The British newspaper The Guardian ran a summary report on Saturday about “The Weight of the World.”
And the weight of the world is, um, expanding every day.
As Guardian reporters Horatia Harrod and Fred Mitting point out, about 1.6 billion people around the world are now either overweight (defined as a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 to 29) or obese (a BMI of 30 or greater). (Yes, I realize there are problems with using BMI as a measurement of unhealthy weight, but it’s the best comparative tool we have right now.)
The number of people globally who are overweight has doubled since 1980, according to the World Health Organization — and with huge (no pun intended) health consequences. Some 65 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight kills more people than being underweight.
Obesity is now the fourth leading cause of worldwide deaths. The small countries of Nauru and Tonga have the heftiest populations, according to The Guardian’s 20-country list. A stunning 94.5 percent and 90.8 percent of their populations, respectively, are overweight.
Nauru, believe it or not, recently incorporated its residents’ body size into a new tourist slogan: Feel Thin in Nauru. “We think they’ll feel really good about themselves here,” Hoku Detemano, Nauru’s 5-foot-3, 368-pound minister of tourism told travel writer Dave Seminura earlier this month. “We have hotels that are offering special gastric bypass weekends and our national airline offers an all-you-can eat deal on ribs and an in-flight magazine called ‘Gigantic Asses.'”
Where the U.S. stands
The United States is, fortunately, still behind Nauru on the weight scale. But we’re well on our way to catching up. Currently, some 70.8 percent of us are overweight — a fact that we’re apparently getting quite comfortable with, says The Guardian:
According to a study from Yale University, five per cent of Americans would rather lose a limb than be obese. The majority, however, don’t appear to have a choice, and their country is becoming increasingly adept at making life comfortable for them.
Boston Emergency Services in 2011 unveiled an ambulance for the obese. The vehicle is equipped with a stretcher that can hold 850 pounds and a hydraulic lift with a 1,000-pound capacity to ensure the safety of the sick and stem back injuries among crews hoisting hefty patients.
Brylane Home, a U.S. retailer, offers an extensive selection of extra-wide and reinforced chairs, along with high-capacity scales and extra-large “Big John” toilet seats. Police officers are now trained how to body search obese suspects “up in the folds.”
The obese even have their own advocacy group, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, whose recent objections to an “offensive” Disneyland exhibit on childhood obesity led to its closure.
In fairness, The Guardian wasn’t much kinder about the U.K.’s weight problem, declaring that if current trends continue, “90 percent of British children will be obese by 2050.”
Culture, women and weight
But I found the reports on several of the other countries more intriguing, particularly those focusing on how culture plays a role in keeping women from obtaining a healthier weight. Here, for example, is what The Guardian reporters say about Saudi Arabia, where 69 percent of the population is currently overweight:
Girls are banned from participating in sports in Saudi state schools. The stance of the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars is best summed up by Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, who said in 2009 that the excessive “movement and jumping” needed in soccer and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. One third of women in Saudi Arabia are obese.
And here is their report on Mauritania, where few people (only 36 percent) are overweight, but where women are encouraged, like geese, apparently, to “fatten up”:
A local saying goes, “The glory of a man is measured by the fatness of his woman.” A third of women over 40 have said they were force-fed as children, to fall into local standards of beauty. The process is called gavage, a French word that describes the fattening up of geese to produce foie gras. A quarter of the 1.5 million women are obese, contrasting sharply with most sub-Saharan countries. The government ran a TV and radio campaign highlighting the health risks of obesity; because most Mauritanian love songs describe the ideal woman as fat, the health ministry commissioned catchy odes to thin women.
Stemming the tide
Some countries are experiencing at least a modicum of success in keeping their populations from becoming too hefty, reports The Guardian. One such country is Sweden, where 53.3 percent of the population is overweight:
Obesity is on the rise in Sweden, but at a markedly slower rate than in other countries. In fact, the Swedes are now on track to overtake the Swiss as Europe’s slimmest people, thanks to a recent craze for high-fat, low-carb dieting. Endorsed by health authorities in 2008, the diet is now followed by one in four Swedes and its popularity was partly to blame for neighbouring Norway’s Great Butter Shortage of 2011. (Several resourceful Swedes were arrested attempting to smuggle butter across the border.)
Another country that has kept its population somewhat slim (so far) is Colombia (48.3 percent overweight):
Perhaps the most exercise friendly country in the world. Every Sunday morning in Bogota, the roads are closed to cars to allow free reign for cyclists, roller bladers and joggers to safely exercise across the 120 kilometres of what’s known as the ciclovia.
And maybe we in snowy Minnesota could take a lesson from Finland (58 percent overweight):
72 percent of the country exercises regularly, helped by a government initiative that awards cash prizes to towns that lose the most weight. As part of the same programme, the Finnish government also encouraged shoe companies to make non-slip soles standard, so people wouldn’t be deterred from walking in icy weather.
Other countries included in The Guardian’s report include Australia (63.7 percent overweight), Brazil (51.7 percent), France (50.7 percent), Jamaica (55.3 percent), Malaysia (44.2 percent), Mexico (68.1 percent), Nigeria (26.8 percent), Quatar (72.3 percent), United Arab Emirates (68.3 percent), and Zimbabwe (25.5 percent). The article doesn’t seem available through the The Guardian’s website, but it was reprinted Monday in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen, and can be read there.