Back in the good old days – when feeding yourself meant pursuing herds of buffalo with spears – eating and exercise were interlinked. The more you sweat over tracking, killing and foraging for food, the more of a feast you could expect to enjoy. But modern society has changed all that. First there was agriculture, then factory farming, and now a system so complex and bizarre it produces fluorescent green jello, two aisles down from the rib eye steak.
Human ingenuity has outsourced the procurement, preparation and manufacturing of food to an unprecedented degree. Coupled with countless other trends — like the explosion of service industry jobs which demand next to no physical activity — it creates the perfect storm to disconnect diet and physical health from everyday life. Most of the world today lives in a sort of paradox where “life” isn’t necessarily conducive to (or representative of) “health” the way it once was. Instead, health and fitness often relies on conscious decision-making, and of course, lots of effort to sustain.
That’s where so many people fall through the cracks. Finding the time and energy to pursue fitness is a monumental task in itself, and sustaining it is no easier. But when we compare obesity rates among different countries, it becomes clear that fitness is far more complex than personal decision making. Why, for example, does Sweden have only around half the rates of 0besity of the world’s worst countries, at 16.6%? Or why does Japan have an astoundingly low rate of 4.5%? The only explanation is that a society’s cornerstones —culture, economy and legislation come to mind — all have profound influences on its population’s fitness levels.
The 10 countries listed here represent the worst case scenarios for obesity in 2014. These global-high rates, correlated by the latest Social Progress Index, locate where staggering populations struggle to keep the pounds off around the globe.
10. Trinidad and Tobago: 30% of population
Yes, we begin with a massive rate of nearly 1 in 3 people in this twin island country. Recent studies by the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute show obesity in Trinidad and Tobago, particularly among children, has exploded in a stunningly short time which just happens to coincide with the rise of the fast food industry in this region of the world. Moreover, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg; there are estimates of $5 billion a year (and rising) in obesity medical costs in this, the world’s fattest Caribbean country.
9. Venezuela: 30.8% of population
This number, as reported in 2014’s Social Progress Imperative report, falls pretty shy of the Venezuelan government’s own much higher estimate of 38%. At least, as a sort of new year’s resolution this past January, President Maduro embarked on a national obesity campaign by birthing new government agencies tasked with overseeing food guidelines in places where diet is most at risk, like in schools. Crazy to think Venezuela had a rampant malnutrition problem only 20 years ago. But really, with much greater risks of diabetes and hypertension, an obesity problem is hardly progress.
8. United States: 31.8% of population
Be honest, you thought the US would be higher. That’s probably because the 8th fattest country in the world obsesses more than all the others over its self-image, and that could well be because it’s the only Western country where nearly 1 in 3 people qualify as obese. Arguably the birthplace of both the “thin is in” media influence and the world’s sugar addiction, the state of America’s fitness remains a whopping paradox. Consumer markets and political push-and-pull spring up around both sides of the issue, but is the country making progress? Time will tell. For now the worst health alarmists can take a tiny bit of solace in the fact that America isn’t actually the fattest country in the world as so many say— only the fattest superpower.
7. Mexico: 32.8% of population
Mexico’s weight problem started burgeoning in the 1980s when processed food supplanted traditional whole grains and vegetables in Mexico’s food market. Today, seven out of every ten Mexicans are overweight and three out of ten are clinically obese. But Mexico’s Congress has been more aggressive on taking action than most countries, lately passing a variety of anti-junk food laws in the form of “sin taxes” no different than alcohol and tobacco — such as a 5% tax on packaged food with at least 275 calories per 100 grams, and an extra peso on every litre of sugar-saturated drink. Mexican President Nieto says that, within the decade, the loss in sales of harmful foods will pale in comparison to the money that would otherwise be poured into clinical obesity treatment.
6. South Africa: 33.5% of population
Increasing Westernized lifestyles have made South Africa the only sub-Saharan African country with a serious weight problem, but trends suggest much of the southern continent will see drastically inclining rates of obesity-related illnesses in the next two decades. This all goes hand-in-hand with why fast-food markets are so wildly successful here; cheap, quick and low-cost food is a significant contributing factor in the worrying weight trends here. With thinness historically associated with disease and fatness with wealth and success, South African culture is a prime example of how this model is being turned on its head.
5. United Arab Emirates: 33.7% of population
Last year, in a bizarre campaign only fitting of a city as opulent as Dubai, its government launched a 30-day weight challenge which rewarded weight loss with gold – literally. Qualifying contestants stood to win two grams of solid gold — worth about $90 — for every two kilograms they managed to lose in the name of fighting obesity. While it probably did little to curb the 5th highest obesity rate in the world, or the second highest diabetes rate in the world, it did symbolize the country’s desire to limit the influence of growing junk food markets, longer working hours, and a growing culture of fitness stagnancy. Several months later, the government passed a ban on New York style super sized sodas. Sounds like a good start.
4. Jordan: 34.3% of population
A 2010 report by the University of Jordan pit the obesity rate of Jordanian adult women near 60%, almost double the rate of men. It appears the country’s strongly gendered traditions perpetuate a particularly bad fitness culture under the umbrella of “Coca-Colonization”. 82% of women aged 15-29 are unemployed in Jordan, and a vast majority of them lack the facilities or the cultural approval to exercise. Obese people, on average, live anywhere from 5-7 years less than fit people.
3. Egypt: 34.6% of population
Like much of the Middle East, cultural appreciation of overweightness—particularly in women—leaves Egypt with one of the highest obesity rates in the world. Here, junk food advertising feeds off culture in a big way: 10% of Egyptians drink five or more cans of soda daily, and as far as activism against junk food consumption goes, well, there’s almost none of it. A 2011 Euromonitor International report estimates 53% of females 15 and above will be obese by 2020.
2. Saudi Arabia: 35.2% of population
In a landmark move for both gender equality and fitness, the Saudi government recently started considering allowing women to do sports at public schools (hooray!). Conservative Saudi culture tends away from physical activity for women, but even the hardest segregationists in the Persian Gulf can’t deny that 37% of the country’s women experience health problems related to being overweight. With around 72% of the country’s over-40 demographic qualifying as clinically obese, the Saudi Kingdom will likely face enormous health challenges in coming years.
1. Kuwait: 42.8% of population
When American troops arrived in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, so did American fast food. It’s since spread like a virus, and the majority of Kuwaiti citizens lack the cultural basis to appreciate the severity of the poor quality and low nutritional value of junk food. Inseparable from the increase in Western eastern habits was Kuwait’s oil boom which completely transformed the country: It rapidly brought the affluence, the infrastructure, and the Western ethos, but not the cultural foundation to distinguish McDonald’s and Burger King from fine dining. The result is an obesity rate uncomfortably close to 1 in 2 people.