politicians have been scared off doing more on food, because it’s an emotional subject, and there’s been plenty of lobbying by industry interests. But at some point they are going to have to bite the bullet. “It is only a matter of time before people will accept and demand stronger and effective measures to influence diets,” it says.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.