Nearly 30 percent of the world’s population is overweight or obese, and not one country has reduced its obesity rate in 33 years, according to a new study combining three decades of data from 188 countries, published in The Lancet last month.

Though there are patterns, obesity is not evenly distributed by region, by ethnic group or by national income levels. It is more common among women than men, especially in poor countries.

Although 13 percent of the world’s obese people live in the United States, the world’s richest country, 62 percent live in poor or middle-income countries. Countries with the highest rates included Tonga, Samoa and Kiribati in the South Pacific and Kuwait, Libya and Qatar in the Middle East.

Citizens of many Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, gained the most weight over the last 30 years.

By contrast, almost all of Asia remained thin. The two Koreas, vastly different in wealth, are both low, though South Koreans are somewhat fatter.

Countries near each other may differ greatly. Few Tunisians are obese, while many Libyans are. Bhutan’s obesity rates are five times as high as Nepal’s.

The widest fluctuations were in Africa. Island nations like Mauritius and the Seychelles had obesity rates nearly 10 times those of Ethiopia and Burundi, for example. Relatively prosperous South Africa had the highest female obesity rates, but obesity was also surprisingly high in a few poor nations like South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary


Jeffrey R. Ungvary