More and more individuals today are heavier than their moms or dads or even their grandparents at what time they were the same age. It might be realized that obesity is a worldwide problem and it is indeed a very serious concern. There are even those who deem it an epidemic.

The quote above is from a South African on-line education site

I read an interesting article in Time recently which talks about how fat Americans have become over the last 30 years, which is what inspired me to find out more about obesity and the impact it will have on our world going forward. The article also caught my eye because I have read before that obesity is one of the biggest threats to the health of Generation Y; and with so much else to worry about, I wonder what Generation Y are going to do about this threat to their health as well.

It is terrifying to think that 1 in 3 Americans are now obese; and that in 1985 about 10% of the population was obese; but by 2000 that had risen to 25%.

In 1971 only 4% of 6-to-11-year-old kids were obese; by 2004, the figure had leaped to 18.8%. In the same period, the number rose from 6.1% to 17.4% in the 12-to-19-year-old group, and from 5% to 13.9% among kids ages just 2 to 5. And as with adults, that’s just obesity. Include all overweight kids, and a whopping 32% of all American children now carry more pounds than they should.

But we have always blamed Americans for being fat. However, the United Kingdom is following suit. Being overweight and obese is on the rise in England also, with the number of obese people having doubled since the 1980’s. Click here for comprehensive statistics.

In fact this epidemic affects every continent. Although relative to Europe and America, China ‘s population is slim, obesity rates are on the rapid increase as China gets wealthier and wealthier. In fact there are now over 100 million obese people in China. The number of obese children has grown 30 fold and this is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy means that many young people are brought up by as many as six adults all trying to feed them!

South Africa is not exempt from this growing phenomenon. Sadly, in fact, South Africa has one of the worst obesity rates in the world. 61% (that’s over half the population) are overweight.When looking specifically at South African children, research published in an article from ‘Courses, Live and Learn’ states that

19.6 percent of children aged 6 -11 years old are obese, while children from 12 to 19 years of age have an 18.1 obesity percentage. This numbers came from a major child obesity statistics, however, many independent studies claim that the numbers are actually much more, totaling to more than 25 percent obese children from those age groups.

Here is a list of the world’s top 10 fattest countries according to the World Health Organization (the percentages refer to percentage of overweight people):

  1. American Samoa(93.5%)
  2. Kiribati (81.5%)
  3. USA (66.7%)
  4. Germany (66.5%)
  5. Egypt (66%)
  6. Bosnia-Herzegovina (62.9%)
  7. New Zealand (62.7%)
  8. Israel (61.9%)
  9. Croatia (61.4%)
  10. UK (61%)

The problem is complex. Lack of exercise, urbanization, the lure of fast or convenient food in a fast pace world; and huge amounts of choice are some of the reasons; and

all those calories come at a price. Humans, like most animals, are hardwired not just to eat but to gorge, since living in the wild means never knowing when the next famine is going to strike. Best to load up on calories when you can — even if that famine never comes. “We’re not only programmed to eat a lot,” says Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, “but to prefer foods that are high in calories.” What’s more, the better we got at producing food, the easier it became. If you’re a settler, you eat a lot of buffalo in part because you need a lot of buffalo — at least after burning so many calories hunting and killing it. But what happens when eating requires no sweat equity at all, when the grocery store is always nearby and always full?

These kinds of statistics are massively worrying and I think will have a huge impact on the new world of work. Common wisdom intimates that the major cause of this global problem is lack of exercise and poor diet, which seems fairly obvious, but I would like to look at the reasons behind what is driving this change and then unpack the effects it will have on young people in particular.

Why don’t kids exercise?

  • they live in urban environments surrounded by machinery (doing all the physical work) and convenience
  • we live in crime ridden societies where it’s safer not to walk, run around or ride your bike
  • because they would rather be sitting in front of a television or a computer
  • because there isn’t a lot of space to run around outside

Why do we have such poor diets and what do we eat?

  • We eat tons of fast food because it is cheap and it is convenient and fast
  • We eat MSG and processed food because it tastes good and it’s cheap
  • We drink carbonated sodas/ pop because they taste good and look attractive on the super-market shelves; and because they have cool marketing campaigns and sponsor our favourite sport stars
  • We eat far more meat than we need to because we can and it tastes great and because we’ve become obsessed with eating protein which we think primarily comes from meat
  • We eat loads of chocolate and sweets because they are just nicer than apples and bananas

So, what damage is this doing?

  • besides the obvious heart-attack and stroke there is lots of potential physical damage
  • then there is the psychological damage of depression, anxiety, low self-image; and eating disorders
  • cultural eating habits and choice of foods are being lost
  • value systems around healthy eating and nutrition are being affected
  • the environment is being impacted. Think about the natural resources being used to grow more and more food, make bigger clothes, bigger furniture, etc.
  • the impact of the economy as people must live on chronic medication and are not as productive at work

One has to ask oneself, is convenience and cost really a trade off for our health and well-being? I would readily say no.

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