Obesity: America's Best Export

Obesity, once considered a Western affliction, has gone global.

The World Health Organization estimates that, since 1980, global obesity has more than doubled. Statistics on overweight populations are staggering: Some 65% of the world’s population live in countries where more people die from being overweight than underweight; 1.5 billion adults and 43 million children are considered overweight; and more than 1 in 10 adults are obese.

Obesity is no longer an exclusively Western disease. The increasing rate of overweight populations in Asia, North Africa, and Latin America is between 2 and 5 times higher than that of the United States.

For much of the world, decades of globalization meant welcoming modernity and diversity. Unfortunately, obesity followed as an unintended consequence. To curtail this pandemic, governments should target the global fast-food industry and regulate harmful foods, as they do with tobacco.

Japanese society, traditionally known for its slim and healthy population, is now struggling against the battle of the bulge. Accounting for this bourgeoning public health problem, many point to the fatty meats that replaced local diets of fish and seaweed, as well as the arrival of American fast-food.

The economic globalization of the 1990s brought a siege of fast-food corporations to foreign markets. Today, Yum! Brands conglomerate — representing KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, and A&W Restaurants — boasts units in over 110 countries and territories. McDonald’s, with 56% of its units based internationally, leads the global fast-food industry.

Ronald McDonald, however, cannot shoulder all of the blame. Exporting the western diet —  high in fatty vegetable oils, caloric sweeteners, and animal-sourced foods —  catalyzed major shifts in regional nutrition. Furthermore, sedentary computer work or service industry jobs have replaced high-energy consuming activities, such as farming. 

The common thread among these factors in rising global obesity is their origin. Fast-food, unhealthy dietary habits, and sedentary lifestyles are all American exports. Globalization, by wearing away economic and cultural barriers, paved the way for Westernization.

The worldwide expansion of waistlines reveals the global economy's openness and the pervasiveness of the West's reach. Is there any way to combat an encroaching Western culture without sacrificing free trade?

Concerning fast-food, a solution does exist and a precedent already set.

It is not against the law to light up a cigarette, but it is getting expensive. “For every 10 percent increase in cigarette taxes, there is … a four percent reduction in consumption.” Also, tobacco companies are required in many countries to disclose the health risks of smoking by applying warning labels directly on cigarette cartons.

Treat fast-food like tobacco. Cheap fast-food effectively wages war on the physical health of poor communities. Taxes on harmful foods may discourage unhealthy eating and encourage corporations to develop healthier options. Furthermore, people should know what they consume; warning labels on cigarette cartons equates to calorie counts on menus.

If certain regulatory measures are taken, countries can combat the onslaught of Western fast-food and obesity. The freedom of corporations to expand into foreign markets is preserved, as is the freedom of consumers to choose.

Photo Credit: monsterboox