The Global Mail has ceased operations.
Resources
<p>Victoria Roberts</p>

Victoria Roberts

Just How Fat Are We?

Researchers in Europe have put the world’s population on the scales. They worked out that so many of us are overweight or obese that it’s equivalent to another 300 million mouths to feed.


Here's a pop quiz for you. What is the adult population of North America?

A few years ago, the official number was around 260 million. But the more accurate figure may be some 30 per cent higher — closer to 340 million. To be brutal, it's because so many of them are so fat.

London researchers have put the world's population on the scales and worked out that so many people are overweight or obese, they are effectively making the planet much more crowded.

If every nation's population was as fat as America's, they reckon, it would be the same as having about an extra billion bodies on earth.

That's equivalent to the population of India. Bigger than Brazil. Three quarters of China.

For hundreds of years, we've been worried about how many people are on the Earth. In 1798, the British clergyman and economist Thomas Malthus warned that rapid population growth would eventually outstrip food supply, leading to widespread famine.

<p>Graphic by Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail</p>

Graphic by Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail

By 1968, in the bestseller The Population Bomb, US biologist professor Paul R. Ehrlich was advocating compulsory birth control, if necessary.

More recently, one of the world's most prominent economists, US professor Jeffrey Sachs, gave a series of lectures called Bursting at the Seams. "Our planet is crowded to an unprecedented degree," he said. "It's bursting at the seams in human terms, in economic terms and in ecological terms."

But this new paper, Weight of Nations: An Estimation of Adult Human Biomass, just published in the London-based journal BMC Public Health suggests we should be more concerned about where the babies are born, not how many there are.

Because if they are born in the United States, they will end up, on average, nearly twice as big as someone from Bangladesh or Vietnam, greatly increasing their demands on the planet for food and fuel.

"Our main point from the paper is actually we've [not only] got to consider the number of mouths to feed on the planet, we've also got to consider the amount of flesh we're feeding," says Ian Roberts, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"For years the discussion around population has been about, you know, people in Africa having too many babies. It's actually more nuanced than that because people who are fat have a disproportionately large ecological footprint," he says.

If we're fatter — like Americans and, let's face it, Australians, who ranked fifth-fattest — we need more energy just to move around. So an overweight person needs to eat more than a trim person to undertake the same level of physical activity.

In fact, overweight or obese people burn up more energy than skinny people even when they're just sitting around.

To prove the point, the researchers took United Nations and World Health Organisation data, dug out national health surveys and did some modelling to work out the total human biomass — an estimate of the height and weight of adult men and women in most nations on Earth.

It turns out that all 4.6 billion of us adults, together, tip the scales at 290 million tonnes.

Next, and this is the crucial bit, they wanted to work out how many extra people you could create — for no extra biomass — if so many of us weren't overweight or obese.

The answer is hundreds of millions of people.

If you somehow drained off all that excess fat … you'd have an extra 317 million humans. A phantom country. A whole New World.

Overweight people (for the scientifically minded, that's those with a body mass index, or BMI, greater than 25) carry around 15 million extra tonnes in excess fat, according to the report. The obese (BMI more than 30) are lugging around another 3.5 million tonnes. (Calculate your own BMI here.)

Now, if you somehow drained off all that excess fat from the overweight and obese and used it to create average-sized people, you'd have an extra 298 million humans.

That's about 6.2 per cent of the world's population. Roughly the population of the United States, as it happens. A phantom country. A whole New World.

Asians have the smallest body mass. Fewer than a quarter of them are overweight. The average Asian person — that's an average of male and female together — weighs 57.7 kilograms.

If every person in the world weighed what Japanese men and women weigh, the world's population would be 5 per cent lighter. That's the equivalent of 235 million fewer people in the world, the report says. More sushi for everyone!

However, the average North American, male and female together, weighs 80.7 kilograms. Nearly three-quarters of their population is overweight. About a third of all obese people on the planet live there, according to the report.

But if you readers in Australia, the Middle East or indeed Croatia are congratulating yourselves on being nowhere near as large as the Yanks, you could take a look at the graphic, showing the heaviest 10 countries and the lightest 10.

