The countries in the world with the highest obesity rates are (in order) USA, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland. With the exception of Mexico, all the fattest countries have one thing in common – they are English-speaking nations. In fact, the latest OECD report on obesity rates of 33 countries includes 6 English-speaking ones in the top 7, and none in the rest of the list.
Among the ten slimmest countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) are countries such as Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Austria – a good spread of northern and southern European lifestyles as well as two Asian nations.
Several people, including nutritionists, health care professionals and economists are beginning to wonder what it is that bunches all the Anglo-Saxon nations up at the top of the obesity/overweight league.
One theory is that they are all driven by an American lifestyle. Being countries that speak the same language, they are more likely to absorb and embrace features of a major nation more readily and rapidly. So, why Mexico? Historically, Mexico was never an overweight country until recently. However, during the 1990s Mexico joined NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and acquired US business practices, and perhaps also other behaviors, such as driving everywhere, living on TV dinners, and embracing fast food outlets. Osmosis is probably a likely factor too; Mexico is next door to the USA.
The United Kingdom is the fattest country in Europe, and obesity/overweight rates are growing apace. While the UK has had the fastest growing rates in Europe over the last ten years, Australia’s obesity/overweight rate has been growing faster than any other OECD country’s over the past 20 years. The OECD believes that over the next ten years obesity rates in Australia will grow another 15%.
In the USA, UK and Australia the difference in average bodyweight among men is fairly similar across all socioeconomic and academic groups. An American woman with poor education is 1.3 times more likely to be overweight than an educated woman, in the UK and Australia the difference is 1.4 times. The three countries have three similarities among male and female adult bodyweight variations.
In England, almost 1 in 3 children is overweight – in Scotland it is more than 1 in 3. Recently there have been signs of stabilization in childhood obesity rates in England. 40% of American children are overweight, but as in England, there are signs that rates are leveling out. If you look at rates and recent trends among people in English-speaking nations and compare them to other countries’, you sometimes get the impression that Anglo-Saxon countries experience the same good and bad things almost in unison.
Historically, England (the main source of recent Anglo-Saxon culture) has had a diet based on butter for cooking, versus the Mediterranean countries which predominantly have used olive oil. But this behavior goes back a long time, while the obesity epidemic is comparatively much more recent.
Only 1 person in every 10 is obese in Sweden, but more than half of adult men and 33% of adult women are overweight. There are larger social disparities regarding bodyweight in Sweden, compared to English-speaking countries. A woman in Sweden with poor education is more than twice as likely to be overweight, compared to more educated women. Although the gap in men is less, it is much greater than in the majority of OECD countries.
Although obesity rates in South Korea are the second lowest in the OECD, after Japan, they have been increasing. Approximately 4% (1 in every 25) of South Korean adults are obese, and about 30% are overweight (including obese). The OECD estimates that overweight rates will go up by 5% during the next ten years. Adult females are five times more likely than more educated women to be overweight, while differences among males hardly vary across socioeconomic or academic groups. Korean researchers found that if at least one parent is obese, boys are about 3 times more likely and girls almost 6 times more likely to be obese too, compared to children with no obese parents in the household.
Although obesity rates in Canada are high when compared to the OECD average, they have not changed much over the last 15 years. 2 in every 3 adult males are overweight, while 1 in every 4 people (both sexes) is obese. Obesity/overweight rates are expected to rise by no more than 5% during the next decade.
Although obesity rates are lower in France than the OECD average, they have been going up steadily. Approximately 1 in every 10 French people is obese, and nearly 40% are overweight. Obesity/overweight rates are expected to go up by another 10% during the next decade.
Compared to other OECD countries, adult obesity rates are slightly higher in Spain than the OECD average, but childhood rates are among the highest. 1 in every 6 people in Spain is obese, and 2 out of every 3 men are overweight. 1 in 3 children aged 13-14 years is overweight in Spain. The adult overweight/obesity rate is expected to grow by about 10% during the next decade.
As is the case in Spain, obesity/overweight rates in Italian children is very high compared to the OECD average – at 1 in 3 children being overweight, it has one of the highest rates in the OECD. Adult rates are low. Approximately 1 in 10 Italians is obese, over 50% of adult males and 1 in 3 adult females are overweight. Over the next decade rates are expected to rise by about 5%.
“Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat” (OECD)
Written by Christian Nordqvist