When countries climb the ladder of globalization, their populations get fatter. The average obesity rate in the countries measured was 12 percent. And for each statistically significant step up in globalization, the co-authors saw a pronounced rise of 20 percent in the proportion of obese population, although the rates appear to level off after a higher level of globalization is reached.
In the next graph, the number of calories consumed each day is plotted against globalization levels.
Variation of Caloric Intake and Globalization
As globalization kicks in, we consume a lot more calories. And this correlation does not level off. In fact, for every extra globalization point, we eat an extra 74.8 calories per day -- the equivalent of a small piece of fruit.
But it isn't fruit we're reaching for. For every extra point of globalization, the population is eating an extra 17 grams of fat. Over time, the pattern is clear. The average U.S. citizen, for example, increased her daily fat intake from 138 grams to 163 grams over the past 15 years. That is more than one extra gram of fat for every year.
Kinds of Globalization
So why is globalization making us fat? To find clues, Costa-Font and Mas distinguish between the various international links that make up what we know as globalization.
The KOF and other indices break globalization down into three categories:
Economic dimensions (trade flows, etc.).
Political dimensions (treaties, foreign embassies, etc.).
Social dimensions (the spread of ideas, information, images and people).
In addition, the co-authors introduce an extensive list of control variables to better understand how globalization might affect obesity. These control variables include changes in GDP, income inequality levels, food prices, urbanization, education levels and population growth.
As a result, the co-authors found the economic dimensions easy to explain. For example, when food prices climb, we often end up eating cheaper things -- often junk food.
As Mas put it: "When you have all the obvious things under control, you're left with the hardest, biggest part of the mystery: the social dimension. It accounts for a very significant percentage of all the results.... We know it's key, but we just don't understand exactly why."
Stopping Globesity at Its Source
Knowing what is making us fatter on a global scale is a key first step to finding remedies. The social dimension of the globesity problem merits further research. Which are the most important social factors? Does watching blockbusters make you eat more than, say, classic French cinema? How does being close to the global mainstream affect obesity? And what might the omnipresence of mobile phones be doing to our waistlines?
In the meantime, opportunities abound in many industries to promote prevention and healthy habits, Mas notes. Healthy interventions are key, as the globalization trend continues. Examples include more nutritious foods, new designs in sports clothes and emerging initiatives to bring together big data, knowledge and technology to promote healthy lifestyles. Mas says that it's time to start thinking about health beyond traditional health care.
Methodology, Very Briefly
The authors studied a panel of 26 countries over the years 1989-2005, the period when globalization took off most dramatically. The data contains the maximum number of countries whose data could be collected at the time of analysis, over the longest period. A number of controls were included to take into account such other factors as urbanization, lower food prices and women's increased participation in the labor market.
Núria Mas acknowledges financial support from Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation ECO2012-38134 and AGAUR 2009 SGR919.