It puts Australia at number five in the heaviest countries in the world, if you take an average weight of men and women. Only Tongans, Samoans, Americans and Kuwaitis are fatter than Australians.

The report works those figures every which way. For example, it also calculates how many adults you could, theoretically, produce per tonne of biomass in each country. You can make 12.2 Americans with a tonne of flesh but many more — up to 20 — Vietnamese, Sri Lankans and most particularly Bangladeshis.

<p>Illustration by Victoria Roberts</p>

Illustration by Victoria Roberts

Here's a neat calculation: How many Bangladeshis does it take to make an American? Answer: nearly two.

As it stands, there are more than a billion overweight adults on the planet, and according to another study published in The Lancet last year, in most countries the fatness of the population is increasing.

Professor Roberts hopes this new report will "put fatness on the radar as an ecological concern", linking the public health efforts to combat rising obesity rates in the developed world to the broader debate about sustainability.

"Having a big body is like having a sort of gas-guzzling car," he says. "If your body is like a mini, you use less fuel than if your body is like a Range Rover. So being lean means we consume less food energy just to maintain a body mass. So having a lean body is good for your own personal health and it's good for planetary health."

But how do you put the developed world on a diet?

"It's no good blaming individuals for eating too much," says Australian public-health academic Garry Egger. "The problem is much more complicated than that."

Egger, professor of lifestyle medicine and applied health promotion at Southern Cross University in northern New South Wales, has been studying obesity for 25 years, has been a World Health Organisation and government advisor on obesity and chronic disease in Asia and the South Pacific, and was even moved to invent a popular Australian men's weight-loss program called GutBusters.

We should be more concerned about where the babies are born, not how many there are.

"Obesity," he writes in his bookPlanet Obesity, "is collateral damage in the battle for modernity; an unintended but unavoidable consequence of economic progress."

Obesity is not a disease, but a signal that a population has overshot what he calls the economic "sweet spot". He suggests that economic growth, in its early stages, drove improvements in our standard of living and in longevity, but it is now having an increasingly negative effect.

In happiness economics, it's called the Easterlin Paradox, in which national economic growth and increasing personal wealth does not necessarily lead to a corresponding increase in happiness or life satisfaction. That is, one motor car might make you very happy; 10 motor cars won't make you 10 times happier.

"It happened in the United States between 1970 and 1980," says Egger. "Rates of obesity suddenly increased. You could see it on the graphs, the line went zooming up."

Americans had overshot the sweet spot for health. At that point, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, tetanus and measles had become much less common, and the big killers had become chronic ailments like heart disease, cancers and the classic fat disease, type 2 diabetes.

He says the same pattern has now started to emerge in Brazil, Russia, India and China.

This fatness, he says, "is a sign of economic excess. Economic growth has been fantastic for raising us out of poverty and away from disease, but there comes a point where it's too much of a good thing."

Egger says history proves his point.

"We got thinner in the Depression, fatter after, thinner during World War II, fatter afterwards. I'd be interested to see whether the continuing economic crisis in Europe has an effect on waistlines."

The list of 10 heaviest and lightest nations differs from that published in the paper "The Weight of Nations" but is based on a more complete data set supplied by the report's authors, which includes many of the world's smaller countries.

20 comments on this story
by oatsofwrath

Not all fat people are fat because of overeating. There are a great number of factors at play.

In the United States, poverty is one of the most influential factors shaping weight. It is not because of over eating - rather, many fat, poor children have been found to be malnourished - it is due to things like processed food being more affordable and accessible than fresh food. There are plenty of fat people in food deserts. Things have changed since the depression.

Being fat can also be a symptom of health problems. Weight gain can be a side effect of necessary medications. It can also, ironically enough, be an outcome of dieting.

It is also, undeniably, shaped by genetics. Some people who eat well and moderately and who get good amounts of exercise are fat. Some people who eat poorly and never exercise are thin. Heck, I'm thin, and my weight does not change no matter what or how much I eat or what exercise I do. I eat the same food and about as much as my partner, who is much bigger than I am. The only real difference in our eating habits is that I eat more often. Turns out weight isn't always a reliable indicator of food consumption.

