What do we talk about when we talk about “Americanization”? Are we talking about the spread of the American model through compulsion or seduction? Or are we talking about the Americans getting someplace first when everyone wants to go there? The global spread of obesity offers an example. In the United States the daily per capita consumption of calories has increased by 600 calories since 1980. Correspondingly, the share of overweight adults in the population has increased from 47 percent in 1980 to 64 percent in 2003. Since 1980 Americans have taken an increasing share of their meals from restaurants and take-out food. These meals tend to have about twice as many calories as does the typical meal Mom puts on the table. Nutritionists estimate that this accounts for about two thirds of the additional weight gained by Americans in the last quarter century. As late as 1991, generalized obesity was narrowly restricted geographically: only Michigan, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana had 15-20 percent of their populations classified as obese. By 1995 24 states had 15-20 percent of their adult population classed as overweight. By 2000 22 states had at least 20 percent of their populations classed as obese, and every other state except Colorado had at least 15 percent of its population classed as obese. “Obesity is often discussed as an American cultural phenomenon, closely intertwined with a taste for fast food, soft drinks, television, and video games.” This is probably what “Americanization” means in the eyes of Frenchmen and Islamist jihadis.
There have always been more underweight people than overweight people in the world. That gap has closed over time, however, and in 2000 it ceased to be true. Falling food prices for consumers, the shift from rural to city life for many people, the substitution of desk-work for field-work, and the purchase of processed foods are world-wide trends. Obesity has emerged as a social characteristic in developing countries: 15 percent of adult Kenyan women are overweight compared to 12 percent who are underweight; 26 percent of adult Zimbabwean women are overweight compared to 5 percent who are underweight; 71 percent of adult Egyptian women are overweight compared to 1 percent who are underweight; and 29 percent of children in urban areas of China are obese.
This is largely attributable to the end of the other “oil crisis”: in recent years cheap, high-quality cooking oil has become available in developing countries for the first time. The oil contains dietary fat that has raised the caloric intake of individuals by 400 calories per day since 1980. But the increased use of cooking oil also reflects the increasing availability of meat as incomes rise around the world. For example, the ordinary Chinese diet used to rely very heavily on starchy roots, rice, and salted vegetables. Since 1980 the Chinese diet has added a lot of meat fried in oil. Most people now consume at least 2,500 calories per day.
There are still some places with “old” nutrition problems: 6 percent of the adult women in Cambodia are overweight compared to 21 percent who are underweight; 4 percent of adult Bangladeshi women are overweight compared to 45 percent who are underweight.
This has some large implications for public health. Excess weight has been associated with illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Poor countries lack the medical systems to deal with these sorts of problems, which are new to them. An obesity epidemic is on the way. Does that mean that Weight Watchers will become an international phenomenon?
Don Peck, “The World in Numbers: The Weight of the World,” Atlantic, June 2003, pp. 38-39.