a map showing the locations of 20 countries with the most obese populations

The Most Obese Countries in The World

Weighing the responsibility of individuals against the duty of government is a heavy task, and the global obesity epidemic is a key staging ground for that debate. In the last century, food scarcity for many developed countries vanished nearly overnight. Yet, because the metabolisms of many people had adapted to survive long periods of famine, super-abundance quickly became a curse. Cheap sugars and fats have become dietary mainstays worldwide, but they have wrought societal havoc in one particular corner of the planet. Pacific island countries currently account for the top five in high BMI prevalency, and island countries are more than half of the top 20, in percentage of obese adults. The danger is imminent: high BMI rates often result in widespread cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a shorter lifespan.

Top 20 Most Obese Countries in the World by percentage of adults with a BMI above 30
Above is a map of the top 20 countries ranked by adult obesity or the percentage of adults with a BMI above 30 kg/m2.

What is BMI?

Body Mass Index, also known as BMI, is a simple way to measure a person's body weight in relation to their height. To calculate it, you divide the person's weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. This method is often used in studies to estimate obesity rates in large groups of people because it is easy to calculate and non-invasive. In general, a healthy BMI is between 18.5 to 24.9; to be above or below is to be underweight or overweight, with obesity beginning at 30.0.

Body Mass Index (BMI), 5 Ranges
Body Mass Index (BMI), 5 Ranges

However, BMI is not a perfect measure. One major drawback is that it cannot tell the difference between muscle and fat. That means a very muscular person might be classified as overweight according to their BMI, even if they're actually in great physical shape. Also, BMI doesn't take into account where body fat is located, which can influence health risks.

Despite these limitations, BMI is still useful as a general guide to assess weight at the population level. It is a tool that scales well for large groups, making it practical for studies.

An even more accurate way to measure body composition would be to determine a person's body-fat percentage. Yet, even this method has its own set of challenges: for one thing, data collection is difficult, which is an issue that the simpler BMI metric already struggles with.

Tonga - 77.1% of Adults are Obese

 Polynesian parishioners in traditional Tongan dress walk out of church Sangata Teleisia 'o 'Avila as Catholic Mass ends, Pangai village, Ha'apai Group in Tonga, Polynesia, via maloff / Shutterstock.com
Polynesian parishioners in traditional Tongan dress walk out of church Sangata Teleisia 'o 'Avila as Catholic Mass ends, Pangai village, Ha'apai Group in Tonga, Polynesia, via maloff / Shutterstock.com

Like many South Pacific countries, Tonga is actually a collection of hundreds of islands: 170, to be exact. Their history of oceanic travel means that they have a typical diet of fish, root vegetables, and coconuts. Until that is, the 20th century abruptly invaded their culture with Western notions of "better." In the same way that Western housing began to be preferred to the traditional housing aesthetic, diet also changed. Most of the imports that they receive from the West consist of heavily fatty foods — mutton flaps, which are considered unfit for consumption in countries like New Zealand. So, a Tongan spear-fisherman might spend the day collecting expensive fish to sell at the markets and then consume an incredible amount of cheap, unhealthy, imported goods.

Unfortunately, it is also possible that genetics play a hand in rapid weight gain, combined with this relatively novel diet. Food shortages in past centuries tend to result in a population that can make the most of every calorie, so when extreme shifts like over-abundance occur, the results can be dramatic. Life expectancy has dropped rapidly from the mid-70s to the low 60s, and teenagers are undergoing amputations amidst an increasingly overwhelmed National Diabetes Centre. Attempts in 2008 to economically curb the consumption of mutton flaps resulted in fierce public resistance, revealing that calorie addictions can run deep.

Tuvalu - 62.2% of Adults are Obese

Tuvalu House (Tuvalu Government Building). The largest and tallest, only three-storey building in the country, via maloff / Shutterstock.com
Tuvalu House (Tuvalu Government Building). The largest and tallest, only three-storey building in the country, via maloff / Shutterstock.com

Tuvalu's nine islands comprise thinly populated atoll and reef communities, and 10,400 citizens have chosen to plant their roots here. Endlessly palmed beaches and golden-shimmer sunsets imply that this is a land of health and relaxation, but an obesity prevalence of 62.2% shatters this illusion. Interestingly, malnutrition is one of the root causes: despite the availability of healthy fish and vegetables, corned beef, rice, and sugar dominate diets in such a way that hypertension and cardiovascular diseases spread rampantly. These high-fat, high-salt diets are merciless when struggles with financing and limited agricultural activity impede government response. Although it is mostly aged between 18-69 taken into consideration for BMI measurements, infant diseases and deaths in Tuvalu are often a result of these issues.

Nauru - 58.1% of Adults are Obese

Beach in Nauru (3rd smallest country in the world), South Pacific
Beach in Nauru (3rd smallest country in the world), South Pacific

In the small island country of Nauru, the historical shift in economic prosperity, primarily due to phosphate mining, led to significant changes in lifestyle and diet during the 20th century. The newly acquired affluence from this mining boom led to the now common theme, the import of high-calorie, processed foods replacing traditional diets.

