Friday, May 28, 2004

# Posted 8:09 AM by Patrick Belton  

POLLY TOYNBEE PEDDLES THE SAME OLD TIRED IMAGES OF AMERICANS AS FAT, UNEQUAL, AND EVIL. Fortunately, the blogosphere has Scott Burgess to correct her by actually doing research rather than just recycling racist stereotypes:

Polly Toynbee's Faux Fat 'Facts'

Not only have The Guardian editors and Lord Tebbit weighed in on the causes of the "obesity epidemic," today the inimitable Polly Toynbee enters the fray. It turns out that neither evil corporations nor a government eager to promote buggery (see yesterday's post) is responsible for the problem, and it's certainly not caused by people eating too much and exercising too little.

So what is the real cause? Well:

"It is inequality and disrespect that makes people fat"
Polly offers precious few facts to support this extraordinary conclusion - although she does say that:
"obesity took off 25 years ago, up 400% in the years when inequality has exploded."
Unsurprisingly, she offers no evidence for this assertion, nor any that would support a causal link.

She continues:

"The inequality/obesity link is mirrored internationally. America has by far the most unequal society and by far the fattest. Britain and Australia come next. Europe is better and the Scandinavian countries best of all ... the narrower the status and income gap between high and low, the narrower the waistbands."
Absolute statements invite scrutiny, especially when they're backed by - well - nothing at all. So I did some scrutinising, with the following results:

"America has by far the most unequal society..."

No it doesn't. Latin American and African countries have the most unequal societies - by far. A quick look at the Ginni Index figure (a measure of income inequality) for countries worldwide shows that of the 30 most "unequal societies," only three (Phillipines, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia) aren't in Africa or South/Central America. The United States comes in at number 41, with a Ginni index of 40.8, very close to the worldwide average of 39.48.

"... and by far the fattest."

No it doesn't - Pacific Islanders have by far the fattest. Among non-Pacific Islanders, residents of Greece, Jordan, Palestine, Panama, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are also fatter than Americans.

"Britain and Australia come next."

No they don't. The following countries rank ahead of England (which has the highest rate in Britain):

Albania (urban), Argentina, Bahrain, Barbados, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, Malta, Mexico and Paraguay.

"... the Scandinavian countries best of all."

No they're not. Finland is in a statistical dead heat with England (22.5% each). If we define "Scandinavian countries" as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, and average the obesity rates in those countries, we see that the following countries are slimmer (I have excluded countries where famine and starvation are endemic):

Austria, Brazil, China, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Looks like oriental countries are actually "best of all" - and, interestingly enough, Denmark ranks third worldwide in "Mortality: Obesity (per capita)," with a rate nearly double that of the US, according to the WHO.

"But the narrower the status and income gap between high and low, the narrower the waistbands."

Again, false. Comparing Ginni figures and obesity rates, we find that:

  • Brazil is third in the world in income inequality, but has an obesity rate below that of any Scandinavian country.
  • Hungary, ranked second in income equality, has an obesity rate just 1.7 percentage points less than that of England.
  • Finland - 7th best in equality - has the same rate as England, as noted above.
  • The Czech Republic, despite being 6th best in terms of income equality, has a higher obesity rate than England.
  • Malaysia, which ranks second in inequality outside of Africa and Latin America, has a minuscule rate of about 6%.
Unfortunately, no statistics are available as to the obesity rate in Belarus, which leads the world in income equality, and therefore represents Polly Toynbee's vision of heaven on earth.

Polly is correct about one thing, though. As she puts it:

"This obesity debate is full of humbug and denial."
I couldn't have said it any better.

Me neither.

Ginni figures are from the CIA world factbook, and are presented here.
Obesity rates are from the International Association for the Study of Obesity, and are presented here.
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