Rod Liddle

Why do all the fattest people live on islands

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Here’s a mystery which has been keeping me awake at night recently. Why do people who live on islands, and even more so very small islands, tend to be grotesquely overweight?

I stumbled across this strange apparent correlation the other evening, while sporcling. This is what I do in my spare moments these days, in lieu of a life. Sporcle is a website which offers hundreds and hundreds of quizzes, and has some particularly good quizzes on geography. This is how I know which country in the world has the most renewable water resources per capita (Iceland), which country has the most camels (Somalia), who produces the most apricots (Turkey) and plantain (Uganda), which US cities have seen their populations drop by the largest number (St Louis). And even stuff like which are the nine sovereign nations in the world which have the consecutive letters ‘gu’ in their names.

Go on, see if you can do that: two minutes, starting now.* Anyway, all of this will, I think, stand me in very good stead as a journalist; I will be informed, and a better person all round. And Sporcle doesn’t wreck your computer with viruses like Ukrainian animal porn does, so I’m told.

The website’s list of ‘overweight countries’ was drawn from the World Health Organisation. Of the 26 countries named, 14 were island nations and most of those very small island nations; indeed there is a case for saying the smaller the island, the fatter the inhabitant — and small islands comprised nine of the top 13 ‘heaviest’ countries. This is a remarkable statistic when you consider that of the 196 sovereign nations, only 38 are islands of any description. So not only a preponderance of islands at the top of the list, but more than half of the top 26 were islands, when islands comprise only one in five of our recognised sovereign states. Why should this be?

As you may already have guessed, the various Micronesians and their southern seas relations — Kiribati, Tonga, Nauru and so on — hog the top of the charts for lumbering fat munters. This is both widely known and has been the subject of much concerned study. The WHO is aghast that these poor people succumb to chronic diseases occasioned by their weight — cancers, coronary disease and so on — at a rate which is ten times worse than that which pertains in the United Kingdom. (And yes, we’re in the list, too, nestled in nicely at number 26, well below both the USA and, oddly enough, Argentina.) Most of the Micronesian countries have obesity rates well in excess of 90 per cent, and two in ten Tongans, for example, suffer from diabetes.

Some have posited genetics as a possible contributory factor, some contra-adaptive mutation which makes it difficult for them to process fatty foods, much as many Chinese people have difficulty processing lactose. But diet would seem to be the main cause. The Tongans love nothing more than devouring suckling pig, although when that is not available they will make do with lamb’s belly or corned beef, both of which are prodigiously high in fat. They enjoy their carbs, too, shovelling down vast quantities of taro, sweet potato and yam. And, as has often been pointed out, they are suffused with lassitude and indolence. You do not see many Tongans down the gym working up a sweat.

If it were just the Micronesians and their allies then we might forget the whole thing and put it down to a singularity of that particular culture. But it is not: far from it. For also near the top of the list are the likes of Malta and Bahrain, Dominica and Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the Seychelles and — as I mention — ourselves. And so this is where it gets more interesting and perplexing: why Malta, but not Spain or Italy or any of the countries of the Maghreb, their closest neighbours? Why little Bahrain, but not either of the two mainland countries which it shelters between, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Why the Seychelles and not Kenya or Somalia?

There is no real correlation with GDP per capita in this list of fat countries, by the way; they range blithely through the poorest countries on earth to the richest, with plenty, like Argentina and Greece, somewhere in the middle. (It is good to see Greece on the list, above us, after all the years of being told we had to imitate the Greek diet because it was so bloody healthy. No more of that thick yoghurt for me, ever.) It does not seem to be true that obesity is a direct consequence of either great poverty or great affluence.

Nor is there any correlation that I can see with the countries which do either very well or very badly on that other UN list which measures well-being and happiness. There is no indigenous culture which might link Kiribati with Malta, or Dominica with Bahrain, or the Seychelles with Barbados. You wonder what the link between them all might be: is it that the islands are so small that the natives have nowhere to work off the fat, nowhere to run to? Or is there a psychological component to it, that being part of an island race somehow encourages an individual to stuff his face at every available opportunity? The only vague connection I can think of is that most of these islands were once poor, but have become more affluent and ‘westernised’ with some rapidity, and being islands are at more of a risk of succumbing to the new temptations of fattening processed foods. I wonder if that is it.

*Antigua and Barbuda, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay. The argument continues online.