Expanding Waistlines Around the World

Obesity is far from just an American problem. These nifty maps from the Economist display average BMI for males around the world in 1980 and 2008, and the percentage change. The maps demonstrate that “Polynesia aside, obesity was a rich-world phenomenon in 1980. By 2008 the rich world had itself expanded, bringing obesity to groups within countries that were previously considered poor, such as Brazil and South Africa. During that period, the prevalence rate of obesity among men doubled to nearly 10%. One country has stubbornly resisted this trend. For all its dynamism since India opened up its economy in 1990, its men have on average become even thinner. The study suggests that Congo is the thinnest country in the world, and Nauru the fattest.” [%comments]


This is a personal responsibility problem.

Liberals will be all over themselves to set up a universal health system that will bankrupt the country.


Take it from someone that's a spent a lot of time in India. The average is highly misleading. If the middle class and upper class were measured separately from the starving poor it would be a completely different story.


Obesity is a growing problem in the world. I think a lot of peoples eating and exercise habits have to do with how their parents are raising them. If they grow up eating wrong with their families, through out their life time they will keep the same eating habits. Families need to make healthy eating choices and make exercising a fun activity to do with their children.

Jay, New York, NY

Intersting. But I'm not sure how reliable the data from India/EMs would be. First, it would be highly skewed, as in rich vs poor, rich being more obese, but the sheer quantity of thin poor bringing the entire population statistic down.
Second, It would suffer from survivorship bias, as in the high mortality rate among the poor and not be counted in the data. I would assume this would affect to some degree.


How much of this trend can be explained by an aging population? BMI peaks around age 55. If we have a higher proportion of males age 20 and older in the 50-60 year old category, does that skew the results? Does anyone report age-adjusted obesity rates?

Shaun F

So people should stop saying that America is full of fat people.
Also body fat % could be genetic and people have the same nationalities have similar genetics. Not just by who eats the most junk food and does least activity.

Dave Henderson

BMI is a poor measure since it is a ratio of one's mass to the square of one's height. A person who is carrying 30 kg of extra mass because of muscle (which has significantly higher density than fat) is placed in the same category as a person carry 30 kg of extra mass from fat.


Poverty can now cease to be measured by scarcity of food and can instead be measured by scarcity of mobile devices.


The idea that we need to exercise more is false. Americans exercise much more than we did when we were much thinner. Jack LaLanne invented the modern health club, and it didn't really catch on until the 70's. Since then, waistlines have exploded.

The idea that hundreds of millions of people have, for the first time in evolutionary history, suffered a catastrophic loss of "personal responsibility" is another asinine idea.

What's changed is the massive subsidization of corn, the invention (and universal adoption) of bizarre, ultra-high gluten wheat, the switch to transfat and industrial seed oils like corn, safflower and soy.

This is why we're all fat now:


Re #8: "Poverty can now cease to be measured by scarcity of food and can instead be measured by scarcity of mobile devices."

I don't think either metric works all that well. I'm not obese (though I'm close to the upper limit of "normal" BMI, it's muscle), and don't own any mobile devices. Am I poor?

Here's a conundrum for you: if obesity is a problem of wealthy countries, why are so few wealthy people obese?


In terms of physiology we're essentially identical to hunter-gatherers from 50,000 years ago, who lived very active lives and natural diets free from the horror of consumerist junk.

"Congo is the thinnest country in the world"

Coincidentally Congo has had years of civil war, poverty and near-starvation for millions. I think Congoloese folks would rather be well-fed and plump to starving....


How to stay thin in Congo:

Florence Uwimana has just returned from a morning spent foraging for food in the fields near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She is close to tears. "How can I feed four children with these?" she says, gesticulating at a handful of green leaves. "My life today is one of fear and hunger. And worst of all is the hunger. I'm not even producing enough milk to feed my baby."



I take some comfort in knowing that in certain primitive societies, I am considered a handsome, wealthy man--perhaps even a god!

Come to think of it, it might be easier to change everyone else's perspective on obesity than it would be for me to lose weight. If such a thing succeeded, I would be the Bill Gates--or perhaps the George Clooney--of the future!

Yeah, that's it--that's the ticket!


Obesity and ill health is America's #1 export.