Almost all of us in the developed world (excepting - perhaps - the extremely poor and those folk still living on country) consume more than our fair share of the world's resources.

Framing this as a weight problem is inaccurate and only feeds into the sort of fat-shaming rhetoric that makes the lives of so many fat people completely miserable.

June 18, 2012 @ 9:30am
by Dissapoint

When Global Mail began to be published we were promised unbiased , personally researched and original content. Average weight can also be muscular or fat. No mention of the top ten countries average height? Trying to fat shame western nations for the fun of it based of an unverified chart? Shame on you.

June 18, 2012 @ 10:18am
by Peter

Although most logical once brought to my notice, it is matter that never occurred to me before. Good on you Global Mail

June 18, 2012 @ 11:31am
by Michael

And why are we getting fatter? Why do we have an epidemic of diabetes, hypertension, renal disease, gout, polycystic ovary syndrome (all metabolic lifestyle diseases) despite taking public health advice seriously? Why are doctors still recommending carbohydrate based diets to diabetics (who have a carbohydrate processing problem?) Why have we become fatter despite cutting down on fat and exercising much more than we did when "Life be in it" was launched? Perhaps an expose on how "big food" is reluctant to talk about the role of fructose or processed carbohydrate in obesity. Let's dispel the myths about saturated fat and cholesterol (saturated fat intake mildly elevates your cholesterol but not cardiovascular risk- see the recent Dutch studies and even the 1970s Framingham study). Please.. these topics warrant some independent research. The more you dig, the more you will uncover and it will be to the community's benefit! Go globalmail... let's hear about it!

June 18, 2012 @ 11:50am
by Tom

oatsofwrath, your weight is mainly about your diet. Its a simple energy in vs energy out equation. Skinny people tend to overestimate how much they eat and fat people underestimate how much they eat. I didn't think I over ate until I kept a food diary.

There's nothing wrong with having a good look at our fat selves and debating how to do better. Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step. Its so easy for Australians to stand next to our US counterparts and say we aren't fat, look at them they are fat.

Simple fact of the matter is as a society we are fat! and apart from the extremely rare case its not medical or DNA related its to much food with to little activity.

As any dieting individual will tell you its bloody hard to loose weight and keep it off so we need to have the conversation as a society because the only way we can possibly reverse this trend is by tackling it head on on both a personal level and as a community.

June 18, 2012 @ 2:04pm
by rory (former fattie)

In my opinion, the single-biggest driver of the growing global obesity and diabetes disasters is excess sugar/fructose consumption.

It’s not an accident that Australian sugar consumption and obesity both have trended up over the past 30 years (http://www.australianparadox.com ).

The critical problem is that sugar does something bad to appetite control. By promoting food cravings and scrambling appetite control, the unnaturally high level of added sugar in modern diets clearly has driven the ongoing increase in obesity and diabetes (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=all ).

Yes, any dietitian will tell you that the majority of calories in ice cream and breakfast cereals do not come from sugar, but they miss the important thing – WHY many people crave sugary products. In fact, humans today remain “hard wired” to seek out sugar:

“Simply put, humans evolved to crave sugar, store it and then use it. For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare. Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot. The invention of farming made starchy foods more abundant, but it wasn’t until very recently that technology made pure sugar bountiful” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/opinion/evolutions-sweet-tooth.html ).

Indeed, University of Sydney Professor Brand-Miller’s early work noted that traditional Aborigines had “…an exceptional ‘sweet tooth’ and many early observers commented on the dietary preference for sweet foods. The enthusiastic pursuit of honey [around half of it fructose] was said to be out of proportion to the small quantities obtained” (p. 20, of the PDF version of “Australian Aboriginal plant foods: a consideration of their nutritional composition and health implications”, Nutrition Research Reviews (1998), 11, 5-23).

Happily, thousands of Australians in recent years have reversed their trends to obesity simply by avoiding everything that contains added or concentrated fructose, including fruit juice but not whole fruits. Removing fructose “works” for many because it downsizes excessive food cravings, allowing natural appetite controls to resume operation.

