National economies shown to influence obesity, diabetes rates

Obesity rates in the U.S. have reached epidemic proportions. This is leading to a sharp increase in the number of people who have type 2 diabetes. Now, a new study from Oxford University researchers shows that the country's economic system may be one of the greatest contributing factors.

The researchers reported in the journal Economics and Human Biology that the stress of competing in a liberal-market society with relatively few social safety nets causes people to overeat, which may lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The numbers bear out their hypothesis. The researchers compared the obesity rates of 11 prosperous nations from around the world and also analyzed the nations' economic and political systems. They found that countries where markets are loosely regulated and there are few resources to fall back on for those who have lost their job tend to have higher obesity rates.

For example, in the U.S., where there is less corporate regulation and fewer social safety nets than in other countries, the obesity rate is slightly above 30 percent. By contrast, Norway, which offers citizens far more social programs, has an obesity rate of just 5 percent.

The trend held across the board. Liberal-market countries like the UK, Canada and Australia had a very high prevalence of obesity, while more socialized nations like Germany, Finland and Italy had far fewer overweight individuals. This likely limits the number of citizens who develop type 2 diabetes.

"It may be that the economic benefits of flexible and open markets come at a price to personal and public health which is rarely taken into account," the researchers wrote in their report. "Basically, our hypothesis is that market-liberal reforms have stimulated competition in both the work environment and in what we consume, and this has undermined personal stability and security."