Picture this: a soft, warm tropical breeze, palm trees, peaceful ivory beaches…all in the fattest nation on earth. It just doesn’t seem to match up, especially considering that these Pacific island people used to be the picture of health. But that was when their diet consisted primarily of fish, coconuts and root vegetables. Now they eat a Western diet of imported processed foods that are high in sugar and unhealthy fats.
Having the world’s highest obesity rates—and the associated unhealth that accompanies being grossly overweight—is not an accomplishment Nauruans coveted. They have a history of excelling at sports such as weight-lifting, which is something Nauruans attribute to their short and stocky build. Now, however, they are excelling at weight gaining and unhealth. For example, in Nauru 97 percent of men and 93 percent of women are overweight or obese. Furthermore, this region—which also includes the Cook Islands, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Niue and Samoa—also tops out in high rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
There’s a lot that has worked against the people of Nauru that has gotten them to this point. Poor nutrition—consisting of processed, Westernized foods—added to sedentary lifestyles and insufficient health education are just a few of those. Additionally, a form of “portion distortion” comes into play.
Clive Moore, a South Pacific expert at the University of Queensland, says that in Polynesian countries heaping portions are viewed as signs of prosperity. "If you're fat, you're wealthy," says Professor Moore. "It's fairly common to eat huge meals in the Pacific. People might eat only once a day, but the [food on the] plate could be 4 inches high." In the past, only the elite, wealthy chiefs got fat. Since that time, higher incomes and a readily available Western diet have shared the wealth—and the girth.
Unfortunately, the Western diet holds a lot of intrigue for those in the Pacific islands. Senior World Health Organization official Temo Waqanivalu, at the Pacific Food Summit in Vanauatu, shared his concern over the decline of eating traditional foods. “They [traditional foods] are unable to compete with the glamour and flashiness of imported food,” he said.
In an effort to fight the obesity epidemic, regular exercise classes, sports activities and walking are encouraged, but eating processed foods is still prevalent—as is extreme eating. For example, a popular snack in Nauru is a whole fried chicken, washed down with a bucket-sized container of soda.
While there may be trouble in paradise, we’re not out of the woods here at home. Why? Pacific islands hold the top seven spots in obesity, but here in the U.S. we’re number eight—with more than 78 percent of people overweight or obese.
Like the Nauruans, we need to lose the processed foods, eat traditional foods, exercise more and lead a lifestyle that benefits our health instead of compromising it.