Obesity emergence in the Pacific islands: Why understanding colonial history and social change is important

Amy K. McLennan*, Stanley J. Ulijaszek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

46 Citations (Scopus)


Objective Between 1980 and 2008, two Pacific island nations - Nauru and the Cook Islands - experienced the fastest rates of increasing BMI in the world. Rates were over four times higher than the mean global BMI increase. The aim of the present paper is to examine why these populations have been so prone to obesity increases in recent times. Design Three explanatory frames that apply to both countries are presented: (i) geographic isolation and genetic predisposition; (ii) small population and low food production capacity; and (iii) social change under colonial influence. These are compared with social changes documented by anthropologists during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Setting Nauru and the Cook Islands. Results While islands are isolated, islanders are interconnected. Similarly, islands are small, but land use is socially determined. While obesity affects individuals, islanders are interdependent. New social values, which were rapidly propagated through institutions such as the colonial system of education and the cash economy, are today reflected in all aspects of islander life, including diet. Such historical social changes may predispose societies to obesity. Conclusions Colonial processes may have put in place the conditions for subsequent rapidly escalating obesity. Of the three frameworks discussed, social change under colonial influence is not immutable to further change in the future and could take place rapidly. In theorising obesity emergence in the Pacific islands, there is a need to incorporate the idea of obesity being a product of interdependence and interconnectedness, rather than independence and individual choice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1499-1505
Number of pages7
JournalPublic Health Nutrition
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


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