The United States is no longer the fattest country in the world; Mexico has now claimed that dubious distinction.
Well, sort of. Technically there have long been a number of very small nations with shocking rates of obesity (e.g., American Samoa, with a rate upwards of 75 percent). But among the world’s most populous nations, it’s been the birthplace of the Big Mac and the Big Gulp that has ranked up top, with almost a third of Americans excessively overweight.
Now Mexico has squeezed past us—barely—usurping the title of fattest country in the world. According to data released by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization last month, Mexico’s obesity rate stands at 32.8 percent, compared with 31.8 percent in the United States, reports Salon.
You’d think there’d be a kind of perverse silver lining to that news for our neighbor to the south is the fattest country in the world: more obesity must mean less poverty, right? While a rise in incomes, a shift in population to urban areas, and more sedentary lifestyles have likely contributed to the increase, according to experts, it seems that the crisis is disproportionately impacting the poor.
“The same people who are malnourished are the ones who are becoming obese,” physician Abelardo Avila of Mexico’s National Nutrition Institute tells Salon. “In the poor classes we have obese parents and malnourished children. The worst thing is the children are becoming programmed for obesity. It’s a very serious epidemic.”
That may seem bizarre to those of us still stuck in what is increasingly coming to seem like an outmoded Dickensian mindset, where scrappy, stick-thin orphans groan in hunger while the portly upper classes swill their sherry and nurse their gout. But for public health experts, a comparatively impoverished nation taking the mantle of the heaviest spotlights what has come to be known as the “hunger-obesity paradox.”
It’s one of the reasons that you see the somewhat awkward term “food insecurity” popping up more and more (calling to mind some New Yorker cartoon of a misshapen strawberry crying on a psychiatrist’s couch). An old-fashioned word like “hunger” just doesn’t cut it anymore in our weird, wild, brave new world.
Researchers can’t explain the hunger-obesity paradox entirely (I guess that’s why it’s still called a paradox), but they’ve seen it play out in a number of places—ranging from South Africa to the South Bronx (which has some of the highest poverty and obesity rates in New York)—and even among the homeless population of Boston, whose obesity rate mirrors the nation’s as a whole, according to a study released last year.
Most anyone who’s followed news about the obesity crisis knows that one of the most common factors cited is the increased availability of foods loaded with calories but which contain few (if any) genuine nutrients—and that those foods tend to be cheap.
Hence, if you’re poor and hungry, a bag of cheap potato chips is more appealing than an apple.
But researchers have also posited other factors as well, such as how poverty may increase stress hormones, which in turn incite a biological urge to seek out calorie-dense foods, and the hypothesis that eating foods high in calories but low in nutritional value can cause you to crave more food, as your hunger fuels the search for the vitamins and minerals you aren’t getting.
Call it a Catch-22 for the 21st century.