Despite a consensus that fitness is no walk in the 21st century park, Western obesity attracts stigmas of laziness, poor lifestyle choices and cheeky quips like oh God not the short shorts. But dig beneath this narrow, insensitive context, and you find complex attitudes around a subject of global complexity.
Speaking of the US in particular — oft' self-awarders of the “fattest country” — it’s encouraging to know that it’s not the fattest according to the latest data. But what’s striking is the company America shares at the heights, or rather lows, of this index. It isn’t any of their fellow most developed countries.
America’s chronicle of overweightness coined the “obesity epidemic”. It pioneered perpetual hysteria over food standards, work-life balance, physical education, advertising— take your pick. But how do other countries view their weight problem, if at all? Does America’s riotous landscape reflect what the WHO calls the global obesity epidemic?
The Social Progress Index’s latest measures do more than point fingers at the world's most overweight nations; they reveal cultural attitudes around the world, many of which seem irreconcilable with Western standards, despite very Western fast food influences. These are the fifteen fattest countries in 2015.
15 Trinidad and Tobago: 30%
Lifelong weight risks tend to begin early. In 2010, the Caribbean food and Nutrition institute found Trinidad and Tobago’s obesity rates in primary and secondary school children approached 1 in 4. Late last year, the government took out a $110 million USD loan solely to improve childhood obesity care.
Trinidad and Tobago tabled at number 10 last year. But far from being cause for celebration, the country’s rate hasn’t improved; five fatter countries have joined the index.
14 Venezuela: 30.8%
Late President Hugo Chavez used to publicly tease current President Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver, about his waistline. One of Chavez’s quips went that Maduro needed to lay off the submarine sandwiches.
With this having a certain, perhaps unintended social relevance, it’s only fitting that Maduro is now dealing with a much bigger weight problem than his own. The president oxymoronically politicked against the country’s obesity rates during a time of record food shortages last year.
As the country’s largest food companies struggle, cheap junk food gains troubling popularity. Take out is in and dine in is out, and the country’s own obesity estimates approach 40%.
13 Libya: 30.8%
Across the Arab world women are disproportionately likely to be overweight or obese. Cultural norms discourage women’s mobility, physical or otherwise, and encourage lives of sedentary binge eating. In Libya, this leaves women double the obesity rate of men.
Throw fast food in the mix, and these gender customs may be the biggest reason for climbing obesity rates in North Africa. In 2007, Forbes found 53.2% of Libyans qualified as overweight. In 2012, researchers at Benghazi University pinned that rate at 63.5%. Today, a new obesity high of 30.8% tethers the country to SPI’s fat list.
12 Syria: 31.6%
Overweightness tends to rise steeply with age in most parts of the world; again, this is especially true for women in Arab countries. Showcasing the cultural gender-discrepancy well, research from 2008 found a staggering 81% of Syrian women between 46 and 65 qualify as obese, despite the same rate in the comparably fat US being only 24.4%.
As you can understand, it was a little difficult to pull obesity stats from Syria last year. This year the SPI managed to introduce them just outside the top ten range.
11 United States: 31.8%
Pretty surreal going from Syria to the United States, but it's no secret the country doesn’t stack up with comparable Western powers in some key social progress measures. Literacy and racial equality among them. But obesity may be the one struggle the US shares with such profoundly different cultures.
The country’s obesity rate hasn’t been reevaluated since last year’s SPI, when it placed a higher 8th in the charts. But of course, looking better by comparison will be no consolation. Have any pounds been shed? According to Gallup, overweightness in the US fell slightly since 2008; unfortunately, obesity rates rose proportionally.
10 Bahrain: 32.6%
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 66% of Bahrain’s adult population has a weight problem. Gender, once again, is decisive: 29.9% of boys, versus 42.4% of girls in the critical ages of 12-17 are obese.
Combined with sedentary lifestyles, the increasing popularity of fast food poses a myriad of health challenges for Bahrain’s future. 15% of the population currently suffers from diabetes, more than double the rate in Canada. The WHO is currently helping Bahrain’s Ministry of Health to expand children's health clinics in major cities.
9 Mexico: 32.8%
Mexican food standards dropped quickly with the introduction of processed foods in the 1980s. Low-cost meals high in calories, sugar, fat and salt replaced traditional sectors of the food economy that once relied on more preparation and balanced ingredients. Like its northern neighbor, Mexico declares obesity a national health issue.
