The Common Good

The Worldwide Obesity Epidemic: It's the Sugar, Folks

One of this morning's headlines from Worldcrunch "While You Slept":


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"More Than A Third Of The World Is Obese Or Overweight"!

Don't choke on your doughnut until you've looked at the statistics.

No matter how much you hated high-school math, surely you can do better than the people who wrote this headline and the accompanying article.

First, note that 2.1 billion is not "more than a third" of the world's population, which has passed 7.2 billion. It's more like 29%.

Second, don't be unduly alarmed by the article's report that the number of oversized people has increased from 875 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion today. Remember that there weren't as many people 34 years ago — fewer than 4.5 billion. Even in 1980, nearly 20% of the world's population was overweight or obese.

Bad reporting aside, however, we still have a problem. We still have a worldwide overweight/obesity rate that's 45% higher than it was in 1980. This would not be important if it were only a question of good looks. People come in all sizes and all can be beautiful. What's scary is not people's appearance, but their health.

Sadly, "the number of Americans with diagnosed diabetes has more than tripled" since 1980, says the Centers for Disease Control.* And by the way, up to 20% of people with Type 2 diabetes are neither overweight nor obese.

Cue the "experts" — we're eating too much, we're exercising too little. Well, that's probably true for most of us, but it doesn't adequately explain the statistics, and it certainly doesn't explain those skinny diabetics. Here's a better explanation from Mark Bittman's summary of another recent study:

It's the Sugar, Folks.

White table sugar. Molasses. Maple syrup. All those deceptively labeled ingredients like "cane juice" and "fruit juice concentrate." And, of course, high fructose corn syrup — heavily subsidized by the U.S. government and exported all over the world. According to the study, Bittman writes,

"It’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes. The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s. ... And just as tobacco companies fought, ignored, lied, and obfuscated in the ’60s (and, indeed, through the ’90s), the pushers of sugar will do the same now."

Thanks for reading. You can choke on your doughnut now.

*The CDC is right about tripling: the number has gone from 5.6 million (1980) to 20.9 million (2011). But of course the U.S. population also increased between 1980 and 2011, so I did the math. The diabetes rate in 1980 was 2.46%; by 2011 it had climbed to 6.71%. That's a 273% increase.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and reviews books for various magazines.

Photo: Muangsatun/

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