Fat Goes Global

January 11th, 2011 at 11:05 am | 9 Comments |

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“Fattest man is suing the NHS for ‘letting me grow’” reads the headline in The Sun. The article – which has been heavily covered by blogs and even gained a link on the Drudge Report – describes the terrible struggle of a morbidly obese man.

Obesity is a major problem in the United States, clinic with 3 in 10 Americans being obese, mind and nearly two thirds of us qualifying as overweight. Our increasing girth is – literally – reshaping our society. (See, for example, this story on the funeral business in Iowa.)

But the obese man in the story isn’t an American. He’s British.

As a percentage of the total population, the United States leads the world with obesity. But other countries are, unfortunately, catching up.

Indeed, just late last year, the OECD released a report on the challenges of obesity across the Western world, with an eye on prevention.

The full report is, obviously, rich in data. But take a look at the graph below (from the report) that details the trends across different nations. The United States is an outlier, but countries like Canada, Australia, and England have their own steep curves, reflecting sharply rising rates of obesity.

The OECD report largely focuses on member nations, but across the world we see the same phenomenon. In China, for example, the overweight (including obese) have doubled as a percentage of the population in a fifteen-year period, from 1991 to 2006, from 13.5% to 26.7%. Obese individuals are a small proportion of that heavy subpopulation, but there is no good news here – the percentage of obese people tripled over the same period of time. Diabetes is now as prevalent in China as it is in the United States, with some 92 million cases.

Look from the world’s largest nation to one of its smallest, but you will see a similar pattern. For an usual take on obesity, consider this Nightline story, cleverly titled The Fattest Place on Earth, on a South Pacific paradise with a big problem.

In a Washington Times article, I consider the globalization of obesity, and its policy implications.

Name a liberal policy cause, and chances are someone has found a way to sell it based on America’s rising obesity rate. Liberal pundits and public-health experts serve up a rich buffet of scapegoats for obesity. Our foods are chemically addictive, they claim, so governments must step in to regulate them. Suburban Americans tend to be more obese, so we need fewer cars and more costly transit options, urbanists insist. Corporate ads, cheap fast food, the lack of Canadian-style health insurance – the list stretches on. Here, though, is the reality. Yes, Americans are getting fatter, but so is everyone else in the industrialized world, and that understanding challenges current wisdom on obesity, suggesting the issue may be more cut and dry than liberals make it out to be.

The full essay can be found here.

Recent Posts by David Gratzer

9 Comments so far ↓

  • DFL

    Obesity has risen. Just go to your local supermarket and notice the overweight and obese people. The problem with overweight people isn’t just one of old people. Weight problems extend to children and young adults.

    Posters at this site could probably cobble together an extended list of causation. More food is available at cheap price than fifty years ago. Americans eat more processed food than they did before World War Two. Fast food restaurants abound. The old one wage-earner family typified by Donna Reed is a remnant so fewer Americans eat mom’s freshly cooked dinners when they arrive home. Today’s children are more likely to play video games rather than aerobic athletic sports in their spare time. With the large decrease in agricultural and manufacturing jobs, fewer Americans work at aerobic jobs.

  • elizajane

    I don’t see why we have to use this to jump on liberal policy causes. There is a problem. We actually know most of the factors, as DFL outlines above. Liberals tend to think that government can do something to intervene in some of these factors (stopping the subsidies that make high-fructose corn syrup such a cheap sweetener would actually be a great one). Conservatives tend to say “it’s entirely the individual’s responsibility.” And in the end, some balance between the two, along the lines of education and options rather than coercion and regulation, will probably be what most people want.

    It’s not even clear to me that liberals are insisting that this is a “cut and dry” issue. Or do you want to argue that urban, pedestrian groups are as obese as those in suburbs? That home-cooked meals are not better than cheap fast food or food processed with many chemical additives?

  • Rob_654

    The cost of Type 2 diabetes treatment is going to be a major problem along with other health care issues related to obseity.

    Of course Americans don’t like being told what to do and folks like Sarah Palin believe that it is more important to score political points with rhetoric than telling people the truth and their fatness is costing us big time and, well, is just gross to look at.

    Maybe we can start a Beautify America campaign but instead of litter it will be to get people in shape.

    Oh and can we pass a law that will make it a felony to sell spandex in any size larger than medium – or just outlaw it completely.

  • DFL

    The fresh food movement and Community Supported Agriculture are helpful yet, to be very honest, both are most popular with more affluent, better educated and less obese Americans and not those who are most likely to have weight problems.

