At the 2017 European Congress on Obesity, Dr. Harry Rutter from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine displayed an old monochrome photo of slender, fit European swimmers surrounding a pool. He went on to say that such a photograph would be impossible today—not just in Europe, but anywhere in the world.
Why? Because of the rapid spread of obesity.
The global state of obesity
Global obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016 there were more than 1.9 million overweight adults aged 18 and older. Out of that number, 650 million were obese. In the same year, more than 340 million children and teens (age 5 to 19) were either overweight or obese.
Quick-fire urbanization, dependence on fast food and increased inactivity has allowed the obesity epidemic to cover not just developed countries, but developing ones, too. An analysis of 25 years (1980-2015) of data by The New England Journal of Medicine shows that the U.S. is the country with the most number of obese adults (79.4 million), while China has the largest number of obese children (15.3 million).
Why does obesity matter? For one, 2.7 million people died of cardiovascular disease in 2015. About 70% of those deaths correlated to above-average BMI. Increase in income levels is not the only reason why obesity is here to stay. Scientists also attribute it to drastic changes in food systems.
Foods with high energy density are more easily available than ever, and their marketing campaigns are relentless. In the U.K., Cadbury’s Dairy Milk spent £12 million on advertising while the government’s healthy eating campaign had a budget of merely £5 million.
While obesity is preventable, it shows no signs of slowing down in the near future. In 2016, WHO found 41 million children under the age of 5 were obese or overweight. These children will need all the help they can get to shed those extra pounds before they reach adulthood.
Increasingly obese island nations
Study after study has proven the alarming rate at which ‘globesity’ has grown and continues to spread across the globe. That being said, 9 out of 10 of the most obese places in the world are islands in the Pacific. Kuwait, in the Middle East, comes in at number 10.
Are islanders naturally predisposed to lolling about in the sun and eventually putting on weight? That seems like a far stretch. Or is obesity in the region a consequence of colonialism? A study conducted by Oxford University states that when the British colonized islands in the Pacific, they introduced new techniques of cooking that did away with the islanders’ traditional modes. For instance, they taught the islanders to fry their fish instead of eating it raw. By seizing land for mining and cash crops, the British and other colonizers often forced the import of unhealthy food products.
Whatever the reasons for widespread obesity in the Pacific, here are the 10 places, according to WHO, that top the list of the most obese areas in the world.
- American Samoa: With its harbors surrounded by volcanic peaks, pristine beaches and coral reefs, this U.S territory is the epitome of paradise. But American Samoa also holds the title of having a population of which 74.6% are obese. With a population just under 56,000, that’s an alarming statistic for a small group of islands.
- Nauru: The Nauruan diet includes a lot of instant noodles, soda and canned food. In the 1970s, more than 30% of the population suffered from Type 2 diabetes. With a current population that’s under 15,000, this Pacific island has its work cut out for it if it wants to get back on its feet.
- Cook Islands: These dots in the Pacific are known worldwide for perfect snorkeling points, but Cook Island’s obesity problem is what has landed it in the news lately. On the islands, fishermen actually sell their produce in order to stack up on canned tuna. Economic insecurity is one of the reasons why canned food is so desired, and that can quickly lead to poor nutrition.
- Tokelau: It seems almost unfair to put an island country with a population of 1,499 on this list. However, per capita, the lack of fruits and vegetables in the islanders’ diet, and the dependence on corned beef, has made Tokelau an island of overweight individuals. While Pacific islanders are known for their big frames, excessive fat is quickly becoming a public health issue. The lack of manpower to develop a national plan is a major hindrance to turning around the trend.
- Tonga: A supermarket in Tonga is lined with rows after row of canned goods painting an ironical picture of the kingdom surrounded by the ocean. Nearly a quarter of Tongans past age 30 suffer from diabetes—and more often than not, the condition is provoked by obesity.
Places #6 through #10 on the most obese places per capita list are:
- Marshall Islands
If obesity trend is to be contained, a massive collaborative effort needs to start right now—in obese countries like the U.S.; in countries like China, which has the most obese children; and across the many island nations that have more per capita obesity than anywhere else in the world.