The government’s 2014 soda tax hopes to curb the trend. Early projections say the 1 peso (about 7 cents US) per liter of soft drink has accompanied a slight reduction in consumption, though the impact remains too early to assess.
8 Qatar: 33.1%
The oil and natural gas superpower has become both one of the richest countries and one of the poorest in eating habits worldwide. Some estimates say up to half of the population qualifies as obese. In recent years, Qataris began developing diabetes a decade younger than they once did.
Mall-sprawl accompanies an explosion of wildly popular McDonald’s and KFC fast-food chains in these Arab countries, which further expand the service economy, reduce physical activity and compile their record health problems.
7 South Africa: 33.5%
Sub-Saharan Africa has been mostly politicized around issues of poverty, undernourishment and communicable disease in the West. But in South Africa, strokes and heart attacks cause more than 40% of the country’s deaths. The country’s doctors say obesity will become a bigger killer than HIV and tuberculosis.
The number of overweight people in developing countries worldwide has tripled from 250 million to nearly 1 billion over the last three decades. Today, low-income states worldwide face the absurd reality of a population both hungry and overweight.
6 United Arab Emirates: 33.7%
Overweightness in UAE, for a change, is more prominent in men than women at 66% and 60% respectively. But the country’s situation is all-too familiar: rapid Western-style commercialization wrought by oil wealth, and health attitudes that don’t adapt accordingly.
Obesity is historically a sign of wealth in the Arab world. Today, Arab countries struggle to reconcile the dissonance between these cultural standards and their associated health risks.
5 Jordan: 34.3%
The sooner a woman in Middle East or North Africa marries, the sooner customs tend to restrict her active lifestyle. It’s no coincidence that 82% of 15-29 year-old women in Jordan are unemployed, and their obesity rate nearly doubles that of men.
If one conclusion can be drawn with certainty, weight problems in these regions are closely linked to powerful gender norms. In a study published by the WHO, researchers determined early marriage to be one of the highest factors associated with overweightness in Jordan—alongside wealth and smoking.
4 Egypt: 34.6%
Egypt’s weight problem came to fore in the 1990s. The country now comprises the world’s highest diabetes rates with its wealthy Arab neighbours, and studies find its teenagers drink three times more soda than milk. This year, Egypt defends its title as the fattest African country on the SPI.
Cultural attitudes don’t single-handedly account for the trend. Worldwide, obesity rates tend to rise near urban centers. But Egypt’s urban obesity rate more than doubles its rural rate. It’s not Egyptian culture itself, but the culture transposed into Westernized cityscapes that make conditions specially ripe for a weight problem.
3 Belize: 34.9%
Belize is the most startling new addition to this year’s index. Sharing a border with Mexico, overweightness in this region of the world isn’t quite so normalized as in the Arab countries we’ve seen, and yet 34.9% of Belizeans, by some measures far more, qualify as obese.
The Middle East and North Africa’s weight problem has been duly noted, but Belize confirms a second emergent trend in the Americas. Along with Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico, this region comprises nearly a third of the fattest countries in the world, and Chile and Argentina didn’t rank very far behind.
2 Saudi Arabia: 35.2%
Forbes’ 2007 index of fattest countries ranked Saudi Arabia 29th in the world. Less than a decade later, the SPI ranks the country second. Keeping the endless pliability of stats in mind, some researchers have had cause to double this rate to 70%. They say 37% of Saudi women suffer from weight-related health problems alone.
Since health insurance doesn’t cover obesity treatment, overweight Saudis spend a staggering 500 million SAR (about 134 million USD) annually on obesity-related treatment, especially to combat diabetes in women. Rates of diabetes in the country have grown 30% in the last decade.
1 Kuwait: 42.8%
Thanks to the influx of American fast food, Kuwait has become the one of the biggest stomach-staplers in the world. Bariatric surgeries, also an American export, have exploded in popularity with over 5,000 performed in the course of a year—in a country of only 3.4 million people.
The WHO’s less forgiving measures estimate nearly 70% of Kuwaiti men over 15 as obese and over 80% of women. At end the actual figure hardly matters: With the oil wealth, the cultural complacency and the American market influence, a perfect storm rages in Kuwait for piling on the poundage.