  • jerseychix

    I was unaware that the agriculture subsidy was a liberal policy cause. Or, declining wages leading to women working leading to fewer home cooked meals and more eating out. I would say that we are exactly where corporate America has lead us, bleating like sheep.

    We eat the crap they sell, buy their products to take away the fat, watch their advertisements for all of it, and then blame ourselves and each other for being fat. Who to blame? Let’s start with Bob Dole, the Senator from the Archer Daniels Midland Company. We can continue all the way down the line to our current Dept of Ag Secretary, Tom Vilsik, who is so far in the pocket of agribusiess he’s picking their lint out of his belly button. These corporations and people have actively subverted good eating habits and we happily take the blame.

    The news isn’t that we are fat. The news is that more of us aren’t fatter given what we are faced with.

  • haterinos

    Simple changes can make quite a difference…but unfortunately these changes are always ignored/never mentioned.

    1. Drink water instead of soda with your fast food meal. With busy life, we have to resort to fast food many days of the week but atleast soda can be replaced with water.

    2. Try to walk from one store to another. It may not be possible to walk from home to store but walking from say grocery store to the nearby dry-cleaners or to nearby coffee shop should always be possible.

    I wish Limbaugh or Palin present these simple alternatives instead of just ridiculing Michelle Obama’s healthy food initiative.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    “Yes, Americans are getting fatter, but so is everyone else in the industrialized world, and that understanding challenges current wisdom on obesity, suggesting the issue may be more cut and dry than liberals make it out to be.”

    Oh bullshit. All respect to Elizajane, it is pretty cut and dry. Eat better, exercise more. You see far less fat Japanese people, Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. than you do people in the west. The reason for the increasing fatness in China is the prevalence of KFC’s in every town, and coke, pepsi, etc. 30 years ago no one ate this or drank this. When I lived in China I weighed 30 pounds less than I do now, and I wanted for nothing (the town I lived in had no fast food places then, it does now). The food was nutritious and delicious.

    This also has nothing to do with education or wealth. In China young kids are getting fatter because most families of people in the cities have one, or at most 2 kids and they get spoiled. Kids in the countryside, no.

    But outside of this, does anyone notice something a little bit strange about Gratzer’s chart?
    No Japan. Honest to God, he left out Japan, one of the worlds major industrial societies, 3rd largest economy. I wonder why he did. From his article:
    “Wealthier societies – even marginally wealthier societies – have the purchasing power to gorge on food without restraint for the first time in history.” But Japan does not fit into his little narrative, so viola, it doesn’t exist. Outside of Sumo wrestlers, Obesity is very rare in Japan.

    Does Gratzer address in the slightest how Japan accomplishes this? Oh, right, he never heard of Japan.

    “Look at this finish: As the world struggles with ever-expanding waistlines, this much is clear: Americans don’t need to look to a raft of new regulations, taxes and public-works projects.”

    It is clear if you kind of avoid highly industrial very wealthy and fit nations and their policies towards food. It also being tightly regulated kind of completely destroys Gratzer’s whole idea, but
    facts which contradict your political philosophy must not be addressed, even if it means treating as nonexistent an entire major industrialized nation.

    Honest to God Gratzer, do you think we are simpleminded fools?

  • lessadoabouteverything

    And contrary to the drivel Gratzer wrote, it would indeed be necessary to have a major societal shift to combat obesity, and a great deal of that would have to come from the Government. If you don’t want it, then say so. Mexico is obese yet it is fairly healthy. Their diet is not healthy but it is not full of processed foods and sugars, and people engage in far more physical activity, if anything alcoholism is a greater problem here. (I live in Mexico now)

    Gratzers’s “solution”: But the best solutions are the simplest. We need to eat more dinners with our families, prepared in our own kitchens.

    This is silly, for the reasons Jerseychix points out. For that matter, the Japanese eat out, a lot. Eating at home is not magical if you are eating a pound of mashed potatoes with a stick of butter, 5 pork chops and washing it down with soda, followed by a huge bowl of ice cream and then some chips when you are watching TV.

    However, when I lived in China I used to eat out at a Buddhist monastery a vegetarian noodle dish that was paradise. And I love meat. Also the fact I walked everywhere helped and I was in great shape. But this type of behavior was long ago baked into society. We do not have it.

  • CO Independent


    You should have a look at the emerging research documenting increases in obesity across many different species similar to those occurring across humans, which throws a bit of a wrench into the fat American theory. The research suggests that something in our gut is changing, perhaps due to changes in the environment, which allows us to extract more calories from the food we eat.

    Here’s a link to a NewsWeek teaser on the research: