The Globalization of Obesity
The Globalization of Obesity

Before globalization, the foods people ate were local and seasonal. Due to trade, maize from Mexico became the staple food of eastern and southern Africa. Wheat from the Middle East became the dominant crop in North America. Rice from Asia is now also grown and eaten all over the world. Globalization has not only internationalized foods, it has also internationalized diets. While malnutrition remains a major issue in both developed and developing countries, obesity is on the rise.

According to the International Obesity task force, an estimated 300 million people around the world are obese (BMI>30).1 For example, more than fifty percent of the adult population in Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are either overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is a growing problem, at least 25 percent of children in Australia, Iran, and the U.S. are obese.2

A number of theories seek to explain why obesity is on the rise around the world. One theory is that migration of people from rural to urban areas has changed diets to include more fast food and less traditional diets. In Mexico, childhood obesity barely existed twenty years ago, whereas a recent municipal study in Mexico City showed that 30 percent of elementary school children and 45 percent of adolescents were overweight. A rural Mexican diet is rich in corn, beans, fruits and vegetables, while the urban diet increasingly includes imported fast foods and local junk foods. Whether rich or poor, Mexicans are eating more fried fatty foods and meats, since the prices for these products have gone down in price. The ability to eat these types of foods is associated with status, and has become a cultural norm that is hard to break.3

Some analysts blame, or at least associate, the United States and its fast-food culture with the obesity problem. A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at linkages between the prevalence of McDonalds restaurants per 1000 people living in Scotland and England. The report found that in lower-income areas there were more fast food restaurants. Similar studies performed in Australia and the United States show that there are 2.5 times more fast food restaurants in poor areas than rich ones.4

On the other hand, a Rand Corporation study found that obesity is not linked to the number of fast food restaurants, but to the price of fresh produce. Children gain more weight in areas where the price of fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive.

The opposite is true as well. In Visalia, California produce is relatively cheap and the children’s excess weight gain was about half the U.S. average.5 Confirming the Rand study, a 2004 study in France, by the National Institute for Prevention and Education about Health, showed that the wealthiest 25 percent of the told French population (60 million) eats three times more vegetables than the 25 percent of the bottom of the income scale 6

Critical of the Rand study, Elizabeth Frazao, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), cited a USDA study that showed that low- income consumers did not use an extra dollar given to them to increase the purchase of more fruits and vegetable.7

Diseases associated with obesity have also risen worldwide. The number of people with diabetes has increased from 30 million worldwide in 1985 to 135 million worldwide in 1995 and the numbers continue to rise. 8More than 115 million people in the developing world are suffering from obesity- related diseases. Cardiovascular disease has been the number one worldwide killer of people, of which 80 percent can be found in developing countries. 9 Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, says that two-thirds of all diabetes and heart diseases are a result of obesity.

Kolbe believes that the obesity problem will lead to three distinct problems.

The first problem is an increased prevalence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, stroke, and certain cancers.

The second problem is the combination of increasing numbers of elderly people, among whom these diseases are more prevalent, and the increasing health care costs for this population.

The third problem is the potential decrease in competitiveness that is associated with high health-care costs to U.S. companies that must compete with China and Malaysia, where employees are healthier and the countries place a stronger emphasis on prevention.10 The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently noted that almost $10 out of every $100 of all US health care expenditures “is directly related to obesity and physical inactivity.”11

Efforts to combat obesity have been instituted by governments, companies, and non-profits worldwide. In England, plans are being made to outlaw the sale of carbonated drinks and junk food in school vending machines. Additionally, British school cafeterias are not allowed to sell poor-quality hamburgers, sausages, and other high fat foods. Students will be required to learn how to cook vegetables and other healthy foods. 12

In France, the government will soon require companies to attach health advisories in a prominent position on all print and broadcast advertisements for processed foods. Companies who do not comply will be forced to pay a 1.5 percent tax on their advertising budget.13

In March 2005, the European Commission brought together EU institutions, national governments, and representatives of the food industry, advertisers, retailers, caterers and civil society groups to launch the EU platform on Diet, Nutrition and Physical Health.14

Many other efforts exist to fight obesity through health and fitness or through scientific exploration of genes and surgery. Some researchers are even examining how to change the diets of babies in the wombs. Changing human nature though is difficult. Candy bar or apple, which would you take if given an extra dollar?


2Brownell, Kelly and Derek Yach. “The Battle of the Buldge.” Foreign Policy, November/December 2005. page: 26-27.

3Malkin, Elizabeth. “Mexico Confronts Sudden Surge in Obesity.” New York Times, June, 29, 2005.

4Paterson, Liam. “New report links McDonals with obesity in poor areas.” Scotsman. October 21, 2005.href=”

5“Obesity Linked to the Cost of Produce?” CBS News.

6“French Diet Advice Book, U.S. Bestseller, Is Ignored at Home”

7“Obesity Linked to the Cost of Produce?” CBS News.

8Brownell, Kelly and Derek Yach. “The Battle of the Buldge.” Foreign Policy, November/December 2005. page: 26-27

9Elmasry, Faiza. “World Food Prize 2005 Fights Malnutrition and Obesity.” VOA News. October 31, 2005:

10Kelly, Niki. “As obesity grows, all of society is paying more.” The Journal Gazette. October, 30, 2005:http://www.fortwayne.come/mld/journalgazette/living/13936493.htm

11Bernard, Darren “Responsibility and the obesity crisis” Minnesota Daily. October 27, 2005.
12Emling, Shelly. “Britain aims to curb obesity among children.” Austin American Statesman. October 30, 2005.

13Hugh Schofield, “French obsession with thin falters as obesity rises.” Sunday Herald. October 30, 2005.

14 “EU Health Forum: Working Together.” <a href=”

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