Obesity Around the World

Years into the obesity epidemic, millions of Americans have tried to lose weight, and millions of them have failed to do so long term. It’s so serious now that close to 40 percent of Americans are obese. The average woman in the United States today weighs about 168 pounds, or roughly the same as an average man in 1960.

Obesity is now considered to be a global epidemic. Today, 2.1 billion people – nearly 30% of the world’s population – are either obese or overweight. The majority of the obesity on the planet resides in a few countries, in fact, the top 10 countries contribute half the entire world’s obesity. Unfortunately, the U.S. ranks as the most obese country in the world. The rest of the most affected countries are:

  1. United States
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Brazil
  5. Mexico
  6. Russia
  7. Egypt
  8. Turkey
  9. Iran
  10. Nigeria

The following shows how the percentage of obese population differs among 16 countries:

obesity by country

The future of improving obesity rates is looking bleak! The following chart shows the projected rates of obesity in the world:

improving obesity rates

Why does Japan have such a low rate of obesity?

A comparison of obesity in Japan and the United States is especially relevant, because Japan has one of the lowest rates and the United States one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. We have discussed many times why the American population is so overweight (sedentary lifestyle, processed foods, portion sizes, high carb and sugar diet, trans-fats, etc.). Here are some of the major reasons why the Japanese are so slim:

  • The major explanation for the much lower rate of obesity may be that the Japanese are far more physically active than Americans. However, this is not because the Japanese go to the gym or engage in planned physically activities more than Americans. The answer is that they walk far more as part of their daily lives and do not even report it as (planned) physical exercise. In part this is due to the high cost of owning and operating an automobile in Japan.
  • The average Japanese consumes much fewer calories and less fat than the typical American, which in part simply reflects the smaller stature of the Japanese. Also, food is considerably more expensive in Japan than in the United States.
  • The traditional diet in Japan has helped keep its people both thinner and healthier than other developed, industrialized countries. A food pyramid depicting a traditional Japanese diet has much in common with the pyramid of the traditional Mediterranean diet.
  • Portions are much smaller at a Japanese restaurant or home prepared meal than typical in the U.S. Fruit is usually served at the end, rather than a rich desert.

So what will it take for everyone in the world to realize that real changes are needed in systems around the world (e.g. improving food systems, food and physical activity environments, economic incentives, etc.)? Does the human population have to hit rock bottom? Will everyone need to roll over in bed one day, see who our unwanted bedfellow is (overwhelming costs and an incapacitated society) and say, "Oh my, what have we done?" Waiting until then may be much too late to remove that bedfellow from your bed.

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