As the evidence against excess fructose continues to mount, reducing added sugar/fructose in our diets increasingly will be seen by public-health authorities the world over as the obvious low-hanging fruit in any serious anti-obesity and anti-diabetes campaign.

Here's a great new BBC documentary on the origins of the disaster: "The Men Who Made Us Fat", at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA0E2B2461B536A26

June 18, 2012 @ 5:25pm
by Barton

The formula is simple and proven. Spend more calories than you consume, eat the right foods in the right amounts at the right times and you will not be fat.

June 18, 2012 @ 7:03pm
by Sandifeet

I agree with Michael, let's have an expose on "Big Foods'" awful secrets, the truth about fructose etc. Why don't we have true informative labelling? The industry wants to bring in traffic light labelling which will allow them to lower information content of labelling even more. Is it so that "big Pharma" can also benefit by then selling drugs to an unwell obese population? Good article Global Mail Thanks

June 18, 2012 @ 7:11pm
by John

Obesity is multifactorial but there is no escaping the fact that diet - and dietary changes - pay a key role. Take immigrants from the countries listed in the lighter side of the list and place them in the US or Australia, and their obesity rates increase. Moreover, their children will have even higher obesity rates than their parents, and there is a strong correlation between degree of assimililation and obesity.

Of the top five countries for weight, two, Tonga and Kuwait, are not Western countries. Not sure why this article is interpreted as shaming Western countries.

June 18, 2012 @ 9:46pm
by Ari

Right. So much for "my body, my choice" - now apparently everyone collectively has an interest in whether I'm fat, or thin, or somewhere in between, because of the impact on the planet.

Surely we need to respect the right of the individual to make choices that are right for them. We are heading down a very dangerous authoritarian path if the very existence of one's flesh is something that can be considered harmful to the environment.

Be careful what you wish for.

June 19, 2012 @ 5:13am
by John

Surely this needs to be complemented by the set of BMI rankings? Not saying Australia is excused by being super tall - but surely this explains a large portion of the spread, and would make the comparisons to many of the Asian countries more meaningful?

June 19, 2012 @ 9:17am
by susane

I've lived in several Western nations for periods of time. In the US in the late 80s, portion sizes were already massive in contrast to the UK, Australia and New Zealand. More people were more massive too.
It has been hard to watch Australian food portions and Australians grow and grow in size over the last decade.
Most of us eat way more than we need to, and probably way more than is healthy for us. We don't seem to have the kind of common sense in regard to our portion sizes that our domestic animals do. Of course, we have a wealth of fresh food available to us, and 'food porn' programs, including supermarket ads, that really encourage us to make the most of this. Restaurants regularly oversize meals, and fast food places have all sorts of multi-course 'deals'. It is hard not to get caught up in the luxury of big meals.
I appreciate the sentiments of this article, and consider them reflective of The Global Mail's excellent voicing of issues important to Australians. Thank you.

June 19, 2012 @ 1:27pm
by Vegetables are evil

Homo Sapiens have existed for a couple of hundred thousand years but the vegetables that we eat are all man made inventions. The reticle crescent gave us wheat, chick peas etc, theAmericas gave us tomatoes, potatoes and corn but Paleolithic man became successful on a diet of mainly lean meat and leaves and grasses with occasional berry and nut treats. 1.5 kilograms of lean meat has the same calorific value as 220 ml of oil or 500g of granulated sugar, 5 liters of orange juice or 10 pints of beer . Each of the previous list's items have 2000 calories, the amount recommended for a healthy diet. The only item on the above list which wouldnt leave me hungry for the day is the meat. Modern vegetables are as artificial as the big Mac and their promotion as healthy food is misleading as they leave you hungry and just make you relatively fat as they are just sugar (carbohydrate), fat and water.

June 19, 2012 @ 2:39pm
by oatsofwrath

Tom, I know how much I eat. I have health issues that require me to pay close attention to what, when and how much I eat, so I have a pretty good idea.

How have you determined that it’s “extremely rare” that fat is determined by something other than diet and exercise?

