A lot of countries have lower obesity rates than the United States. Here’s some of what they do to battle the epidemic.
America may be losing the battle against obesity. But it doesn’t have to lose the war.
Adult and child obesity rates in the United States have climbed from almost 14 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in 1999–2000 to 18 percent and almost 40 percent in 2015–2016, according to the recently published State of Obesity 2018 report.
In addition, not a single state had a statistically significant improvement in their obesity rate in 2017 from the year prior.
Obesity rates are also on the rise worldwide, but some countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Italy, maintain obesity rates of less than 10 percent.
Here’s what we can learn from other cultures that can help us tackle the obesity problem at home.
When it comes to combating obesity, we can start by being more mindful about how much we eat.
In Japan, which has an adult obesity rate of less than 4 percent, the average adult consumes 200 fewer calories daily than the average American, according to a 2006 study from the University of Minnesota.
“Some of the most effective [diets] are Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem, where you have a diet with restricted calories,” Dr. Robert Raspa, a family physician in Jacksonville, Florida, told Healthline.
“You have to keep track of your calories. I recommend a calorie counter like [the app] MyFitnessPal. Back in the old days, a food log worked really well,” Raspa noted.
Preventing obesity isn’t just about hitting the gym.
It’s also about how active you are in your day-to-day life.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health used smartphone data to determine the average number of steps people around the world took daily.
They found that people in the countries with the biggest gap in activity between their most and least active members — dubbed “activity inequality” — were nearly 200 percent more likely to be obese than people from the countries with the lowest activity inequality.
“The key is to change, to whatever degree you can, the systems around you,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, MBA, executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center and an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“When I’m choosing where and how to work,” Lee told Healthline, “I should take into account commuting. Can I walk or bike there? When I’m in the office, can I move around? And those things affect both your physical and mental health.”
Food quality also counts.
Both the Japanese and Korean diets, for instance, are high in rice, vegetables, and fish.
And Italy is the birthplace of the much-vaunted Mediterranean diet, which is low in red meat and added sugars and high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and seafood.
If neither of those diet plans is appealing, some health experts have suggested the Nordic diet, another vegetable-oriented and seafood-oriented meal plan.
Given that most Nordic countries have obesity rates under 15 percent, that seems like a safe bet.
As anyone who’s ever craved a hamburger or a slice of pizza after watching an ad on television knows, exposure can be persuasive in helping you make an unhealthy food choice.
That’s especially true for children, with many studies showing a link between what food ads kids are exposed to and higher body mass index scores.
Countries such as Norway and Denmark — with obesity rates of 12 and 14 percent, respectively — have met this head-on by urging advertisers to not market unhealthy food and drink to children under the age of 13, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Obesity Update 2017 report.
One key factor in Japan’s success at turning its rising obesity rate into the lowest in the world was a program of healthier school lunches.
Instead of multiple options and vending machines on campus, students are offered a single, healthy lunch daily. No french fries and definitely no soda machines.
In the United States, where 30 million children receive school lunch daily, healthier lunches could make a profound dent in the nation’s obesity rate.
In the meantime, parents can put together a healthy brown-bag lunch for their children.
“[Obesity is] a systems problem,” Lee explained. “In the past several decades, it has been treated as a single cause, single effect problem… but it’s related to so many things.”
Lee pointed to Finland, a country with an obesity rate nearing 25 percent, as a model.
There, the city of Seinäjoki was able to cut their obesity rate among 5-year-olds in half by adopting a “health in all policies” approach, where the city’s health department worked with schools, child care providers, parents, and urban planning professionals to create a healthier overall environment for kids.
That’s a great approach, but while we wait for the government to catch up, what can you do in the meantime?
“The individual is not going to change the epidemic, but there are certainly things you can do,” Lee said. “Knowing and understanding [obesity risk factors] can help inform you on an individual level.”
“[But] this can’t be a part-time thing,” he warned. “You can’t say, ‘As a hobby I’m going to change my nutrition and physical activity.’”