I t’s not just Americans and Japanese sumo wrestlers who are fat nowadays. As a witty commentator put it recently in The Hindu newspaper, the world is round, and so are a growing number of its inhabitants. From New York to New Delhi, nutritionists are sounding the alarm about the rising tide of obesity, especially among children, and public health officials worry about how, or even whether, to try and stop it — by fatwa, as it were. Unfortunately, as King Canute demonstrated a thousand years ago, tides have a tendency to resist orders.
There is no doubting the data. The United States, of course, has long been the world’s poster child for chubbiness, and developed Western countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia have been right up beside it on the scale. Nearly two-thirds of all adults in the U.S. are overweight, and more than one-third — an astounding number — are considered clinically obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Even more ominously, some 14 percent of American adolescents are overweight, and the numbers are growing as fast as their waistlines. Others are doing even worse: The World Health Organization reports, for instance, that 20 percent of Australian children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
The fattening of the West is relatively old news, however. What is only just beginning to make the headlines is the fattening of the planet as a whole. The WHO reports that more than 1.2 billion people, about one-sixth of the global population, are now overweight. And they are by no means all in the West.
Obesity is becoming almost as much of a problem in developing countries, paradoxically, as hunger. It has been estimated that more than 115 million people in Third World countries suffer from obesity-related problems such as diabetes and heart disease. People are getting fatter in the Middle East, where, according to the Middle East Online news service, the obesity ratio has reached 60 percent (although one has to wonder if the term obese here refers to what in the U.S. and other Western countries is called overweight.) They are getting fatter in much of Eastern Europe, where obesity rates have tripled in the last 25 years.
And they are getting much fatter, much faster, in China, a country that not so long ago was battling widespread malnutrition. This month, the People’s Daily reported results from a government survey conducted in late 2002: The overweight and obesity rates of Chinese adults are now at 22.8 percent and 7.1 percent respectively. That’s still a lot lower than America’ figures, but the daunting fact for officials is that China’s rates are rising faster.
Then there is Japan — the odd case of a highly developed, industrialized country with a traditional diet that has long kept its people thinner, and more long-lived, than its counterparts in the West. Fittingly, it is now manifesting a different, though still alarming, pattern. According to statistics released recently, nearly halfway through a 10-year government project aimed at improving public health by 2010, Japanese people are increasingly either too fat or too thin. While men between 20 and 60 are getting fatter, the interim report says, nearly 27 percent of women in their 20s are underweight, compared with 24 percent five years ago.
What does this barrage of data portend? For the most part, the trend is clear, as are the causes: the adoption of Western eating habits along with industrialization and growing affluence; and a decline in physical activity, as more people acquire cars and sedentary jobs. Official alarm is not inappropriate. The situation is alarming. As the chairman of Britain’s Food Standards Agency pointed out last week, if the obesity trend continues, today’s young people simply will not live as long as their parents.
What is less clear is what can effectively be done about it. Most governments are trying a multipronged approach, blending education, incentives for boosting physical activity and, in some cases, the threat of more forceful measures, such as taxing junk food and restricting its commercial promotion. All initiatives, so far, have had about as much effect as Canute ordering the tide not to come in.
Here, we suggest, is where the Japanese case might prove instructive. What do all those skinny young women tell us? If people really want to be thin, they know perfectly well how to achieve it: They eat less and exercise more. The sad fact is, nobody ever lost weight because the government, or anybody else, advised them to. That is not going to change. Parents, obviously, can set limits and an example. Beyond that, the global battle of the bulge is one that people are going to have to fight for themselves.
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