Book Review: “The World Is Fat” by Barry Popkin

January 26, 2009

I was excited to recently receive a package of books from Penguin Group to review, among them Barry Popkin’s The World Is Fat: The fads, trends, policies, and products that are fattening the human race. The subject of the book is one which I personally find incredibly intriguing, as it discusses the universal issues of health which we are all forced to face in today’s society. The author Barry Popkin is a renowned expert in this field of study; he has conducted research studies all across the globe and has been published in a variety of reputable newspapers and magazines. He is also the director of the UNC Interdisciplinary Obesity Center. Upon learning this information about the author, I had high expectations for this book- and much to my delight, he far exceeded those expectations.

The World Is Fat follows four families and studies their varying lifestyles and the consequences of their health choices. Popkin is diverse in choosing the four families to follow; the Jones family lives in American suburbia, the Garcia family are small-town Mexican immigrants who moved to the American suburbs, the Desai family demonstrate farm life in India during the 1960’s-1980’s, and the Patel family are a present-day family living in a similar area to the Desai’s. Popkin relates to us his own experiences growing up as well, contrasting his childhood in the 1950’s to the lifestyles of children today. In comparing lifestyles that we think would be vastly different, we realize just how detrimental global health really is, and the alarming rate at which our habits spread from one country to the next. Even 50 years of so-called “progress” with the rise of convenience technology has dramatically influenced our lifestyles and harmed our health.

Throughout the book, Popkin illustrates his statistics and history of the food industry with anecdotal evidence of the four families and way in which they live. He refers to a number of long-term studies which he has been involved in and looks at how we got to be the way that we are today. In a fascinating past-present-future blend of the evolution of our perception of health, he makes the reader aware of just how many aspects there are to explain how the world became “fat”.

It was a surprise to see the ways in which Western attitudes of food and exercise have crossed borders and found their way into even the lifestyles of Indian farmers. Convenience and quick fixes seem to be the norm across the globe, and as Popkin observes, we are even seeing obesity trends in the poorest neighborhoods and countries. He explores the increasing rates of overweight children and adults all over the world, identifying “more than 18 countries [in which] over half the population is overweight or obese” (107).

This book closes with a chapter on what we- as both a society and as individuals- can do to try to reverse the damage that has been done to our health. Popkin is not afraid to tell it like it is; you won’t see any coddling or acceptance of feeble excuses here as he points out the bare facts. That being said, he also inspires hope with his suggestions for how we can change. He is candid in his opinions, and also (this is the part that I really liked), in his own personal biases. He presents his opinion with the research and reasons to back him up, then acknowledges other factors for why he thinks in such a way and considers how realistic the changes that we can make are. Popkin concludes that we are quite capable of making drastic changes:

“Actions such as taxing soft drinks, which are unthinkable today, will become doable in three to five years. No one would ever have believed that smoking could be barred from restaurants, or that restaurants would be required to eliminate the use of trans fats. Time, persistence, and, most of all, a bold vision of a better, healthier future are necessary for a successful outcome” (171).

In this same section, Barry Popkin examines the strategies that the United Nations and World Health Organization are employing. We are also informed that the Scandinavian counties, Cuba, and Mexico are all leading the way towards creating healthier habits; a good example for the rest of us (particularly in the Western world) to follow.

Written by an expert who clearly has a firm understanding of heath issues to date, The World Is Fat is designed for the general population to read, learn, enjoy, and progress toward a healthier future. It is interesting and informative at the same time, and I can assure you that you will not be bogged down by numbers or an academic style. Far from dry, I found that it was difficult to put Popkin’s book down. The style is engaging no matter what your current understanding of health issues is at.

For information on how to create healthier habits for the whole family as well as to learn about the history of health (including all parts of our lifestyle: medical, activity levels, nutrition, the food industry and the role of political issues such as war), check out Barry Popkin’s website www.theworldisfat.org. This book also provides an excellent Sources and References section and is highly recommended by other respectable authors and researchers such as Marion Nestle and Brian Wansink.

Interested in a chance to win a copy of The World is Fat? Check out this week’s giveaway at Every Gym’s Nightmare!


  1. I hope I win this; I entered earlier today. It sounds interesting. I would definitely be interested to see how American food culture finds its way throughout the world in the years to come. I hope it can be stopped though! Seems like we tend to spread the worst parts of our eating habits…

  2. Fantastic review!! I hope you got some college credit for this very well written post.

    Interesting side note: Went to a very large party last night. Not a single person there was overweight/obese except for two people. Everyone else was, in my view, normal weight. They were all Vietnamese, except for those two! The vast amount of food there was from plant sources. Not so complicated.

  3. Great Review Sagan! Thanks, I’ll have to enter to win this one!

  4. Interesting post Sagan. Believe it or not, even here in Cambodia where I am right now there was an article in the paper about concern people have with their weight. Here in Phnom Penh, where there is access to all sorts of foods and people travel via tuk tuks and moto’s you do see locals who are over weight. There are hamburger places etc. to please all tastes but it is not a pedestrian friendly area. In my experience in the rural provinces, where people live a subsistance existance on rice and fresh fish, amongst other things, you very seldom see anyone over weight. In addition, they have a hard life, walking everywhere, farming the rice paddies etc. I do work with some Cambodians who are overweight, but they are in a real minority and live in the Phnom Penh area so do have a more sedentary lifestyle. Try and keep warm there! I am trying to keep cool here and it is not easy at +31!!!