The American food industry bears responsibility for the global pandemic of obesity and chronic disease. If anyone needs to take personal responsibility, it is the shareholders and executives of these companies. The damage they are causing -- and the incipient damage that will unfold in the coming decades - is far more insidious than that caused by any tobacco company.

US exports of junk food have destroyed the health of the Pacific Islanders. The American Samoans went from having no recorded cases of diabetes in the postwar period to a staggering adult diabetes prevalence rate of 50% today. With 93% of adults overweight/obese and 75% obese, it is the fattest and unhealthiest country in the world.

Contrast this with the prevalence of obesity in Independent Samoa; with an otherwise identical population - same genes, same culture and traditions - the rates of obesity and illness are strikingly lower. The only explanatory difference -- the amount junk food consumed and the number of American fast food restaurants present.

The economies of the Pacific Islands are crippled much like those of Sub-Saharan African nations with high HIV prevalence rates: their workforces are chronically disabled, and the age of onset of disability is rapidly advancing as the rates of childhood obesity skyrocket.

American food companies view these countries as dumping grounds for food that is unfit for sale in the Western nations. The Pacific Islanders are sold scraps - turkey tails, mutton flaps, etc., that would never be sold elsewhere. This behavior represents nothing less than child endangerment and abuse.

The Pacific Island nations are not exceptional -- they serve as a warning to all other nations of the damage that will follow as increasing socioeconomic development opens new markets for American food companies and they use their economic power to extend their supply networks further into these developing areas.

Both India and China are today experiencing staggering increases in the incidence of both obesity and diabetes, which will result in massive economic damage as the workforce grows increasingly impaired in the coming decades.

Country-level statistics are useless - when you segment the analysis by socioeconomic status or look at factors such as place of residence, accessibility of foods (presence of food deserts), its clear that the impact of the American diet and American food companies is far-reaching and devastating.

The fact that India has enormous numbers of undernourished people should not distract from the concurrent rise in obesity amongst those with growing consumer purchasing power.

Again, market entry of American food companies and adoption of the American diet is the primary cause. In light of all this evidence, it is particularly offensive that such companies are today mobilizing their marketing departments to lobby corrupt and clueless lawmakers in such countries to rely on them to address problems of hunger and poverty.

The last thing countries like India need is to feed starving children packaged and processed junk food loaded with sugar and fat and zero nutritional value.



I wonder if there is a corrolation between automobile ownership and obesity in developing countries. I am in agreement with #1 that this is an issue of personal responsibility (and I happen to be liberal, imagine that!). Obesity and public health, however, are also community design issues. Cities and towns that promote walking through design are going to have healthier citizens as a whole.


While the map is interesting, using averages for a country could be misleading, especially in a country where a very small proportion of the population has gained large amounts of wealth (e.g., India).

Other metrics might be interesting: maybe an index of average BMI and average income?


Completely agree with Mikhail. I was alarmed on one recent trip to India, to see kids snacking on Lays chips, chocolate chip cookies any time of the day! You order a pizza and they will throw in free coke, free brownies. The middle class is seeing enormous increase in overweight and obesity. It is not uncommon to see men with pot bellies and women with love handles. Eating out has become routine, restaurants are thriving in every urban street corner. Those who can afford it have cooks and maids preparing the food. People seem to have less time to exercise...diabetes, high BP, heart attacks, cancer have all become much too common (sorry I don't have stats). tough.


I feel like I'm double-posting this comment, but...a study in Birmingham showed that it may not be related very much at all to diet. Because not only have humans all over the world gained weight, other species have as well. This tells us it is not a diet problem.

"they report that in 23 of the 24-eight species, 20,000-plus animals-the percentage of obese individuals has risen since the 1940s (or since the oldest records they found). The odds of that happening by chance are 8 million to 1."


Gut bacteria which consumes calories may be a factor, as well as environmental issues, BPA and lack of sleep.


Just back from India. Owen #2 is right. As India's middle and upper classes have prospered, its masses are actually poorer than ever - and starving: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/12/business/global/12food.html


Re #14: "The American food industry bears responsibility..."

Why? If millions of Americans (and others) didn't eagerly line up to buy what the America food industry has to sell, the industry would either change its ways, or go out of business in short order. So why do you choose to eat that stuff, anyway?