More Proof That The Western Diet Is A Global Problem

Last Update: March 9, 2020

Amid the glowing Shanghai signs advertising traditional hot noodles and dumplings, the mega-city’s residents are increasingly likely to see Colonel Sanders smiling down, beckoning them with his 11 herbs and spices.

Halfway around the globe—16 hours by plane—Coca-Cola is ubiquitous in Tanzania, from the bustling bazaars of Dar es Salaam to the dusty rural villages. In Moscow, with the fall of the Iron Curtain came the raising of the golden arches, and a national obsession with burgers, fries, and donuts.

And here in the United States, well, we don’t have to tell you how junk has saturated our supermarkets and commercial districts. As this sugar- and fat-laden diet spreads to far-flung locales around the world, the global population is getting sicker and sicker.

Western food companies not only export their GMO-filled cereals, greasy bags of burgers and tacos, and boxes of salt-loaded snack foods—they’re also exported the obesity and diet-related diseases that go along with those products. In a new report, the World Health Organization’s World Obesity Federation says we’re barreling toward 2.7 billion overweight adults around the globe by 2025—that’s 17 percent of the global population.

And this sickness is at least in part the product of food companies’ advancement of the so-called “Western Diet” (think high fat, salt, sugar) in almost every nation on Earth.

“Their marketing strategies are to reach further and further into developing countries, to find ways they can increase their market share amongst even the lowest income populations,” says World Obesity Federation Director of Policy Tim Lobstein.

We had to know this was coming. In 2012, researchers in the Singapore Chinese Health Study found that individuals eating a Western-style fast food diet increased their likelihood of developing diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Mexico recently became the fattest nation on Earth—almost 33 percent of Mexicans are excessively overweight—and some observers have linked the dubious honor to the influx of American-made junk food that poured over the Southern border following the passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The WHO report predicts that by 2025, Mexico’s rate of overweight adults will surpass 40 percent (still tops in the world), with an obesity rate (29 percent) exceeded only by the United States (31 percent) and Trinidad and Tobago (33 percent).

Even in France, where obesity has remained relatively low, convenience and fast food consumption recently surpassed traditional food consumption. And obesity in that country has doubled since 1990.

The World Obesity Federation reports that in the last 10 years, global consumption of soft drinks has increased by 33 percent. But the report blamed not only the availability of unhealthy Western food brands, but also their aggressive marketing, changing work environments, and urbanization.

“Common risk factors such as soft drink consumption and sedentary working environments, have increased, fast food advertising continues and greater numbers of people live in urban environments without access to green spaces,” Lobstein says.

Solutions, Lobstein says, include regulatory measures that would limit advertising of junk food to children, levy taxes on less nutritious products, raise health standards for school food, and increase nutrition education for young people, but “but few governments are implementing these measures.”

Photo credit: Stephen Cannon via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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