On the Table: Americans are the fattest people in the world.

March 14, 2012 

We’re No. 1, but this time, that’s not a good thing. Americans are the fattest people in the world.

That’s what the OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – reported in its 2012 obesity update. The findings are enough to make you lose your appetite. (They sent me running to the gym.)

According to the OECD, less than 1 in 10 Americans was obese before 1980. Now we and our neighbor Mexico share the gold medal for fatness: At least 1 out of 3 of us is obese. Another third of us are getting there.

If current trends continue, more countries will join us within the decade.

The costs of fat

The OECD also shared these sour tidbits:

• People who are severely overweight share a lifespan reduction similar to that of smokers and die eight to 10 years sooner than normal-weight people.

• Our U.S. weight problem accounts for up to 10 percent of our health care costs. That figure will increase because of the cost of treating obesity-related diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis.

• Being overweight can affect your job prospects, too. Obese people are more likely to be out of work and earn substantially less than normal-weight people.

Not everyone shares our pain. In Japan and Korea, the prevalence of obesity is only 4 percent. We’ve got some work to do.

Worldwide alert

Governments around the world are on Red Alert, launching health promotion initiatives and coordinated national programs like first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.

There’s more pressure on food companies to improve the nutritional profiles of their products, reduce portion sizes in restaurants and limit advertisements for junk foods that target kids.

I’ve discussed some of these efforts in previous columns.

There’s also more global chatter – and action – about the potential for taxes to create economic incentives that support health.

Last year, for example, Denmark, Hungary, and Finland introduced taxes on certain foods high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. France this year added a tax on soft drinks. We’re still debating the idea here in the U.S.

We’ve got to do something, and it needs to be bigger and bolder than before.

If we have to be the fattest, we need to lead the world in finding a solution.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net and follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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