What makes one country fatter than the other? Is it because people there are less physically active? Is it the local diet, the state of national healthcare, the financial status of the country and its inhabitants? Is it a cultural phenomenon? The answer is: there is no single determinant. All of these factors have profound effects on a country’s health and fitness levels.
The Social Progress Index, an alternative to measures that are based solely on economic standards (such as the GDP), features data on such social progress benchmarks as nutrition, sanitation, shelter, personal safety, access to basic knowledge, and personal freedom. It also shows the obesity rates of every country. These are the top 10 most overweight countries according to the latest Social Progress Index.
- Trinidad and Tobago (30% are overweight)
In this twin island country, the fattest in the Caribbean, nearly 1 in 3 people is overweight. Recent studies by the University of the West Indies and by the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute found alarming rates of child obesity, particularly in urban areas. The rapid rise in obesity rates coincides with the expanding fast food industry in the country. Health officials blame the emerging fast food diet, popular with young people, for the obesity epidemic. It is estimated that the obesity problem in this region of the world costs the country at least $5 billion a year in medical costs.
- Venezuela (30.8% are overweight)
The obesity rate reported by the Social Progress Index is actually lower than the Venezuelan government’s own estimate, which is 38%. This massive obesity rate is mind-boggling when you consider that just 20 years ago, Venezuelans suffered from rampant food shortages, hunger, and malnutrition. Today, the obesity problem is so troubling that President Nicolas Maduro launched a national anti-obesity campaign, creating new government agencies to oversee health and nutrition guidelines, especially for children.
- United States (31.8% are overweight)
As it turns out, the United States isn’t the fattest country in the world. But it is the fattest superpower. Although the US is the land of supersized everything and the epicenter of the world’s sugar addiction, it is also a place where an obsession with self-image drives people to ever-complicated fitness routines, fad diets, weight loss surgeries, and other ways to lose the pounds accumulated from an increasingly consumer-driven lifestyle. The food industry has taken note of the market’s “thin is in” mentality and has been continuously churning out “reduced fat” versions of almost every processed food there is. For these reasons, as well as for numerous government and NGO initiatives against obesity, the United States lands at #8.
- Mexico (32.8% are overweight)
Mexico’s obesity problem is a classic example of what happens when the easy availability of processed foods and the rapid invasion of fast food chains replace a traditional, wholesome diet of local fruits, vegetables, and grains. The rise in obesity started in the 1980s, when the first McDonald’s and similar fast food restaurants were opened in Mexico. Today, seven out of 10 people in Mexico are overweight. Three out of 10 can be classified as clinically obese. In an effort to solve the obesity crisis, the Mexican government has placed a “sin tax” on junk foods: 5% on processed foods with more than 275 calories per 100 grams and an extra peso for every liter of sugary drink.
- South Africa (33.5% are overweight)
How did South Africa become the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with a serious obesity problem? There are three reasons. First, an increasingly Westernized lifestyle has driven people from their traditional diet into the hands of fast food chains. Second, people are becoming increasingly dependent on quick and inexpensive food, making the fast food industry more and more successful. Third, there is a cultural and historical notion associating corpulence with wealth and status and thinness with poverty and disease. It is expected that obesity rates in South Africa will continue to rise – drastically – in the next two decades.
- United Arab Emirates (33.7% are overweight)
The nation’s wealth has raised the quality of life for much of the UAE’s population. But the long working hours, the growing processed food and fast food markets, and a culture of physical inactivity have given the United Arab Emirates one of the worst obesity problems – and the second-highest diabetes rate – in the world. Last year, in a strange anti-obesity campaign befitting a city as affluent as Dubai, the government began a 30-day weight loss challenge that rewarded people with gold – real, solid gold. Specifically, two grams of gold worth around $90 for every two kilograms a contestant lost.
- Jordan (34.3% are overweight)
Jordan’s obesity problem is particularly troubling when you look at which sectors of the population are most affected. According to a study conducted by the University of Jordan in 2010, almost 60% of all Jordanian adult females are overweight. This is double the rate of obesity in adult males. The situation has strong social- and gender-related determinants. Most women (more than 70%) between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed. Most do not have access to facilities nor the cultural approval necessary to exercise. Education, smoking, marriage at an early age, and wealth status were also found to be strong predictors of obesity.
- Egypt (34.6% are overweight)
10% of people in Egypt drink a whopping five or more cans of soda every single day. Clearly, there is a junk food culture here that is feeding the country’s obesity problem. There is also a social-historical factor. Like many in the Middle East, plumpness – particularly in women – is appreciated. According to a Euromonitor International study, 53% of Egyptian females over the age of 15 will be obese by 2020.
- Saudi Arabia (35.2% are overweight)
Currently, at least 72% of Saudi Arabia over-40 population can be classified as clinically obese. 37% of women experience health problems related to obesity. One of the major contributing factors to the obesity problem in the female population is the gender bias that frowns on physical activity for women. But the problem has become so prevalent that the Saudi government is now considering allowing women to engage in sports activities in public schools.
- Kuwait (42.8 % are overweight)
Nearly 1 in 2 people in Kuwait is overweight. That is a staggering ratio. The cause, unsurprisingly, is Western. With the country’s oil boom and resulting affluence, people began to adopt the infrastructure, pop culture, food, and ethos of the West. When the Americans arrived during the first Gulf War, they brought with them American fast food. This rapidly transformed the Kuwaiti diet. The result? More than 70% of males and more than 80% of females in Kuwait are overweight or obese.