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Our big fat world

September 08, 2006

THE WORLD IS ROUND -- and so are a growing number of its inhabitants.

Amid all the attention Americans' expanding waistlines are getting in the United States, another trend has gone less noticed: According to the World Health Organization, the rest of the world is packing on pounds almost as fast. More than half of adults in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico are overweight. In China, one in five adults is heavy. Even sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the world's hungry live, is seeing an increase in obesity, especially in urban areas. Altogether there are more than a billion overweight people around the globe, compared to 800 million who are malnourished.

In many ways, of course, this is progress. More people around the world are benefiting from globalization's bounty and aren't as hungry as their parents were. Since 1990, the global rate of malnutrition has declined an average of 1.7% a year. Especially in countries such as China and India, incomes are rising, food prices are falling and more people can afford more "Westernized" (and fattening) diets.

But this expanding cornucopia comes at a price. People are eating fewer whole grains and more refined ones. They're ingesting more processed sweeteners and fats. They're cooking less and eating out more -- at places such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, both of which now sell more meals abroad than domestically. Meanwhile, a growing number are working in less labor-intensive jobs.

One result is the growing prevalence of chronic illnesses (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease) in parts of the world where they barely existed just a decade or two ago. Obesity alone, meanwhile, soon may begin to reduce global life expectancy.

Reversing this trend won't be easy. As the U.S. has shown, it's hard to get people to change their unhealthy behaviors. A worldwide ban on junk-food advertising, as advocated by some experts, is about as unlikely as it would be unwise.

But there is hope. Many countries have reduced smoking and its related illnesses in recent decades with help from governments, manufacturers and consumer groups. Public health campaigns, increased access to healthy foods and better incentives for healthy behavior could help reduce obesity. This is where the developing world may have an advantage. Obesity, and the eating habits that lead to it, haven't been a problem there for nearly as long as they have been in the developed world. Old habits die hard, but maybe newer ones are easier to break.

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