Over the last century or so, our world has become a pretty darn big place. Between 1980 and 2014, the World Health Organization estimates global obesity doubled. In the US alone, more than two thirds of all adults are considered overweight, with one third considered obese (33%). That’s gotta be a world leader, right? Well, believe it or not, America doesn’t even break the top 10 countries on the obesity scale. It sits at 16th, between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That’s right. There are at least fifteen countries with bigger waistlines than in the US.
In a second, we’ll list the top 10 of them for you. But first, a quick note before we start. We’re using data from the CIA World Factbook, and we’re only using countries that are UN member states. So Tokelau, for example (4th fattest) won’t appear on our list as it’s technically part of New Zealand. Understood? OK, then. Let’s examine some bellies.
10. The Bahamas
Only 100 miles or so from mainland USA, on the fringes of the sun-drenched Caribbean, sits the tenth fattest nation in the entire world. 36.6% of the adult population of the Bahamas are obese, with a staggering 69% rating as overweight; the highest in Latin America or the Caribbean. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. For years now, the Bahaman government has been sounding the alarm on the country’s waistlines, but to no avail.
The issue is that the Bahaman diet is seriously unhealthy, even from the American point of view. As the local Tribune newspaper pointed out in early 2017, locals culturally eat an insane amount of rice, macaroni, fried chicken and fast foods. Nobody really eats vegetables. From a very young age, kids are encouraged to knock back soda like they’re about to complete a hike across Death Valley at the height of summer.
For all this you can probably thank the massive trend toward urbanization that has hit the islands in the last couple of decades. As people have poured into cities, they’ve also poured into McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A, and wherever else trades in super-fattening junk food.
9. Federated States of Micronesia
Go get a map of the world. See that impossibly-huge patch of blue emptiness stretching between Indonesia and Hawaii? Somewhere in the middle of all that is the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). A collection of over 600 islands divided between four countries (kinda like how the UK is really made up of four different countries joined together – Power Rangers style – to make one super-nation) FSM is probably most-famous to Americans as the place unlucky enough to be downwind of all those atom bomb tests.
It’s also a pretty tubby place, if the numbers are anything to go by. A third of the adult population (33.2%) are considered obese, actually a little lower than in Bahamas. But whereas the Bahamas at least have some svelte types running around, the percentage of Micronesians classed as overweight stands at over 80%. That leaves just a fifth of the population sporting waistlines that can in any way be considered ‘not big’.
The reason for all this? We’d love to tell you atomic fallout has caused the population to mutate to a size and density where they could withstand nuclear blasts, but actually it’s more to do with abandoning traditional diets as corporations and fast food arrived. That’s something you’re gonna be hearing a lot over the next few entries.
8. St. Kitts and Nevis
A tiny two-island nation in the middle of that lovely ring of Caribbean islands that sweeps in an arc all the way from Cuba down to Venezuela, Saint Kitts and Nevis is like paradise on Earth. Unless you happen to be a pair of slim-fitting pants. Over 40% of the 54,000 people who call these islands home are classified as obese by the CIA World Factbook. Back away to plain, old-fashioned fatness, and the numbers are equally grim. 75% of women and 66% of men are carrying around a few extra layers of fat too many.
As usual, the cause of all this appears to be junk food. Ultra-processed dinners, lots of fizzy drinks and enough takeout to kill a horse have been blamed by the local government for bloating the population over recent decades. In 2012, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) within the Ministry of Health, Dr. Patrick Martin, even claimed: “The only exercise some (of our) children get are with their fingers as they move a mouse around.”
All this means the CIA Factbook currently ranks St Kitts and Nevis as the fattest of all Caribbean countries.
A tiny country in the Middle East, Kuwait was the trigger for America’s first war against Saddam Hussein. In 1990, Iraqi tanks rolled across the border. In 1991, they hastily rolled back, chased outta Kuwait by American soldiers who proudly declared “and that’s the last time we’ll have to fight anybody from Iraq!” As a result, the little oil nation has been seriously pro-USA ever since, often mimicking US international policies. But there’s one area where Kuwait is safely leading the US: sales of fat guy pants.
The CIA puts the obesity rate of Kuwait at 42%. That’s nothing. A BBC report from 2012 puts the overweight rate at 88% of the population. That means that you can take a sampling of any random group of 10 Kuwaitis in a room somewhere, and all but one of them will have had to turn sideways to fit through the door.
Perversely, the reason for this epidemic of fatness can be summed up in one name: Saddam Hussein. When the US was called in to liberate Kuwait, American bases brought fast food with them. This caught on so big that when the soldiers left, McDonalds stayed. Add to that a country where the midday heat is so high (50C/122F) it discourages exercise, and you have a perfect recipe for creating the fattest nation in the Middle East.
6. Marshall Islands
Remember in the Micronesia entry we noted how FSM was still kinda angry about being hit with all that atomic fallout? Marshall Islands was where those bombs actually exploded. For the past 60 years, places like Bikini Atoll have been so awash with radiation that families cannot return to their ancestral homes. So, despite being made up of over 1,150 separate islands, most of Marshall Islands’ population today is clustered on just a handful of atolls.
