Remember those heart-tugging TV commercials in which Sally Struthers implored us to help fight world hunger? Well, we reached a strange tipping point recently. According to an October report from the World Health Organization (WHO), more people worldwide now die from being overweight and obese than from being underweight. Although world hunger remains a significant problem, it’s our appetite for prosperity and all its spoils that’s more likely to kill us now.
In half of the countries we surveyed, most people have tried to lose weight at least once. Around the world, women are significantly more likely
than men to have tried to reduce.
According to WHO, there are approximately 1.6 billion overweight or obese people in the world; at least 2.5 million deaths are attributable to these conditions annually. Nearly 18 million children under age five are estimated to be overweight. How long do you think it will be before some celebrity appears on our TV screens showing pictures of plump toddlers and beseeching us to help them fight fat?
To understand what’s happening and to bring us closer to a possible solution, Reader’s Digest commissioned a global diet poll, interviewing approximately 16,000 people in 16 countries about their attitudes and behaviors regarding weight. Our statistical tour reveals the country where being fat is no big deal and the spot where thin is the most in. It makes clear which nation blames America for this obesity epidemic and which points the finger at itself. It shows who’s dieting, who’s doing surgery, and who’s positively reckless in paring the pounds. Come with us as we explore how people around the world view obesity—and what they’re doing about it.
The Country Most Aware of the Dangers of Obesity
In the 1970s, Finland had the world’s highest incidence of deaths from heart disease. Not anymore. A public health campaign to educate people about diet, exercise, and the dangers of smoking helped slash heart disease deaths in the working-age population by 80 percent over the past three decades and added nearly ten years to the average Finn’s life.
One of the keys to the turnaround, says Pekka Puska, MD, director general of the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, was community-based incentives such as “Quit and Win” challenges. Towns actually competed for prizes based on how many people stopped smoking or cut their cholesterol—or shaved a few inches off their midsection.
Our survey found that 83 percent of Finns have attempted to lose weight at some point, a figure that’s at least 10 percentage points higher than in any other country we polled. How the U.S. compares: Seventy-two percent of Americans have tried to lose weight, predominantly for health reasons. Not surprisingly, women are much more likely to have done so than men—85 percent versus 59 percent.
The Country That Feels the Most Pressure to Be Thin
In Rio, where people are expected to wear as few clothes as possible to Carnaval or at the beach, there is a genuine cult of the body. The need to be inspection-ready is a burden: Our survey found that 83 percent of Brazilians think there’s too much emphasis placed on weight, with men (77 percent) and women (89 percent) both feeling the pressure. Maybe that explains a few other national trends: The percentage of the population taking diet pills doubled between 2001 and 2005, plastic surgery is booming, and doctors even offer toe liposuction (to create more “toe cleavage”).
How the U.S. compares: Sixty-two percent of Americans say we pay entirely too much attention to weight. The United States ranks third in this category, behind Brazil and India (68 percent).
The Country Where Wives Most Want Their Husbands to Lose Weight
More than half (51 percent) of married American women wish their husbands were thinner. Conversely, 47 percent of married American men desire the same of their mates. The irony: A full 68 percent of women said our culture is overly focused on weight. Evidently, they’re more accepting of a belly if it’s not hanging off their hubby.
The Country Where Husbands Most Want Their Wives to Lose Weight
Forty-eight percent of Indian men admit to being dissatisfied with the shape of their spouse, while 46 percent of Indian women say the same. On the bright side, everyone seems equally unhappy.
How the U.S. compares: American men come in right behind their Indian counterparts—47 percent wish for just a little less of their wives.
The Country Where You’re Loved Just the Way You Are
Not only are Hungarians the least likely to feel like their poundage is being eyed with public disapproval—a paltry 28 percent said their country’s emphasis on weight was too great—married folk are more apt to be content with the shape of their spouse. Only 11 percent of Hungarian men and 14 percent of women want their mates to get their ladle out of the goulash pot.