Special Report

The World’s Most Overweight Countries

Detailed Findings and Methodology

With the exception of Lebanon and Jordan, the most overweight Middle Eastern nations have among the highest GDPs per capita in the world. Middle Eastern countries have accumulated great wealth over the past decades due primarily to oil and gas production. Qatar and Kuwait, two of the wealthiest countries in the world by GDP per capita, are among the seven. Qatar is home to the world’s largest natural gas field. Kuwait is one of the world’s largest oil suppliers.

Affluent countries tend to report higher rates of overweight and obese adults, likely because they are not taking advantage of access to healthy foods and recreational facilities. Adoption of the westernized diet, which predominantly comprises heavily processed and packaged foods, genetics, and leading a sedentary lifestyle are likely large contributors to the increasing prevalence of overweight adults in the Middle East.

The United Arab Emirates and Turkey, in particular, have seen considerable jumps in the percentage of overweight adults in the past decade. The prevalence of overweight adults increased by 6.3 percentage points in both Middle Eastern countries. In the U.S., the share of adults who are overweight increased by 5.4 percentage points.

Unlike the lower half of the 20 most overweight countries, the top 10 are far from affluent and are all located in the Oceania region of the world. All are island nations, meaning they rely heavily on imported food. The diet in the islands used to consist of fish, fresh fruit, and root vegetables. But with the advent of global trade, imported food became much cheaper compared to the islanders’ staples. Those imported foods, however, tend to be calorie-rich, processed goods, often devoid of much nutritional value.

In addition, much of the land on the islands is not suitable farming. For example, though the Marshall Islands may have an abundance of fruit trees, it isn’t well suited for agriculture. Farming is a challenge because the soil contains sand and lacks organic content necessary for cultivating crops. In other islands, mining left the land also less suited for farming.

Genetics is also believed to play a role in the prevalence of obesity in the Oceanic islands. One study in particular focused on a gene found in one-quarter of all Samoans that elevates their risk of obesity by as much as 40%. The gene is said to have developed during the colonization period, when Samoans were enduring long voyages between islands. The gene enables Samoans to store more fat and release less energy. Today, Samoans do not exert that kind of energy, which likely contributes to the nation’s high prevalence of overweight adults.

To identify the world’s most overweight countries, 24/7 Wall St. tracked the age-standardized percentage of the population that have a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 25, which was provided by the WHO, and is for 2016. Per-capita GDP figures came from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators and are for 2016. Region classifications were retrieved from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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