For centuries, the Marshallese were typically slim and lithe, subsisting mainly on coconuts and fish. Then the Second World War sent the Allies and Axis alike scrambling for Pacific territory. Before 1945 had even rolled round, foods like spam and corned beef were littering the Marshall Islands’ atolls. Before long, the islanders had developed a taste for these super-processed snacks. Fast forward to 2008, and things got so bad that officials were forced to publicly sound the alarm on the dangers of spam.
Today, the obesity rate in the nation is around 45.4%, or, as we prefer to call it, “one heck of a lot.”
If you’ve got bored and flicked ahead at any point in this countdown, you might have noticed that every single country from item 6 down is a Pacific Island nation. In the decades following WWII, pretty much every country in the region was whammed with an epidemic of fatness bordering on the ridiculous. Kiribati is no exception. Once most-famous for being the site of heavy Japanese-American fighting (the capital is still littered with rusted tanks and gun emplacements), today it’s probably best known for being the first nation likely to vanish beneath rising sea levels. Oh, and it also has an obesity rate of 46%.
As with everywhere else on this list, the problem seems to lie with excessive consumption of fast food. The diabetes rate stands at around 30%, with the overall overweight rate at roughly 80%. But it’s not quite as simple as getting people to eat healthier foods. People on Kiribati aren’t particularly rich, and processed junk food costs a lot less than even fresh fish caught from the waters completely surrounding them. Economically, getting fat makes perfect sense.
Palau is almost awe-inspiringly tiny. It has an area of just 466sq km. It’s population is barely over 20,000. Its largest city, Koror, is essentially a single street with a couple of cute cul-de-sacs coming off it. However, there is one thing about Palau that manages to be significantly bigger than average. Yup, you’ve guessed it. The nation’s waistlines are so big, just a hair under 50% of the population is considered obese.
Interestingly, some scientists in recent years have begun floating theories about Pacific Islanders’ fatness that suggest it may not be down to poor impulse control. There’s something known as the “Thrifty Gene” which has been hypothesized as being present in Polynesians. The idea goes that, in the past, Pacific Island dwellers evolved to store as much fat as humanly possible in their bodies, to make up for the long sea journeys they often undertook, which could lead to starvation. So while Americans certainly get fat from eating junk food, the bodies of Pacific Islanders cling to those calories like drowning people holding onto the wreckage of the Titanic.
Want an interesting, bitesize factoid to start this entry with? If American Samoa was a country, it would be number one on this list. The obesity rate of the unincorporated territory is nearly 75%, making it the fattest place on Earth. Plain ol’ regular Samoa, by contrast, is practically skinny. With only 54% of its inhabitants lugging around a few extra layers in the gut department, it is to American Samoa what most nations are to regular America.
What’s especially shocking about this is that Samoa has been on a health kick since 2004. After the government declared an obesity-related “state of emergency”, thousands of Samoans were shanghaied into group work-out events, mass Zumba classes, and exercise festivals. Today, the average Samoan does two hours of exercise per day, compared to 17 minutes for the average American. Yet rates of obesity and diabetes continue to skyrocket.
One of the reasons is the unfortunate high prices of corned beef. Because the cans are expensive, eating them has become a status symbol. So, perversely, more Samoans are now eating corned beef than when it was cheaper, fueling the obesity epidemic.
When King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga died in 2006, he was known around the world. Not because he was a particularly noble or exemplary statesman, although his modernizing rule was generally well-regarded at home, but because of his sheer girth. Weighing in at an incredible 440lbs, he was by far the fattest monarch in world history. This wasn’t because he was eating all the island’s food while his people starved. If anything, Tupou IV was the owner of an entirely typical Tongan body shape.
Here are some facts. Just shy of 60% of Tonga’s population is obese, and 40% have Type-II Diabetes. This is because, traditionally, Tongan society has seen big as beautiful. If you’re fat in Tonga, the stereotype is that you’re rich and powerful and desirable to women. If, on the other hand, you’re rake-thin, society says that you’re probably poor, a bit of a loser, and have likely never even got to second base (interestingly, the exact opposite of how things are seen in Europe and America). To top it all off, grand feasts are a traditional part of the Tongan lifestyle. It’s not unknown for people to put away over 1 kilogram of mutton flaps in a single sitting.
The sheer obesity levels of Nauru are breathtaking. A tiny island nation near Australia, Nauru covers just 21sq km, and has a population of only 10,084. It’s so small, it’s the only nation on Earth not to have a capital. But Nauru has something else, instead. According to the CIA World Factbook, a staggering 71.1% of the population is classified as obese.
That’s so far ahead of anywhere else on Earth bar American Samoa (which isn’t even a country), that officials have called it a crisis. The public health knock-ons make for some sobering reading. Binge drinking is out of control. Limb amputations due to diabetes are common. For a Nauruan to live past 60 means they’re beating the odds. Nutrition is such a non-existent thing that visitors have reported feeling lucky to manage to eat one vegetable a week.
Part of this may be due to the crazy economic changes Nauru has witnessed in the last few decades. In the 1980s, phosphate mining made it the richest nation in terms of GDP per-capita on Earth. It also destroyed the island, leaving it a barren, barely-inhabitable wasteland. Earnings have since collapsed, and now the only work is manning one of Australia’s notorious offshore detention centers. Perhaps it’s no wonder people are turning to booze and cheap food.