NEW YORK – Thanksgiving is the holiday when most Americans stuff their faces, loosen their belts and then feel guilty enough to sign up for a new gym membership.
But for many people living in the United States and around the world, issues related to healthy eating and body weight do not begin and end on the fourth Thursday of November.
Try visiting Brooklyn. Stand in a front of a bodega on a weekday after 3 p.m. Hordes of adolescents make their way out of school and rush into the nearest store for an afterschool snack.
Bodegas, New York City’s local version of a 7-Eleven, are omnipresent in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, and they have recently found their way into middle-income areas. Their glass windows are plastered with posters advertising candy and soda. They rarely sell fresh produce, and when they do it's poor quality and overpriced.
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Similar to poor states and nations, the obesity epidemic has become widespread in New York City’s boroughs. In Brooklyn, 465,000 people are obese, or 26.8 percent of the population, according to the NYC Health Department. Not only has the rate of overweight and obese doubled since 1980, it has more than tripled in children.
“There’s a high population of adults and children with obesity, where you see this linkage with poverty,” Dr. James Hospedales, an expert in Prevention and Control of Chronic Diseases for the World Health Organization, told GlobalPost. “It used to be the other way around, that rich people were obese, and poor people had nothing to eat.”
Obesity is measured by body mass index, or BMI, which is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his or her height in meters. A person with a BMI greater than or equal to 25 is overweight, and someone with a BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obese, according to WHO standards.
At first, the correlation seems odd. Aren’t the poor masses the ones without food? But across the United States and in many undeveloped countries, low-income communities have less access to supermarkets that carry fresh foods, or cannot afford healthy foods. Instead, they eat cheaper, high-fat processed foods.
The WHO keeps a close eye on what it has labeled an epidemic of obesity around the world. In 2008, 1.5 billion adults around the world were overweight, and another 500 million people were obese.
Obesity isn’t just a problem in poor American communities. It has also hit places like the Caribbean and Brazil, better known for its gorgeous women.
“In the last three to four years we have realized it is in Central America, many of the Caribbean countries,” said Hospedales. “We had to say ’Wait a minute, this isn’t just a problem in America, it is a problem pretty much across the board.’”
In 2010 the WHO reported that Nauru, a Pacific Island, sits at the top of the list with 95 percent of its population obese. The US also made the top 10.
The WHO has classified the world’s most obese nations by the percentage of the population with a BMI over 25.
Flip through the slideshow above to see the world’s top 10 most obese countries according to WHO statistics.
In poor countries, obesity can also be tied to prenatal care.
“If your mother is undernourished, once you are exposed to a Western environment you’re likely to become obese,” said Hospedales.
In contrast, a mother who overeats during pregnancy and gains too much weight is likely to have a child with a higher chance of getting diabetes.
Obesity is a serious public-health challenge as it is linked to diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol. Countries with high obesity rates have higher numbers of strokes, heart attacks and populations suffering from diabetes.
“We all like to eat. We can do without tobacco and alcohol, that’s easy, because they’re evil,” said Hospedales. “But we all have to eat.”
Hospedales points to education as a solution to obesity and suggests that children must be taught the health risks of poor nutrition and the benefits of eating healthier foods and getting physical activity.
In addition to more education, he says there must be more government intervention in the form of programs and initiatives to stop obesity. Advertising aimed at children must be better regulated, he said.
“For all human history we have mostly been worried about people not having enough to eat. But now we have epidemic levels of obesity,” said Hospedales. “Some people call it a wicked problem, because it is very hard to solve.”
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