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Europe and the U.S. Have the Highest Obesity Rates in the World — with some Notable Differences

July 05, 2016

Worldwide obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980, according to the World Health Organization. More than 1.9 billion adults were overweight, while 600 million were obese.

This trend is troubling for several reasons. For one, it increases the risk of chronic and potentially fatal health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Experts say that the trend could lead to reduced life expectancy worldwide. 

A recent study highlights just how widespread this issue is across the globe. However, the two regions with the highest obesity rates in the world — the U.S. and Europe — need to take actionable steps to address this growing epidemic. Here’s how the two regions compare.

Obesity is an Epidemic in America

The U.S. has the highest obesity rate of any nation in the world. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 36 percent of American adults are obese. With a 35.9 percent obesity rate, Arkansas tops the list among states, followed mostly by states in the South and Midwest, including Texas, Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan, Missouri and Georgia. All these states have obesity rates that range from 30 to 34.9 percent. 

Childhood Obesity is Especially Concerning

As overall obesity has increased, so has childhood obesity. In 1980, only 19 percent of American children were obese. Today, that number has nearly doubled: 30 percent of American children are obese. The U.S. again surpasses other nations in this category —  in Europe, between 4-6 percent of children are obese.

Several Factors are Driving Higher Obesity Rates

Overconsumption of sugary drinks, too much salt and saturated fat and more sedentary lifestyles likely are driving up obesity rates. To put it simply, we are eating too much of the wrong things and aren’t exercising enough. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Survey found one in three Americans consumes sugary drinks every day, a figure that amounts to about 20 teaspoons daily. Saturated fat isn’t any better, as studies have shown that a high-fat diet may increase your risk for pancreatic cancer and health issues such as higher insulin levels and metabolic abnormalities. 

Differences in Female Obesity Rates in Both Regions

The study also found that there were socioeconomic differences in obesity rates among women in both regions. Women with higher incomes and a higher level of education were less likely to be obese in both the U.S. and Europe. However, this distinction didn’t appear in men. Researchers aren’t clear why socioeconomic differences affect women’s weight more than men, but it could have to do with access to healthier foods (which tend to be more expensive) and resources to stay in shape. This isn’t surprising, as studies have found that affordability concerns may affect people’s ability to properly manage their weight.

Obesity is an epidemic in both Europe and the U.S. England has one of the fastest growing obesity rates in the world, while about 60 percent of adults in the U.K are obese. In the U.S., these figures are even more stark. Obesity is a serious problem because it elevates your risk for early death. Lack of exercise and proper diet are responsible for more premature deaths each year than smoking. On top of this, obesity can lead to chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers that dramatically degrade a person’s quality of life, even when it doesn’t shorten an individual’s lifespan. This study shows that obesity may be one of our most challenging health crises. It’s time for everyone of us — patients and doctors alike — to get even more serious about addressing it.