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On a sunny Sunday in March, Manuel Uribe from Monterray, Mexico wanted to go on a picknick in the park with his girlfriend. Nothing too special for most people. But two years ago, Uribe was officially the heaviest man of earth, weighing 1120 pounds. He had to be lifted into a large truck by a fork-lift truck, in front of a huge crowd that had gathered around to see this spectacle. He was placed under a construction made of steel and canvas to shield him from the sun.
Unfortunately, the canvas was ripped when the construction got stuck under a low viaduct. Because of this, Uribe’s bloodpressure dropped so fast that his doctor announced that is was unsafe to continue the expedition. The chubby Mexican, who now still weighs over 720 pounds, hopes to celebrate his birthday in July with a more successful picknick in the park.
Obesity: a worldwide problem
Manuel Uribe is an extreme example of how obesity has evolved from a problem of the wealthy to a worldwide epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 1.6 billion overweight adults in 2005. At least 400 million of these people were obese, meaning that their BMI (Body Mass Index) was over 30. The World Health Organisation predicts that there will be 2.3 billion overweight adults in 2015, of which 700 million will be obese.
Even in countries with a low or average national income, obesity is becoming a huge problem, especially in the larger cities. In such countries obesity and undernourishment often excist side to side. In South Africa for example, this has led to the bizarre situation in which the same number of people die annually of undernourishment as there are people dying of diseases caused by obesity. Obesity has evolved from a problem that only existed in the rich Western world, to a global problem that’s becoming a big threat to public health.
The expansion of obesity around the globe has two causes. First, there’s a global shift from traditional diets to a Western ‘McDiet’, that contains more fat, more sugar and more calories. But that’s not the only problem. People that exercise or move a lot can eat relatively more fat, without becoming overweight. In the Fifties, housewives were eating more calories than women are today. But nowaday, more women are overweight. Which illustrates the second problem: people around the globe are getting less and less exercise. Daily tasks have been simplified, more people use a car and more people work in an office. This combination of causes has turned obesity into a worldwide problem.
Fat is good
But there are huge differences in obesity between countries and between men and women in each country. In the Caribbean, the number of obese people has risen by 400 percent in the last few years and in a lot of African and Arab countries there are much more obese women than there are in Western countries. But in those same countries, there are less overweight men compared to the West.
In Mauritania, an obese woman is considered beautiful. A large woman is seen as a wealthy woman, with a husband who takes good care of her. One generation ago, one in every three girls in Mauritania was force-fed by her parents, which still happens to one in every ten girls nowadays. There are ‘fat farms’ in the countryside, where parents bring their children to live with professional force-feeders.
And in Latin-America and the Caribbean obesity isn’t seen as a negative aspect either. In contrast to our Western view a svelte figure isn’t seen as a beauty ideal in these regions. In Bolivia people think that a full figured woman is better at giving birth. And in Nicaragua, big women are appreciated because they are believed to take better care of their families than of their figure.
A healthier life
In the poorer parts of our world, there are often strong cultural influences that create an environment in which obesity is seen as a positive aspect. But even there, people begin to realise that diseases linked to obesity will put more pressure at medical facilities. Because of this, The World Health Organisation launched a ‘Gobal Strategy on Diet, Physicl Activity and Health’ in 2004. The message is clear: obesity is also a problem in poor countries and this has to be fought by informing people and by stimulating a healthier lifestyle.
For Manuel Uribe, the message couldn’t have been clearer: he has lost 400 pounds in the last two years and he’s determined to lose another 400 pounds.