This historical legacy, however, took a downturn, and presently, Nauru experiences high unemployment rates. This economic reality inevitably influences food choices, as the lack of disposable income makes cheap, calorie-dense processed foods more appealing, further fuelling the obesity epidemic.

The consequence of this high obesity prevalence is that Nauru's universal healthcare system is strained under the burden of obesity-related diseases. Renal failure, in particular, presents a significant challenge, resulting in escalating healthcare costs and straining resources. Interestingly, "Nauru is the highest recipient of aid of any Pacific Island Country (PIC) as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)," which brings into question issues of resource management.

Samoa - 55.8% of Adults are Obese

People at the Fugalei fresh produce market in Samoa, via corners74 / Shutterstock.com
People at the Fugalei fresh produce market in Samoa, via corners74 / Shutterstock.com

On the other hand, in Samoa, where 55.8% of adults are considered obese, societal factors play a significant role in the obesity issue. Over 20 years ago, it was common for average citizens to recognize people with very thin or very large bodies as reasonably healthy; today, 'right in the middle' has become a more normalized view. This reflects a possible influx of ideas from global media, which tend to represent certain "right in the middle" body shapes more than others. Take social outlets like Instagram, for example; posters tend to show themselves at their best using lighting and curated angles to portray an idealized version of self. Regarding causation, Samoa has been flooded with fast-food restaurants over the past 50 years. Pictures from before the island country began integrating into Western markets reveal that the Samoan physique is typically fairly lean, which is common for island countries where abundance is not always guaranteed. Once again, a genetic variant that affects fat storage and metabolism could be responsible: it may have saved these island people in the past, but it might be killing them now.

Kiribati - 45.6% of Adults are Obese

A group of men come in from a fishing trip to pull their boat onto the beach in Kiribati, via Kara Math / Shutterstock.com
A group of men come in from a fishing trip to pull their boat onto the beach in Kiribati, via Kara Math / Shutterstock.com

Kiribati, another island country located in the Pacific Ocean, struggles with extreme obesity for a variety of reasons, including environmental. Increasing sea levels, combined with escalating soil salinity, have severely hindered local food production. Consequently, the country has grown increasingly reliant on imported foods, rich in calories but poor in essential nutrients. However, there is some room for optimism. One target metric focusing on maternal and young child nutrition reveals that the country is 'on course' to prevent the negative statistic from increasing further. After all, halting the problem is the first step towards reducing it. Howver, based on data about these rising sea levels, Kiribati might become completely uninhabitable by 2100. If anything, this increases the importance of investing in the health of Kiribati's current citizens so they can make the most of their homeland to the fullest of their abilities.

Obesity in Non-Island Countries

Bahrain city / Bahrain - January 15, 2020: Local Muslim people shopping in souq bazaar area in old town downtown Bahrain, via The Road Provides / Shutterstock.com
Bahrain city / Bahrain - January 15, 2020: Local people shopping in bazaar area in downtown Bahrain, via The Road Provides / Shutterstock.com

Among non-island countries, the United States, Libya, Qatar, Bahrain, and Mexico exhibit the highest obesity rates, yet none rank among the top 10 globally. The United States stands with the highest obesity prevalence at 42.7%; this trend is largely attributed to high-energy dietary intake and physical inactivity, fueled by sedentary lifestyles and a fast-food culture that perpetuates a cycle of unhealthy consumption patterns.

Neighboring the Mediterranean, Libya holds a slightly lower prevalence of 42.4%. The prevalence of obesity in this country reveals the potent effects of rapid urbanization, changing food consumption patterns, and reduced physical activity on public health. High-fat, high-sugar Western diets have largely replaced traditional high-fiber diets.

Situated in the Middle East, Qatar and Bahrain present obese populations of 41.4% and 36.9%, respectively. Both countries face the consequences of oil-fueled affluence, with significant increases in sedentary lifestyles and a shift towards high-calorie diets. Notably, growing reliance on cars and automation has reduced physical activity in these countries, making the urban environment significantly less pedestrian-friendly.

South of the US, Mexico reports an obesity frequency of 36.7%, which has occurred due to a transition from labor-intensive work in agriculture toward more sedentary 'desk jobs.' This, combined with inadequate access to health education and resources, alongside increasingly high-calorie diets, contributes to Mexico's considerable obesity rate.

Across these countries, there are common threads: globalization, urbanization, and lifestyle changes have collectively driven the shift towards high-energy diets and physical inactivity, leading to these elevated obesity rates. In the past, 'common knowledge' asserted that each individual was solely responsible for their own health. While that often remains true, today's sociologists understand that a lack of access to proper nutrition and education is a legitimate threat to hundreds of millions worldwide.

