Fat World: The Globalization of American Obesity?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/27/2010 12:04:00 AM
Your butt is wide, well mine is too
Just watch your mouth or I'll sit on you

The word is out, better treat me right
Cause I'm the king of cellulite

Although they're arguably becoming a country of fatheads as well, Americans are better known worldwide for their astonishing girth. A new OECD study finds that over a third of these stupendously gluttonous people are clinically obese. Indeed, there's no stopping Yankee pavement pounding tonnage in the obesity league tables as the percentage of overweight folks is set to increase even more in the coming years:

It seems exceedingly odd to me that other IPE people don't make more of these ominous statistics. Whether it's common American unwillingness to face up to the fats I really don't know. I'm not hitting below the belt here (besides, I can't see where America's belt lies since it's well-hidden under rolls of flab). So the weighty truth stares us in the quintuple chin: it is well-known and accepted that health care bills will gobble the bulk of developed country budgets in the coming years. However, there is a deadly combination of fiscal and health indiscipline driving this dietary-industrial complex. It ain't cheap to be chubby, honey:
Rates are highest in the United States and Mexico and lowest in Japan and Korea, but have been growing virtually everywhere. Children have not been spared, with up to 1 in 3 currently overweight. Severely obese people die 8-10 years sooner than those of normal-weight, similar to smokers, and they are more likely to develop diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Obesity is a burden on health systems, with health care expenditure for an obese person at least 25% higher than for someone of normal weight.
So America's public finances are set to suffer more under the weight its citizens will place on health services than those of other developed nations. What else is new? Aside from Americans topping the obesity sweepstakes, there's an incredibly curious finding here depicted in the above chart [click to enlarge image]: 6 out of the 7 of the OECD's portliest nations, in ascending order--Ireland, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US--are English-speaking. Why is this so? Medical News Today throws up some researchable hypotheses:
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.
Maybe its in the genes. Why don't those Freakonomics geeks research stuff like this that's actually important? It certainly casts ominous portents if Mexico's rise in the cellulite league tables is due in part to joining NAFTA. It's also interesting to figure out why countries in the Anglosphere are so darned portly. Is Americanization indeed synonymous with this kind of mega-obesity? It's too scary to ponder.

And the whole world knows I'm fat and I'm proud
Just come tell me once again - who’s fat?

UPDATE: See my recent post on Singapore's seemingly effective fat-fighting policy for an update.