Perhaps you might be interested in the work of Rudolph L. Leibel, who found that metabolic processes largely counteracted the effects of dieting, one key reason why dieting doesn’t work for many, if not most people. Or how about Jeffrey M. Friedman, who stated (in an article published in Nature) that the heritability of obesity “ranges between 70% and 80%...Indeed, the only trait with consistently higher heritability than obesity is height”. And what about starvation syndrome? The role of gut bacteria in shaping metabolism and appetite? Polycystic ovary syndrome is quite common in women and is linked with obesity. Heck, even sleep patterns are thought to have an effect on weight.

No, it’s not as simple as energy in, energy out, and there is a considerable body of scientific, peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that. Weight is actually incredibly complex and affected by a bunch of different factors, some of which we understand, some of which we don’t.
By all means, let’s talk about our health, the food we eat, whether we’re getting enough exercise, etc. But framing the discussion as one of “obesity” is inaccurate, simplistic, and harmful.

June 19, 2012 @ 3:10pm
by SB

I agree with Micheal-big food companies do have a part to play but we can choose to eat things that look like food ( see M Pollan's book) and we should be right-or more right!!

Folks get super defense when pieces like these are written, and there is no point.Fat folks are not eating mainly plant based diets, they eat things that come out of packets. I saw a big couple in the supermarket yesterday and yes they did not look well off, they were buying sugary soda, ready made noodles and a box of 'easy mac'-supersize, not a fruit or veg insight.

Being fit and thinner is hard but we really need to be looking at the pay off- happier healthier people and less cost to those who are looking after themselves..why does that get peoples pants in a twist? Its common sense

It is not ok not to care about yourself and to eat anything you want to, fullstop as others have to pick up the pieces ( or pay the costs)

Thanks Mail

June 19, 2012 @ 3:46pm
by Evan

This news report and related commentaries covers a range of plausible factors that could partially explain the BIG topic of the rising burden of obesity worldwide, which were a pleasure to read. I hope to add several thought provoking points. Economic growth does not always correlate with obesity. For example, a number of leading OECD countries, including Switzerland, Luxemburg, Denmark, have had much more modest rises in population levels of obesity in recent decades compared with the US, and other similar Americanised countries (particularly those in the commonwealth).
Evan

June 20, 2012 @ 6:29pm
by Bonzo

Discussions about obesity bewilderingly tend to gloss over caloric expenditure as an avenue for resolution of the problem. Regular and rigorous exercise is an obvious choice anyone can make in an attempt to reverse the inevitable consequences of today's sedentary lifestyles. The fact the streets are not teeming with runners or walkers every day of the week is proof the "Life be in it" message has sadly faded into oblivion. Perhaps that's because while exercise is a simple idea to contemplate it is a much harder road to hoe than the alternative.

June 24, 2012 @ 8:47am
Show previous 17 comments
by May

Agree with Michael, John and Evan. If it's just that there's "more food out there", why do the poor tend to be fatter than the rich? Why aren't northern Europeans fat? Surely they have access to as much food? It sounds from the interview that Ellen Fanning tried to get an answer to this, so quite surprised that Prof Egger didn't have one. My personal hunch would be around sugars in our diet, and relative amounts of advertising for junk food across the different countries. Maybe some investigation there? Correlation between a country's junk food advertising and its BMI?

And yes, definitely need a 'BMI' table and comparison, rather than just 'fat' ones. Otherwise it makes just as much sense to talk about how tall people are ruining the planet...

June 25, 2012 @ 6:27pm
by Eryl

Our food is so refined that we need to eat more of it to get enough essential nutrients ie vitamins and minerals. So much food is empty calories. See Adelle Davis, a nutrtionist who wrote 'Lets have healthy children'.

November 11, 2012 @ 6:03pm
by Harigovindsingh Singh

Instead of referring to the lightest 10, I wish there was data provided on the countries at the healthy weight range. It does not make any sense to make statements such as 1 American = 2 bangladeshis, as all this refers to is one unhealthy person with heart disease and diabetes equalling 2 unhealthy bangladeshis with diseases related to poverty.

I am a big fan of global mail.org, great reads. Thank you!

April 21, 2013 @ 2:10pm
CLOSE
Type a keyword to search for a story or journalist

Journalists

Stories