Is the Whole Planet Overweight?

Obesity has gone global. Our exclusive international poll reveals the riskiest habits, the crankiest spouses, the silliest excuses-and the 19 best ways to send the pounds packing.

Is the Whole Planet Overweight?

Remember those heart-tugging television commercials in which celebrities implored us to help fight world hunger? Well, we reached a strange tipping point recently. According to an October report from the World Health Organization (WHO), more people worldwide now die from being overweight and obese than from being underweight. Although world hunger remains a significant problem, it’s our appetite for prosperity and all its spoils that’s more likely to kill us now.

According to WHO, there are approximately 1.6 billion overweight or obese people in the world. Globally, at least 2.5 million deaths are attributable to these conditions annually. Nearly 18 million children under age five are estimated to be overweight. How long do you think it’ll be before some celebrity appears on TV showing pictures of plump toddlers and imploring us to help them fight fat?

To understand what’s happening and to bring us closer to a possible solution, Reader’s Digest commissioned a global diet poll, interviewing approximately 16,000 people in 16 countries about their attitudes and behaviours regarding weight. Our statistical tour reveals the country where being fat is no big deal and the spot where thin is the most in. It makes clear which nation blames the United States for this obesity epidemic and which points the finger at itself; it shows who’s getting surgery done and who’s positively reckless in paring the pounds.

Come with us as we explore how people around the world view obesity-and, more importantly, what they’re doing about it.


The Country Most Aware of the Dangers of Obesity (and Which Is Doing Something About It): FINLAND

In the 1970s, Finland had the world’s highest incidence of deaths from heart disease. Not any more. A public-health campaign to educate people about diet, exercise and the dangers of smoking helped slash heart-disease deaths in the working-age population by 80 percent over the past three decades and added an average of nearly ten years to the average Finn’s life. One of the keys to the turnaround, says Dr. Pekka Puska, director general of the National Institute of Public Health and Welfare in Helsinki, was commun-ity-based incentives such as “Quit and Win” challenges. Towns actually competed for prizes based on how many people stopped smoking or dropped their cholesterol-or shaved a few inches off their midsections.

Our survey found that 83 percent of Finns have tried to lose weight at least once, a figure that’s at least ten percentage points higher than in any other country we polled. Seventy-one percent of people in Canada have tried to lose weight, predominantly for health reasons. Unsurprisingly, Canadian women are much more likely to have done so than men-80 versus 62 percent.


The Country Whose Citizens Feel the Most Pressure to Be Thin: BRAZIL

It’s one of the most body-conscious places on Earth. In Rio, where people are expected to wear as little as possible at the beach, there is a genuine cult of the body-and the need to be inspection-ready is a burden. Our survey found that 83 percent of Brazilians think there’s too much emphasis placed on weight, with men (77 percent) and women (89 percent) both feeling the pressure.

Maybe that explains the other national statistics: The percentage of the population taking diet pills doubled between 2001 and 2005 and plastic surgery is booming-doctors even offer toe liposuction to create more “toe cleavage.” Some other countries? Fifty-three percent of Canadians say we care too much about weight, right in the middle of the pack. The United States (62 percent) ranks third behind Brazil and India (68 percent).


The Country Where Wives Most Want Their Husbands to Lose Weight: UNITED STATES

More than half (51 percent) of married American women wish their husbands were thinner. Conversely, 47 percent of married American men desire the same of their mates. The irony: A full 68 percent of U.S. women said their culture is overly obsessed with weight. Evidently, they’re more accepting of a belly if it’s not hanging off their hubby. How Canada compares: Just 37 percent of Canadian women think their husbands should lose weight and 44 percent of Canadian men think their wives should.


The Country Where Husbands Most Want Their Wives to Lose Weight: INDIA

Forty-eight percent of Indian men admit to being dissatisfied with the shape of their spouses, while 46 percent of Indian women say the same.


The Country Where People Are Most Likely to Ignore Doctors: SWITZERLAND

When we asked people around the world for one of the main reasons why they’ve tried to lose weight, doctors’ orders were not high on the list. The Swiss gave their physicians’ urging the least credence of anyone (just 11 percent cited that as a main motivational force). Mexicans (46 percent) and the French (39 percent) were the most attentive. Twenty-seven percent of Canadians say their doctors were the ones who convinced them to lighten up, with men (32 percent) actually paying more attention than women (23 percent).


The Country Where the Most Diet Pills are Swallowed: CHINA

Thirty-seven percent of the Chinese admit to taking weight-loss pills. Experts say that body-consciousness is growing throughout China, and diet pills are seen as a quick and trendy way to achieve the ideal. These pills can be deadly, however, because their manufacture is unregulated. In our survey, women in nearly every country were more inclined than men to swallow a weight-loss aid. (In China, for instance, the split is 48 to 18 percent.) Also quick to turn to pills were Brazil (30 percent), Russia (24 percent) and Mexico (23 percent). How we compare: Sixteen percent of Canadian women and 11 percent of Canadian men have popped diet pills.


The Country Where People Are Most Likely to Blame Themselves for Being Fat: PHILIPPINES

A full 95 percent of Filipinos say they enjoy good food, and 82 percent admit to just not having the willpower
to resist it. Indeed, only 38 percent of Filipinos have even tried to lose weight. In comparison, about half of Canadians blame the ir-resistibility of food as a big reason for their rotundity, and are more apt to blame lack of physical activity (86 percent).


The Country Where They’re Most Likely to Blame Their Parents: RUSSIA

An amazing 70 percent of Russians point to their genes as a chief reason they need bigger jeans. The Germans (61 percent) and Indians (50 percent) come next. Twenty-five percent of Canadians say they can’t help it; they were born like that.


The Country Where They’re Most Likely to Blame Americans: FRANCE

More than any other country surveyed, the French point to American eating habits and fast food as the culprits in their nation’s growing girth. Oddly, Canadians are less apt to blame the American diet (62 percent) than Americans are to fault it themselves. Seventy-two percent of Americans say fast food, a cuisine their country invented and exported, promotes obesity.


The Country Where Women Struggle Most With Being Overweight: UNITED STATES

In all countries except the United States, most people said it was equally difficult to be an overweight man or woman. If they did choose a sex, in all but two of the countries surveyed (China and India), people agree women have it harder than men. Nowhere was this feeling stronger than in the United States. Almost half of Americans (58 percent of women and 37 percent of men) voiced this opinion. In Canada, more people thought it was equally difficult for both sexes (45 percent) compared with 43 percent who thought it was harder for women.


The Country With the Healthiest Approach to Weight Loss: MEXICO

Almost all Mexicans-93 percent of them-report switching to more healthful foods in an attempt to lose their bellies. Eighty-six percent have also tried to become more physically active. More than any other country surveyed, Mexico knows what it has to do-even if its citizens don’t always put that knowledge into practice. (About 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight or obese, according to health officials there.)

How Canada compares: Eighty-eight percent of Canadians have tried eating more healthfully and 79 percent have attempted working out, but 56 percent still resort to various types of diets (compared with 55 percent of Mexicans and 61 percent of Americans). Canada ranks fourth behind Mexico, France and Germany for healthy approaches to weight loss.


The Country Where They’re Still Trying to Puff Off the Pounds: RUSSIA

Smoking to suppress appetite is generally recognized as a foolish trade-off throughout the world, but it persists in some countries: Mexico, China, Philippines and especially Russia. Twenty-three percent of Russian men and 18 percent of women admit to smoking cigarettes to lose weight. On the other hand, just six percent of Canadians smoke for weight loss, compared with five percent in the United States. The Netherlands has the lowest rate, at two percent.


The Country Where Pounds Are Most Likely to Get in the Way of Promotions: INDIA

Sixty-seven percent of Indians say that being overweight can “seriously interfere” with career advancement. That’s at least ten points higher than in any other nation surveyed. In fact, 41 percent of those who say they tried to lose weight admit they were motivated by a desire to be more promotable. And this is one of the few instances where men (52 percent) feel greater pressure to trim down than women (31 percent).

The notion that excess pounds can leave you wedged into a dead end in the office is also pervasive in Germany and the Philippines. Thirty-three percent of Canadians think being overweight can hinder career advancement, well behind the States at 41 percent, but in both countries few people-only four percent of Americans polled, and only two percent of Canadians-admit to dieting in an attempt to advance their careers.


The Countries Where Being Fat Interferes the Most With Being Sexy: (TIE) AUSTRALIA AND MEXICO

The majority (52 percent) of people in both these nations say being fat “seriously interferes” with having a good time in the sack. Interestingly, Hungarians (15 percent) and the Dutch (18 percent) are least likely to say size makes any difference. By the way, men were more inclined to think this way than women in every country. In Canada, 49 percent of men and 37 percent of women say fat foils frolicking.


The Country Where You’re Loved Just the Way You Are: HUNGARY

Not only are Hungarians least likely to feel like their poundage is being eyed with public disapproval (a paltry 28 percent said their country’s emphasis on weight was too great), but also the married folk are more apt to be content with the shape of their spouses. Only 11 percent of Hungarian men and 14 percent of women say their mates need to get their ladle out of the goulash pot.

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