Along with iPods and Hollywood blockbusters, another American trend is sweeping the world: corpulence. As countries grow wealthier, they're also growing fatter. In China, the obesity rate is increasing by about 40 percent every year, and in Nigeria health officials are worried that it's reaching epidemic proportions.
Economic historian Avner Offer of Oxford University argues that it may be liberal economies themselves that are to blame. In a recent study, he and two co-authors looked at obesity rates of 11 wealthy, developed countries and found striking disparities. Some 30 percent of U.S. citizens and 29 percent of Australians are obese, while fewer than 20 percent of carb-loving French and Italians are overweight.
Why? It's not McDonald's -- though Big Macs are nearly as ubiquitous in France as in California these days. The real culprit, Offer argues, is anxiety about money and jobs. In other words, citizens with more economic stress tend to supersize their fries. This squares with new research published by the American Medical Association on "recession obesity," the tendency of waistlines to grow along with unemployment numbers. Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 2.4 million people became obese in the United States during the recession of 2007 to 2009, far higher than projected.
So could it be free market capitalism itself that is making us fat?
According to Offer's findings, countries with fewer labor protections and government benefits have an obesity rate 6 percentage points higher than those with more generous welfare states. He doesn't directly address whether Mediterranean diets and more walkable cities are factors in keeping Italians and French skinny, but his research implies that recent cuts in European welfare spending might do the opposite of belt-tightening.
If Offer is right, then government programs to trim fat from American diets could be missing the point entirely. Rather than encouraging children to exercise more and eat better, first lady Michelle Obama's time might be better spent advising her husband on how to create more secure jobs for their parents.