Obesity around the world – where and why?

It is interesting to look at obesity rates for men, women, girls and boys around the globe. The differences between countries and their populations are striking and more or less pronounced, with poor places such as Ethiopia, Niger, Chad and Mali (about 2% obesity for women), and rich countries such as Japan and South Korea at one side of the spectrum (about 4% obesity for women), and a variety of emerging markets such as Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Algeria, Kazakhstan and Venezuela, and wealthy nations such as The U.S., Great Britain, Saudi Arabia (50%!), Australia, New Zeeland and Finland on the opposite side. But why?

Red = most obese
Turquoise = least obese

The reason for these patterns is most likely that in really poor countries, virtually no one can afford to be fat – food sources are scarce. That is true for not just a large part of Sub-Saharan Africans but also a significant share of people who inhabit nations like India and China. With regard to the two last-mentioned countries – with the two largest populations in the entire world – their middle-classes are growing in parallel with economic and material development, and their shirt sizes as well. However, it will take a while before an even larger share of people can afford easy accessible food supplies. Many are still too poor to be (over-)fed. Hence, we can expect higher obesity rates in many emerging markets, although beauty ideals and collectivistic cultural patterns may hold Chinese people – especially women – back.

In wealthy East Asian states like Japan and South Korea on the other hand, the dietary habits and beauty ideals are very distinct. People are also more collectivistic and in-group oriented than Western people. Japanese and Koreans – both sexes – eat some degree of unhealthy foodstuffs but do nevertheless keep themselves in check. This is how beautiful women in general should look, according to the current standards.


In emerging markets on the other hand, a significant share of people can nowadays afford regular food and it has gradually become more accessible. Some products may of course be too expensive, but red meat, poultry, bread, sauce, sugar, rice, cereals, etcetera can be afforded. The same is obviously the case for rich OECD countries like The U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zeeland, Finland etcetera, and the combination of cultural individualism and relative fat acceptance can explain the current – more or less pronounced – obesity rates in these countries.

The outlier Saudi Arabia can be explained due to the fact that it is rich and that most women do not partake in regular physical exercise, and overall not nearly to the same extent as Western women. A huge share just stay home – often dressed in niqab – and eat, I guess. Similar national-cultural patterns are to be found in other Arab-Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Iraq, but the poorer share of inhabitants decrease the total obesity rate, making Saudi Arabia the most extreme in this respect. Plus, the Wahhabi doctrine magnifies the radical denunciation of female influence and activity in both public and private.