  5. Sounds like an interesting read! Thanks for the very comprehensive review.

  6. It is fascinating to see the global spread of all aspects of our culture. I keep ruminating on the word ‘convenience’-more and more, that word seems to be associated with negative connotations…

  7. Thanks, Sagan. I may add this one to my library hold list. Before I adopted a healthier way of eating, I relied heavily on the so-called convenience foods. But really, when you think about it, what’s more convenient to ‘grab and go’ than an apple, or a banana? 🙂

  8. Great review, Sagan! Now I need to go and find this book.

  9. Maggie- yes, why couldn’t we spread the GOOD habits?

    Dr. J- if I were writing about the rhetorical functions behind our changes in health over the years my department might be interested… ooh this gives me an idea, haha. And if only we could all retain our past cultural eating habits.

    Rupal & Charlotte- it’s really excellent!

    Sagan’s dad- think the U of W will give me a grant to research health issues in Cambodia for the summer? Or right now? I’ve had just about enough of the cold 🙂

    Rachel- it’s strange how “convenience” has become such a negative thing. I don’t think it in itself is so negative, its more the way that we treat it. We abuse our conveniences, really.

    Cammy- exactly! Hence why I never seem to have either apples or bananas in my apartment. They’re so convenient that I always eat them right away. The sister/roommate is not impressed by that.

    Bag Lady- I hope you do. It’s neat to see the effects of the food industry outside of the cities as well (which you might just be able to relate to;)).

  10. Nice review, Sagan. Can’t wait to read this book!

  11. Sagan, this post was a very interesting read for me—I’ve read all sorts of books on obesity (from “The Diet Myth” to “The Fattening of America”), and I’m looking forward to checking out Popkins’ website.

  12. Thanks Sagan for the review. I’m thinking of getting this book now. I like it when authors truly say it how it is.

  13. Excellent Review Sagan. I could have used some articles like this when I back in school.

  14. You are so darn talented! Thanks for the review! 🙂

  15. Wow, that books sounds awesome! Great review!

  16. What an excellent review! I’m always amazed at how much my tastes have changed since I’ve cut out so many convenience foods.

    You really are an excellent writer.

  17. Ooh I bet you could cut fries outta an acorn squash; why not? I want to do a zucchini next… or a sweet potato! :o)

  18. Am glad you all enjoy!

    Hilary- got any recommendations? I’d love to hear which ones you like best!

    Scale Junkie- thank you! I’m always in awe of how good something like butter tastes. I so rarely have it so that when I do it tastes a million times better than it used to, and even when I do use it I only need a tiny amount because my tastes have changed so much from trying to eat healthier. You appreciate it more. And most processed foods just taste overpowering- it’s fantastic what eating healthy can do to change our perception of different food products.

    Chocolatecoveredvegan- I love having sweet potato fries; I eat them all the time with cumin and black pepper. And homemade ketchup. Tasty! When I try it with the acorn squash I’ll let you know 🙂

  19. Thanks for the great review. I don’t get around to reading unless it’s vary informative, educational, or friends like you with great blogs =)

  20. Great review as always.

    Malaysia has never been an overweight nation, but today our children are heavier than ever. Traditional meals used to consist of boiled rice, veg and a small serve of protein – fish, meat or tofu. Today, globalisation, the influence of TV, and affluence mean that fast food, soft drinks and sugary desserts have crept into the Malaysian diet.

  21. ahhhh penguin group.
    ye blanketing the blog world huh?

    I havent read this one yet 🙂

  22. Thanks Sagan, sounds interesting. I’ll try and give that book a try. More importantly though – how do you get prnguin book group to send you a load of books to review!!!???

    CP x

  23. Sounds interesting, although I’m a bit burnt out with the whole “we’re unhealthy” genre right now.

  24. Wow. Sounds really interesting! Thanks for the positive review!

  25. Krystal- haha reading blogs can be very time consuming too!

    Dee- thanks for that input; scary how these things spread everywhere.

    MizFit- yes:) and it’s a good one!

    CP- its all about putting yourself out there:)

    Tricia- I’m eating up this genre like nothing else, to be honest. I find it really fascinating. Though I can see why you’d be getting tired with it; it doesn’t always come off as a very optimistic view.

    Juliet24- glad you found it helpful!

  26. chocolatecoveredvegan – i make sweet potato fries all the time, and i don’t even deep fry them. if you slice them really thin, drizzle a little olive oil over ’em, with some salt & pepper, they come out amazingly delicious!!!

  27. Globalization is homogenizing everything. Many countries are inspire by the western culture of living and that includes eating. I hope to never see this in my lifetime – it would be a shame if I am in the countryside of Cambodia eating a hamburger. This book sounds like an interest read.

  28. […] to win! Our prize for a lucky subscriber is  The World is Fat  and we’ve also found a great review of the book! We’re drawing names from our subscribers. If you’re already subscribed […]

  29. That book sounds great. I am going to check my library to see if they have it.


  30. Saver Queen- super tasty! It’s wonderful how healthy they can be.

    Asithi- agreed. Although apparently they like to eat fried crickets in Cambodia. I guess, at least they aren’t processed? Hehe.

    Hangry Pants- let me know what you think of it if you do check it out!

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