Posted on February 22, 2007

Pacific Islanders World’s Fattest People

Nick Squires, Telegraph (London), February 22, 2007

Their physicality and sex appeal seduced Gauguin and Somerset Maugham, but the people of the South Pacific are now the fattest in the world.

Islanders who once criss-crossed the world’s largest ocean are now barely able to fit into their canoes, let alone paddle them vast distances.

A new survey has found that of the top 10 most corpulent countries on the planet, eight are in the South Pacific, including holiday destinations such as Samoa and the Cook Islands.

The survey, The World’s Fattest Countries, by the Forbes organisation, shatters the romantic image of slim-hipped island maidens and muscular warriors, presenting instead a picture of a paradise lost.

A traditional diet of fish, vegetables and coconuts has been replaced by tinned meat, junk food, high-fat snacks and notorious “mutton flaps”, fatty off-cuts from sheep which islanders relish when fried. Imported from New Zealand, they are so unhealthy that they were banned by Fiji.

Where once Pacific peoples ate reef fish and yams, they now gorge themselves on corned beef and “turkey tails”—cheap, highly fatty pieces of skin imported from the United States.

The change in diet has been exacerbated by a drift towards towns, lack of exercise and, in some cases, a cultural belief that physical bulk is a sign of beauty and wealth.

It has led to dramatically increased rates of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. More and more people are going the way of the late King of Tonga, who until his death last year was listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s heaviest monarch, weighing in at 33 stone.

The Forbes survey found that the tiny island republic of Nauru has the portliest population in the world.

A sun-baked rock that once grew rich on its phosphate reserves, nearly 95 per cent of its 13,000 people are overweight, based on information supplied by the World Health Organisation.

The micro-nation is struggling with a diabetes epidemic which is affecting a third of its adults. The next bulkiest people are to be found in the Federated States of Micronesia, then the Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Samoa and Palau.

Kuwait, at number eight, is an exception to the South Pacific rule, as is the United States, in ninth place, where 74 per cent of adults are considered overweight.

“Many Pacific islands are not conducive to increasing levels of physical activity—there are not enough sporting facilities and in some cases there are not even places where you can swim,” said Jenny MacKenzie, a healthy living consultant with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

Genetics also plays a part—Tongans, for instance, are believed to be predisposed to weight gain and are poorly equipped to deal with processed food.

The WHO defines an overweight person as someone with an individual body mass index (weight relative to height) greater than or equal to 25. Obese is defined as having a BMI greater than or equal to 30.

There are currently 1.6 billion overweight adults in the world. The WHO predicts that number will grow by 40 per cent in the next decade.

No matter how you tip the scales, Americans are getter wider every year. What’s worse is that many nations are following suit.

In a list of the countries with the greatest percentage of overweight people, Nauru tops a list of countries with the greatest percentage of overweight people, with an alarming 94.5% of its adult population (ages 15+) classified as such, based on the most recent estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Federated States of Micronesia, Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga round out the top five, all with a portly population of over 90%.

The U.S. weighs in at No. 9, with 74.1% of those over 15 years old considered overweight. But given that its population is nearly 20,000 times that of Nauru, clearly the U.S.’s size belies it rank.

Experts say it is not surprising that people across the globe are increasingly becoming overweight. They blame urbanization and the influx of Western ways of life including myriad fast food choices, little exercise and stressful jobs.


Countries Transformed

This change in lifestyle is most evident in the South Pacific. On the list of “fattest” countries, eight of the top 10 are in the Pacific region.

In the last 50 years this area has established significant economic ties with the U.S. and New Zealand, which caused a surge in Western imports and a significant change in diet. Studies conducted by the WHO Western Pacific regional office and by the International Obesity Task Force, a London-based think tank, also point to several other factors they say contribute to the region’s high obesity rates. These include the common belief that beauty is marked by a large physical size, the reliance on fatty, nutrient-deficient imported foods and a decrease in activity caused by less farming and agricultural work.


“Obesity has become a problem of poverty,” says Daniel Epstein of the WHO Regional Office of the Americas. “Poor people have an easier time of eating junk food. People fill up on things that have a high caloric value but little nutritional value.”


China and India have relatively low percentages of overweight adults, 28.9% and 16.0% respectively. But obesity and its potential complications are increasing there at unparalleled speed due to the growth of urban populations and an expanding middle class who can afford richer food in greater quantities than their rural counterparts. In China, for example, the number of obese people has tripled since 1992, the WHO reports.

It’s Not All About Size

The related health risks associated with being overweight are striking. Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and stroke are just some of the hazards.

It should not come as a shock that the nation with the highest rate of adult diabetes is Nauru, where nearly 31% of the population is struck with the disease, according to the International Diabetes Federation. The countries with the largest numbers of people with diabetes are India (40.9 million), China (39.8 million) and the U.S. (19.2 million).

Behind the Numbers

The WHO’s definitions of “overweight” and “obese” are based on an individual’s body mass index (BMI), which measures weight relative to height. Overweight is marked by a BMI greater than or equal to 25 and obese is defined as having a BMI greater than or equal to 30.

It’s important to note that the definitions for overweight can vary by country and study. For example, in China, where the population has a high susceptibility to abdominal obesity (which is not directly reflected in BMI calculations), the cut-off point for overweight is 23.


There are currently 1.6 billion overweight adults in the world, according to the World Health Organization. That number is projected to grow by 40% over the next 10 years. The following list reflects the percentage of overweight adults aged 15 and over. These are individuals who have individual body mass indexes, which measures weight relative to height, greater than or equal to 25. Obese is defined as having a BMI greater than or equal to 30.

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