Global Poll: A Look at Weight Around the World

Updated: Apr. 06, 2020

To understand what’s happening and to bring us closer to a possible solution, Reader’s Digest commissioned a global diet poll, interviewing people in 16 countries about their attitudes and behaviors regarding weight.

Plus: 19 Weight Loss Secrets From Around the World

Remember those heart-tugging TV commercials in which Sally Struthers implored us to help fight world hunger? Well, we reached a strange tipping point recently. According to an October report from the World Health Organization (WHO), more people worldwide now die from being overweight and obese than from being underweight. Although world hunger remains a significant problem, it’s our appetite for prosperity and all its spoils that’s more likely to kill us now.

The Results of the Global Obesity Poll
Who’s Trying to Lose Weight
In half of the countries we surveyed, most people have tried to lose weight at least once. Around the world, women are significantly more likely
than men to have tried to reduce.

According to WHO, there are approximately 1.6 billion overweight or obese people in the world; at least 2.5 million deaths are attributable to these conditions annually. Nearly 18 million children under age five are estimated to be overweight. How long do you think it will be before some celebrity appears on our TV screens showing pictures of plump toddlers and beseeching us to help them fight fat?

To understand what’s happening and to bring us closer to a possible solution, Reader’s Digest commissioned a global diet poll, interviewing approximately 16,000 people in 16 countries about their attitudes and behaviors regarding weight. Our statistical tour reveals the country where being fat is no big deal and the spot where thin is the most in. It makes clear which nation blames America for this obesity epidemic and which points the finger at itself. It shows who’s dieting, who’s doing surgery, and who’s positively reckless in paring the pounds. Come with us as we explore how people around the world view obesity—and what they’re doing about it.

The Country Most Aware of the Dangers of Obesity

In the 1970s, Finland had the world’s highest incidence of deaths from heart disease. Not anymore. A public health campaign to educate people about diet, exercise, and the dangers of smoking helped slash heart disease deaths in the working-age population by 80 percent over the past three decades and added nearly ten years to the average Finn’s life.

One of the keys to the turnaround, says Pekka Puska, MD, director general of the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, was community-based incentives such as “Quit and Win” challenges. Towns actually competed for prizes based on how many people stopped smoking or cut their cholesterol—or shaved a few inches off their midsection.

Our survey found that 83 percent of Finns have attempted to lose weight at some point, a figure that’s at least 10 percentage points higher than in any other country we polled. How the U.S. compares: Seventy-two percent of Americans have tried to lose weight, predominantly for health reasons. Not surprisingly, women are much more likely to have done so than men—85 percent versus 59 percent.

The Country That Feels the Most Pressure to Be Thin

In Rio, where people are expected to wear as few clothes as possible to Carnaval or at the beach, there is a genuine cult of the body. The need to be inspection-ready is a burden: Our survey found that 83 percent of Brazilians think there’s too much emphasis placed on weight, with men (77 percent) and women (89 percent) both feeling the pressure. Maybe that explains a few other national trends: The percentage of the population taking diet pills doubled between 2001 and 2005, plastic surgery is booming, and doctors even offer toe liposuction (to create more “toe cleavage”).

How the U.S. compares: Sixty-two percent of Americans say we pay entirely too much attention to weight. The United States ranks third in this category, behind Brazil and India (68 percent).

The Country Where Wives Most Want Their Husbands to Lose Weight

More than half (51 percent) of married American women wish their husbands were thinner. Conversely, 47 percent of married American men desire the same of their mates. The irony: A full 68 percent of women said our culture is overly focused on weight. Evidently, they’re more accepting of a belly if it’s not hanging off their hubby.

The Country Where Husbands Most Want Their Wives to Lose Weight

Forty-eight percent of Indian men admit to being dissatisfied with the shape of their spouse, while 46 percent of Indian women say the same. On the bright side, everyone seems equally unhappy.

How the U.S. compares: American men come in right behind their Indian counterparts—47 percent wish for just a little less of their wives.

The Country Where You’re Loved Just the Way You Are

Not only are Hungarians the least likely to feel like their poundage is being eyed with public disapproval—a paltry 28 percent said their country’s emphasis on weight was too great—married folk are more apt to be content with the shape of their spouse. Only 11 percent of Hungarian men and 14 percent of women want their mates to get their ladle out of the goulash pot.

The Country That Swallows the Most Diet Pills

Thirty-seven percent of the Chinese admit to taking weight-loss pills. Experts say that body consciousness is growing throughout China, and diet pills are seen as a quick and trendy way to achieve the ideal. But these pills can be dangerous—even deadly—because their manufacture is unregulated.

