The ‘American Diet’ Is a Public Health Menace for Remote Island Nations

Countries in the South Pacific have some of the highest obesity rates in the world.

(Photo: Michael Klee/Getty Images)

Jul 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

At first glance, Hawaii would appear to have a dearth of body fat—it seems to be an archipelago populated by nothing more than surfing, fish-eating, healthy people. While that’s true for a certain demographic, the public health picture for some residents there and across the Pacific Islands is dire when it comes to obesity.

Eight Pacific Island nations are among the 10 most obese in the world, according to the World Health Organization. When you count American Samoa, a U.S. territory that WHO pegs at a 94 percent obesity rate, the problem looks that much more daunting and close to home. Hawaii, which is still culturally, ethnically, and geographically in the Pacific Islands neighborhood, has the lowest obesity rate of the 50 states—just 19 percent, well below the 2014 national average of 27.7 percent, according to Gallup. However, that statistic belies an underlying problem in the island state: Nearly 70 percent of Native Hawaiians, who account for just 10 percent of the state’s population, were overweight or obese in 2009, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

If the region can’t curb the problem, the “small fragile health systems in the region just won’t be able to cope,” Colin Tukuitonga, director general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, told The Associated Press on Monday. They’ll be looking at a possible glut of patients with obesity-related ailments in an island state with limited health care resources. In the AP interview, Tukuitonga, who works on public health issues for the intergovernmental group, backed a junk-food tax, or “fat tax,” for Pacific Island nations. A number of countries in the region, including French Polynesia, Nauru, Fiji, and Samoa, already have taxes on soda.

So, Why Should You Care? A 2012 study from Brown University found that between 1961 and 2007, the “available food energy” in the Samoan diet increased by 900 calories per person, and much of that came from fat. Such a high-calorie, low-nutrient diet has wreaked public health havoc on the U.S. mainland and in places around the world where the cheap convenience of an “American diet” has led to similar spikes in obesity. There are particulars to the weight problems experienced in the region—generally speaking, there is a cultural notion that “big is beautiful,” which has led to some resistance to treating obesity as a public health problem—but it is part of what is increasingly a global issue.

In Mexico, which has grappled with its own obesity epidemic in recent years, the type of national junk-food tax Tukuitonga spoke of is showing signs of success. Last fall, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo reported declining sales of beverages and snacks in the country, which tacks on an extra 7 cents to the cost of a liter of soda and 5 percent onto high-calorie foods (275 or more per 100 grams). In the United States, the first-ever soda tax was passed by ballot measure in Berkeley, California, last year. The British Medical Association, for its part, called for a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks in a report published Monday.

The report notes that worldwide, poor eating “contributes to more disease than physical inactivity, smoking, and alcohol combined.”