A newly released United Nations report on global nutrition does not make for very appetizing reading: Amid an already floundering global economy, the reality of a fattening planet is dragging down world productivity rates while increasing health insurance costs to the tune of $3.5 trillion dollars per year - or 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP).
Some 31.8% of U.S. adults are now considered clinically obese. This is a remarkable figure, especially considering that it is approximately double the U.S. obesity rate registered in 1995, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention .
An individual is considered obese when their body mass index (BMI), a measurement obtained by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by the square of the person's height in meters, exceeds 30kg/m2, according to the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, much of the international community is quickly catching up with the global consumption superpower. Mexico, for example, just surpassed U.S. obesity rates with a whopping 32.8% of Mexican adults now considered to be clinically obese.
The unprecedented weight gains in Mexico, however, as well as many other countries, appear to be no accident.
Following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico became the dumping ground for a slew of cheap fast food and carbonated drinks, according to a Foreign Policy report.
Thanks to NAFTA, there was a more than 1,200% increase in high-fructose corn syrup exports from the U.S. to Mexico between 1996 and 2012, according to the US Agriculture Department. In an effort to place a cap on the high-calorie drinks, Mexican officials introduced a tax on beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup. American corn refiners, however, cried foul and the tax was voted down by the World Trade Organization.
Mexicans now consume 43 gallons of soda per capita annually, giving the country the world's highest rate of soda consumption, according to estimates by Mexico’s national statistics agency.
Yet another disturbing casualty on the obesity trail is tiny Qatar, an oil-rich Arab nation of 250,000 people that is also rich in fast food diets.
“Like most people in the Arab Gulf, (Qataris) were traditionally desert-dwelling and therefore much more physically active,” according to a 2012 report by Policymic.com. “Now, cars have replaced camels and fast food and home deliveries take the place of home cooking. Even housework and child rearing is left to maids and nannies.”
Today, some 45% of Qatari adults are obese, and up to 40% of school children are obese as well.
Last month, nutrition experts from around the world shared their views at an obesity and nutrition conference in Sydney. For many of the attendees, the primary culprit in the global obesity scourge is out-of-control corporate power, where the free market decides everything.
The rise of global fast food outlets has been a key change in our environment leading to fattier foods and fatter people, Bruce Neal, professor at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, told the Indo-Asian News Service.
"As fast as we get rid of all our traditional vectors of disease -- infections, little microbes, bugs -- we are replacing them with the new vectors of disease, which are massive transnational, national, multinational corporations selling vast amounts of salt, fat and sugar," Neal said.
John Norris, writing in Foreign Policy, explained some of the global dynamics that contributed to the so-called “globesity" epidemic, including the soft drink industry’s move to use cheaper high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar in many of their products.
“Suddenly, it was cheaper to put high-fructose corn syrup in everything from spaghetti sauce to soda. Coke and Pepsi swapped out sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, and most other U.S. soda and snack companies followed suit,” Norris wrote. “U.S. per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup spiked from less than half a pound a year in 1970 to a peak of almost 38 pounds a year in 1999.”
While some might be tempted to downplay the negative effects of such a harmless sounding additive, researchers from Canada's University of Guelph, as pointed out by Norris, discovered that a high-fructose corn syrup diet in rats produced “addictive behavior similar to that from cocaine use.”
As a result of public awareness campaigns, the American fast food industry -- although slower than some may like -- has been gradually rewriting menus and marketing campaigns, many of which are aimed at kids. Thus far, the government has not been forced to take measures as was the case with big tobacco. Still, the industry wants to hedge its bets.
Already the size of the global footprint of the junk food industry is breathtaking: “Coca-Cola and PepsiCo together control almost 40% of the world's $532 billion soft drink market, according to the Economist. Soda sales, meanwhile, have more than doubled in the last 10 years, with much of that growth driven by developing markets.
McDonald's investors were disappointed that the company only turned $1.4 billion in profit during the second quarter of 2013, having become used to years of double-digit gains every three months,” according to the Foreign Policy report.