You’d be forgiven for thinking the US has the highest obesity rates in the world when in fact it’s the Pacific Islands that top the list of countries with the highest percentage of their populations obese. American Samoa tops the chart with 75% of the population reported as obese followed closely by Nauru.
It was once thought that Pacific Islanders were genetically predisposed to becoming obese but experts now say the introduction of a Western diet by Australian, American, New Zealand, British or French nations after the Second World War is to blame.
Preventable chronic diseases such as bowel cancer and heart disease are linked to obesity and it is a long-held belief among the medical community that a diet high in fat is the main contributor to the causes of bowel cancer.
Oxford University researcher Professor Stanley Ulijaszek, of the University of Oxford, said traditional foods of the islands such as fresh fish, meat and local fruits and vegetables have been replaced by ‘energy-dense’ and ‘nutrition poor’ foods such as rice, sugar, flour, canned meats, canned fruits and vegetables, soft drinks and beer.
Research published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition found these Western foods became a sign of social status among the islanders who were taught to fry their fish, rather than eat it raw as they had done before.
The colonising nations introduced mining, making land that had previously been used for food gathering infertile and pollution from colonial shipping also degraded reefs, which were formerly a rich food source.
A person is considered obese if they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) is over 30, and severely obese if they have a BMI of over 40 (calculate your BMI here).
Nutritionist Katrina Mather said, “In non-Western cultures, where traditional diets predominantly consist of unprocessed foods and are low in sugar, it takes only one generation of people eating a more typical Western diet, high in sugar and refined flour, to become predisposed to obesity and develop diabetes”.
New Zealand overweight/obese figures include 60% of all Pacific Island origin children and 40% of all Maori children.