In our survey, women in nearly every country were more inclined than men to report trying a weight-loss aid. (In China, the split is 48-18 percent.) Also quick to turn to pills were Brazil (30 percent of survey respondents), Russia (24 percent), and Mexico (23 percent).

How the U.S. compares: Nineteen percent of Americans have popped diet pills. That includes 23 percent of women and 14 percent of men.

The Country in Which People Are Most Likely to Ignore Their Doctor

When we asked people around the world for the reasons they’ve tried to lose weight, doctor’s orders were not high on the list. The Swiss gave their physician’s urging the least credence of anyone (just 11 percent cited that as a motivation). Mexicans (46 percent) and the French (39 percent) were most attentive.

How the U.S. compares: Twenty-nine percent of Americans say that their doctor helped convince them to lighten up, with more men (33 percent) than women (27 percent) paying attention to the advice.

The Country Where They’re Still Trying to Puff Off the Pounds

Smoking to suppress appetite is recognized as a foolish trade-off throughout the world, but the habit persists anyway, particularly in the Philippines, China, Mexico, and, strikingly, Russia. Twenty-three percent of Russian men and 18 percent of women admit to smoking cigarettes in order to lose weight.

How the U.S. compares: Just 5 percent of Americans say they smoke for weight loss.

The Country Most Likely to Blame a Lack of Willpower

You have to commend their honesty: A full 95 percent of Filipinos say they enjoy good food, and 82 percent admit to simply not having the willpower to resist it. Indeed, only 38 percent have even tried to lose weight.

How the U.S. compares: Almost half of Americans say food is just plain irresistible. But we’re more apt to blame our weight on lack of exercise (84 percent).

The Country Most Likely to Blame the Parents

An amazing 70 percent of Russians point to their genes as a major reason they need bigger jeans. Germans (61 percent) and Indians (50 percent) also use this excuse. How the U.S. compares: Twenty percent of Americans blame Mom and Dad.

The Country Most Likely to Blame Americans

Should we be surprised? Probably not, given that French fries–freedom fries exchange a few years ago. More than any other country surveyed, France points to America’s eating habits and fast food as prime culprits in its growing girth.

How the U.S. compares: At least we take responsibility for the effects of our fast-food habit. Almost three quarters of Americans say our way of eating promotes obesity.

The Country with the Highest Weight Loss IQ

Almost all Mexicans—93 percent of them—report switching to more healthful food in an attempt to lose their belly. Eighty-six percent have also tried to become more physically active. More than any other country surveyed, Mexico knows the sensible approach to weight loss—even if its citizens don’t always put that knowledge into practice. About 70 percent of Mexican adults are overweight or obese, according to that country’s National Institute for Public Health.

How the U.S. compares: Eighty-six percent of Americans have tried eating more healthfully, and 75 percent have attempted to work out. But 61 percent (versus 55 percent of Mexicans) still resort to dietary deprivation, which studies show has a dismal success rate over the long haul.

The Country Where Pounds Are Most Likely to Get in the Way of Promotions

Sixty-seven percent of Indians say that being overweight can “seriously interfere” with career advancement. That’s at least ten points higher than in any other nation surveyed. In fact, 41 percent of dieters there say they were motivated by a desire to be promotable. And this is one of the few instances where men (52 percent) feel greater pressure to trim down than women (31 percent). The notion that excess pounds can leave you wedged into a dead end in the office is also pervasive in Germany and the Philippines.

How the U.S. compares: Forty-one percent of Americans think being overweight can sink a career—but only 4 percent of us admit to dieting to impress the boss.

The Country Where Overweight Women Struggle Most

In most countries, people agree that it’s just plain tough to be overweight, whether you’re male or female, but there were a couple of striking exceptions. Fifty-seven percent of people in China say that being well-padded poses no particular problems for either sex. And in the United States, respondents say that being overweight is harder on women. Almost half of Americans (58 percent of women and 37 percent of men) voiced this opinion.

The Countries Where Being Fat Interferes Most with Your Sex Life

The majority (52 percent) of people in both of these nations say being fat holds them back from having a good time in the sack. Russia came in close behind, with 51 percent agreeing. Interestingly, Hungarians (15 percent) and the Dutch (18 percent) are least likely to say size makes a difference to their sex lives.

In every country, men were more likely than women to predict amorous woes, with men in Australia, China, and Mexico most inclined to say that pounds created problems in this regard.

How the U.S. compares: Forty-six percent of Americans (51 percent of men and 41 percent of women) say excess heftiness gets in the way of frolicking.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest