Thirty percent of Mexican adults are obese as are 28% of Americans, the two fattest nations in the world, according to a book just published by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). OECD obesity rates have risen from well below 10% before 1980 to at least double that amount in most countries, and triple in others. Obesity has climbed up to the top of the public health policy agenda globally, says the OECD. In nearly half of all OECD countries over half the population is overweight or obese.

The OECD is a Paris-based organization, which brings together 33 of the world’s leading economies.

Obesity is defined by having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30, while overweight people’s BMIs are over 25. If a person’s bodyweight is at least 20% higher than it should be, he or she is considered obese.

Obesity is a key risk factor for many conditions and diseases, including osteoarthritis, coronary heart disease, gallbladder disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), high total cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides, respiratory problems, several cancers, sleep apnea, stroke, and diabetes Type 2. Severely obese individuals live 8 to 10 years less than other people.

The authors of the report say that the solutions for the obesity epidemic are not simple and within reach, as many people believe. Policy makers, doctors and other health professionals, as well as academics have a huge task ahead of understanding the epidemic and working out counter strategies that are effective.

Japan and South Korea have the lowest obesity/overweight rates among the OECD nations – with an obesity rates of 3% and 4% respectively.

Obesity rates by country (Source: OECD):

  • Japan 3%
  • Korea 4%
  • Switzerland 8%
  • Italy 10%
  • Norway 10%
  • Sweden 10%
  • France 11%
  • Denmark 11%
  • Netherlands 12%
  • Austria 12%
  • Poland 13%
  • Israel 14%
  • Belgium 14%
  • Turkey 15%
  • Portugal 15%
  • Finland 16%
  • OECD average 16%
  • Germany 16%
  • Slovenia 16%
  • Slovak Rep. 17%
  • Czech Rep. 17%
  • Spain 17%
  • Greece 18%
  • Hungary 19%
  • Luxembourg 20%
  • Iceland 20%
  • Chile 22%
  • Ireland 23%
  • Canada 24%
  • UK 25%
  • Australia 25%
  • New Zealand 27%
  • USA 28%
  • Mexico 30%
  • Non-OECD countries:

  • India 1%
  • Indonesia 1 %
  • China 2%
  • Brazil 14%
  • Russian Fed. 17%
  • Estonia 18%
  • S. Africa 21%

In the USA 68% of the adult population is overweight. The country with the highest percentage of overweight adults is Mexico (70%). All but one of the seven countries with the highest levels of obesity are English speaking; in fact, there is not one English speaking nation outside those top seven.

The OECD believes that only with cooperation between governments and the private sector can the obesity epidemic be addressed successfully.

OECD nation health ministers will meet on October 7-8, 2010 to discuss obesity and the economics of prevention.

The obesity epidemic came about as a result of several complex and interacting dynamics, which have gradually converged to produce long-term changes in the lifestyles of people, the OECD explains:

  • There have been major changes in the supply and availability of food during the second half of the 20th century.
  • Food production technologies have developed enormously.
  • Over the last 50 years promotion and persuasion in the food industry have become increasingly sophisticated.
  • The price of calories has dropped dramatically
  • Convenience foods have become available virtually all the time and everywhere
  • As a result of changing working and living conditions, people have had progressively less time to prepare traditional foods from raw ingredients
  • People have become less and less physically active. With the arrival of televisions, computers, video games, remote controls, washing machines, dish washers and other modern convenience devices, the majority of people are leading a much more sedentary lifestyle compared to their parents and grandparents. Most of us drive everywhere, unlike our parents or grandparents who walked a great deal more.
  • The number of hours we sleep has been dropping decade after decade – several studies have demonstrated a link between lack of sleep and weight gain
  • Increasing levels of stress and job insecurity

The authors ask:

The question must be asked of whether the changes that fuelled obesity and chronic diseases in the past decades are simply the outcome of efficient market dynamics, or the effect of market and rationality failures preventing individuals from achieving more desirable outcomes.

The authors add:

Governments can increase choice by making new healthy options available, or by making existing ones more accessible and affordable. Alternatively, they can use persuasion, education and information to make healthy options more attractive.


  • Adults – overweight/obesity rates have risen steadily since the 1980s in both sexes. Three-quarters of all American adults are expected to be overweight/obese by 2010. While obesity rates among adult males is fairly even across all academic levels, women with poor education are 1.3 times more likely to be overweight than highly educated women.

    Children – obesity rates are the highest in the OECD. However, the rising graph is starting to level out, experts say. 40% of US kids are overweight, and 50% of those are obese.


  • Adults – UK obesity rates are the highest in Europe. The trend towards obesity has been rising faster in Great Britain recently than in most other OECD countries. 1 in every 4 British people are obese. 2 in every 3 adult males are overweight. The proportion of overweight individuals in the UK is expected to rise another 10% by 2010, according to OECD estimates.

    Like in the USA, while obesity rates among men is fairly even across all academic levels, women with poor education are 1.4 times more likely to be overweight than highly educated women.

Source: OECD


Written by Christian Nordqvist