Fat of the land: Nauru tops obesity league

Pacific islanders say they're just born to be big, but new UN figures show an explosion of chronic diseases linked to high-fat diet

Palm trees, ivory beaches and a languid lifestyle: to outsiders, the South Pacific lives up to its paradise image. But the islanders themselves are weighed down by problems – literally. The region has the world's highest obesity rates, along with associated chronic diseases.

According to the latest data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Pacific island nations occupy the top seven places in the global obesity rankings. Diet is the main reason: people who once subsisted on fish, coconuts and root vegetables now eat imported processed foods that are high in sugar and fat.

The statistics are alarming. In Nauru, which tops the league table, 97 per cent of men and 93 per cent of women are overweight or obese. The region's diabetes rates are among the world's worst: 47 per cent in American Samoa, 44 per cent in Tokelau. Preventable conditions such as heart disease and cancer are responsible for three-quarters of deaths in this apparently carefree corner of the planet.

While the health figures are hard to dispute, some Pacific nations have questioned the obesity data, which is based on body mass index (BMI). People with a BMI of 25 and over are defined as overweight, those with 30 and over as obese.

A once prosperous island, thanks to its phosphate deposits, Nauru is unhappy at being labelled the fattest nation on earth. Nauruans say they are genetically short and stocky – which is why they have always excelled at weightlifting. The island's President, Marcus Stephen, won seven gold and five silver Commonwealth Games medals before he went into politics.

The director of public health, Setareki Vatucawaqa, questions whether BMI is a reliable way to measure obesity in non-Caucasians, saying that other factors – including ethnicity, sex and age – need to be considered. "They are using a set of rules ... across all cultures to define who is normal weight and who is overweight," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

While some health experts concede he has a point, the fact remains that people in Nauru – and the other top-ranked nations, the Cook Islands, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Niue and Samoa – carry unhealthy amounts of fat.

Poor nutrition, sedentary lifestyles and inadequate health education are not the sole factors. Clive Moore, a South Pacific expert at the University of Queensland, says that in Polynesian countries generous proportions are seen as a sign of prosperity. In the past, only chiefs achieved a large girth; nowadays, with higher incomes and Western diets, it has become far more common to be fat. "If you're fat, you're wealthy," says Professor Moore. "It's fairly common to eat huge meals in the Pacific. People might only eat once a day, but the plate could be 4ins high."

At the Pacific Food Summit in Vanuatu this year, Temo Waqanivalu, a senior WHO official, bemoaned the decline of traditional foods. "They are unable to compete with the glamour and flashiness of imported food," he said.

In Nauru, where three-quarters of islanders are defined as obese and 45 per cent of those aged 55-64 have diabetes, health authorities are trying to address the problem. Every Wednesday, locals are encouraged to walk around the three-mile airport perimeter. There are also regular exercise classes and sporting activities.

But it is proving difficult to wean people off processed foods such as tinned beef and mutton, which represent, to those who can afford them, a Western lifestyle. Then there is the volume problem. In Nauru, a popular snack is a whole fried chicken, washed down with a bucket-sized beaker of Coke.

The Pacific, of course, is not the only place where weight and preventable diseases are a big issue. Number eight in the WHO's league table is the United States, where more than 78 per cent of people are overweight or obese. In Britain, the figure is just over 61 per cent.

The islands, though, have the appearance of a health timebomb. Chen Ken, the WHO representative for the South Pacific, says: "We're now seeing extreme diabetes rates, and people ill and dying from diseases that were once uncommon in the Pacific." While the region is still a tropical paradise, he adds: "We want this to be the reality not just for the tourists who visit us, but also for the people who live here."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

    The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

    The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

    £30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

    The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

    £35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'