Countries Ranked By Adult Obesity

Rank Country Prevalence of Obese Adults (%) (BMI ≥30kg/m²)
1 Tonga 77.1
2 Tuvalu 62.2
3 Nauru 58.1
4 Samoa 55.8
5 Kiribati 45.6
6 Saint Kitts and Nevis 45
7 Marshall Islands 44.1
8 Kuwait 43.75
9 Bahamas 43.7
10 Antigua and Barbuda 43.1
11 United States 42.7
12 Libya 42.4
13 Qatar 41.4
14 Palau 38
15 Federated States of Micronesia 37.1
16 Bahrain 36.9
17 Mexico 36.7
18 Panama 36.3
19 Egypt 35.7
20 Chile 34.4
21 New Zealand 34.3
22 Belize 33.8
23 Barbados 33.8
24 Iraq 33.5
25 Georgia 33.2
26 Jordan 32.7
27 Argentina 32.4
28 Saint Lucia 31.9
29 Fiji 31.7
30 Australia 31.3
31 Oman 30.7
32 Seychelles 30.3
33 Russian Federation 30.3
34 Malta 28.7
35 Jamaica 28.6
36 Brunei Darussalam 28.2
37 United Arab Emirates 27.8
38 El Salvador 27.3
39 Lebanon 27
40 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 26.9
41 Palestine 26.8
42 South Africa 26.2
43 Bolivia 26.2
44 Peru 26
45 Brazil 25.9
46 Trinidad and Tobago 25.7
47 Tunisia 25.4
48 Grenada 25.2
49 Costa Rica 25.1
50 Iran 25
51 Ukraine 24.8
52 Venezuela 24.6
53 Canada 24.3
54 Hungary 23.8
55 Uruguay 23.7
56 Guyana 23.6
57 Kazakhstan 23.5
58 Ecuador 23.38
59 Paraguay 23.2
60 Kyrgyzstan 23.1
61 Croatia 23
62 Moldova 22.7
63 Latvia 22.3
64 Iceland 22.3
65 Bosnia and Herzegovina 22.3
66 Nicaragua 22
67 Estonia 21.8
68 Algeria 21.8
69 Colombia 21.3
70 Albania 21.3
71 Ireland 21
72 Mauritania 20.9
73 Finland 20.9
74 Serbia 20.8
75 Azerbaijan 20.6
76 Eswatini 20.5
77 Uzbekistan 20.2
78 Turkey 20.2
79 Saudi Arabia 20.2
80 Dominica 20.2
81 United Kingdom 20.1
82 Morocco 20
83 Slovenia 19.9
84 Czechia 19.8
85 Malaysia 19.7
86 Armenia 19.5
87 Slovakia 19.1
88 Mauritius 19.1
89 Poland 19
90 Germany 19
91 Syrian Arab Republic 18.9
92 Lithuania 18.9
93 Belarus 18.9
94 Mongolia 18.5
95 Maldives 18.1
96 Austria 17.1
97 Israel 17
98 France 17
99 Afghanistan 17
100 Portugal 16.9
101 Dominican Republic 16.6
102 Luxembourg 16.5
103 Denmark 16.5
104 Greece 16.4
105 Belgium 16.3
106 Gabon 16.2
107 Sweden 16
108 Cuba 15.8
109 Netherlands 15.5
110 Turkmenistan 15
111 Ghana 15
112 Vanuatu 14.9
113 Pakistan 14.9
114 Cyprus 14.6
115 Cabo Verde 14.3
116 Norway 14
117 Chad 13.7
118 Andorra 13.6
119 Tajikistan 13.5
120 Comoros 13.5
121 Bulgaria 13.3
122 Solomon Islands 13.1
123 Cameroon 13
124 Switzerland 12.6
125 Botswana 11.8
126 Sao Tome and Principe 11.7
127 Thailand 11.6
128 Lesotho 11.5
129 Bhutan 11.4
130 Sri Lanka 11
131 Romania 10.9
132 Kenya 10.8
133 Singapore 10.5
134 North Macedonia 10.5
135 Italy 10.4
136 Sudan 10.3
137 Philippines 9.3
138 Mozambique 9.1
139 Tanzania 8.7
140 Congo 8.6
141 Cote d'Ivoire 8.5
142 Namibia 8.4
143 Equatorial Guinea 8.3
144 Nigeria 7.8
145 Zimbabwe 7.7
146 Malawi 7.6
147 Zambia 7.5
148 Benin 7.4
149 Nepal 7.2
150 Central African Republic 7.2
151 Papua New Guinea 6.8
152 Angola 6.8
153 China 6.51
154 Senegal 6.4
155 Togo 6.2
156 Democratic Republic of Congo 5.8
157 Laos 5.6
158 India 5.5
159 Bangladesh 5.4
160 Niger 4.9
161 Liberia 4.9
162 Uganda 4.6
163 Japan 4.5
164 Burkina Faso 4.5
165 Eritrea 3.4
166 Sierra Leone 3.3
167 Rwanda 2.1
168 Cambodia 1.9
169 Vietnam 1.7
170 Timor-Leste 1.1
171 Ethiopia 1

Data procured from The World Obesity Federation (World Obesity)

Note: A low BMI score does not equate to health. Second, the data for 24 countries is currently unknown.


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