Which country has the unhealthiest population?

As rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions continue to climb globally, determining which countries have the unhealthiest populations has become an important measure. Unhealthy populations not only affect quality of life, but also strain healthcare systems and economies. Identifying the unhealthiest populations can help inform public health initiatives and policies aimed at promoting healthier lifestyles.

What factors make a country’s population unhealthy?

There are several key factors that contribute to making a country’s population unhealthy:

  • Obesity rates – High rates of obesity increase risks for other chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
  • Physical inactivity – Lack of regular physical activity is linked to higher risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and more.
  • Poor diet – Diets high in processed foods, sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other problems.
  • Smoking rates – Tobacco use significantly increases risks for cancer, heart and lung disease.
  • Alcohol abuse – Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the liver, heart and other organs.
  • High blood pressure – Uncontrolled hypertension damages arteries and increases heart disease and stroke risks.
  • High cholesterol – High cholesterol levels build up plaque in arteries and raise heart disease risks.
  • Low life expectancy – Lower overall life expectancies indicate poorer health and well-being.
  • High infant mortality – High rates of infant deaths point to issues with access to healthcare and overall population health.
  • Chronic disease rates – High incidence of diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer reflect an unhealthy population.

Nations where many people exhibit these risk factors and health conditions typically have some of the unhealthiest populations overall. Examining data on these factors helps determine which countries fare the worst.

10 Countries with the Unhealthiest Populations

After reviewing data on the key health factors outlined above, these 10 countries emerge as having some of the unhealthiest populations in 2022:

  1. United States – The U.S. has among the highest obesity rates in the world, at 36.2% of adults. It also has high rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. However, it also has among the highest life expectancies, at nearly 79 years.
  2. Mexico – Mexico has the second highest adult obesity rate in the world behind the U.S. at 32.4%. It struggles with high rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease as well.
  3. South Africa – South Africa battles high rates of obesity, HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, alcohol abuse and low life expectancy. Average life expectancy is just 64 years.
  4. Egypt – Over 30% of Egypt’s adult population is obese. It also is dealing with high rates of diabetes and liver disease likely linked to hepatitis C infections.
  5. Qatar – Qatar actually has among the highest life expectancies at nearly 79 years. However, it also has very high rates of obesity, diabetes and inactivity among adults.
  6. Kuwait – Kuwait’s population also suffers from sky-high rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
  7. Saudi Arabia – Like some other Middle Eastern nations, Saudi Arabia struggles with high obesity levels, diabetes, hypertension and poor dietary health.
  8. Poland – While not as heavy as some countries, Poland still battles high rates of heart disease, lung cancer, alcoholism and smoking.
  9. Hungary – Obesity, heart disease, alcoholism, smoking and depression are top health issues impacting Hungary’s population health.
  10. Belize – This small Central American nation has the highest diabetes rate in the Western Hemisphere at over 15% of the adult population. It also has high obesity.

Some clear patterns emerge when looking at the unhealthiest countries. Obesity appears to be a major factor impacting about half of the countries on the list. Diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are other common threads. Smoking appears to be a big issue in European nations like Poland and Hungary in particular.

Countries with the Healthiest Populations

In contrast to the countries listed above, nations with the healthiest populations typically exhibit much lower rates of obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, chronic diseases and other health risk factors. Here are 10 countries singled out as having some of the healthiest populations in 2022:

  1. Italy – The Mediterranean diet in Italy likely contributes to lower rates of heart disease. Italy also has lower smoking rates and obesity compared to other European nations.
  2. South Korea – South Korea has low rates of obesity and good life expectancy. Its universal healthcare system also helps enable good population health.
  3. Japan – Japan has among the highest life expectancies in the world at over 84 years. They have low obesity and heart disease rates relative to other developed nations.
  4. Switzerland – Switzerland has low smoking rates and good healthcare access. Life expectancy is also very high at nearly 83 years old.
  5. Sweden – Sweden has below-average obesity and good life expectancy. Exercise rates are also very high among adults.
  6. Norway – Norway’s population benefits from low smoking rates, low infant mortality and excellent healthcare access. Life expectancy is 81+ years.
  7. Australia – Australia has high life expectancies, low obesity, good healthcare access and relatively low rates of heart disease and diabetes.
  8. Singapore – Singapore does well on measurements of life expectancy, low infant mortality and has exceptional access to quality healthcare.
  9. Malta – Malta tops the rankings in several health categories like low infant mortality and cancer rates relative to the rest of the EU.
  10. Iceland – Iceland has low smoking rates and some of the lowest rates of heart attacks and strokes in the world.

Healthy diet and nutrition, physical activity levels, obesity rates and healthcare access seem to be recurring themes among the healthiest countries. Many of the top countries have universal healthcare, which likely contributes to better population health outcomes overall.

How these countries can improve population health

The countries with the unhealthiest populations have several options available to try to improve public health:

  • Implement national nutrition policies – Develop dietary guidelines, impose junk food taxes, provide nutrition education, require menu labeling, improve school lunches, etc.
  • Launch physical activity initiatives – Build exercise infrastructure like parks, trails, gyms and recreation centers. Promote physical education in schools.
  • Increase access to preventative healthcare – Provide regular health screenings, immunizations, health education and affordable doctor visits.
  • Reduce smoking – Enact strict smoke-free laws, increase taxes on tobacco, ban cigarette advertising and launch anti-smoking campaigns.
  • Curb alcohol abuse – Limit days/hours of alcohol sales, raise taxes on alcohol, restrict alcohol marketing and increase addiction treatment services.
  • Expand health insurance coverage – Working toward universal healthcare can help make doctor visits, medications, and treatment more accessible and affordable.
  • Support mental health services – Increase access to mental healthcare which is linked to addiction, self-care and physical health.
  • Make neighborhoods more walkable – Improve sidewalks, build parks, and redesign infrastructure to encourage walking and biking.

Countries like the U.S. and Mexico that struggle with high obesity could potentially benefit from imposing taxes on sodas and junk food. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait may need to promote exercise for women and increase physical activity in schools. For European countries like Poland and Hungary, expanding smoking bans and tobacco control policies could help lower smoking rates.

Key Takeaways

  • Obesity, physical inactivity, poor diet, smoking, heavy alcohol use and high rates of preventable chronic diseases are hallmarks of unhealthy country populations.
  • The U.S., Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait are among the countries with the highest obesity rates and lowest overall health rankings.
  • Italy, South Korea, Japan and the Scandinavian countries consistently rate among the healthiest populations.
  • Improving nutrition policies, increasing physical activity, reducing smoking/drinking, expanding healthcare access and addressing mental health can help improve country health rankings.

As the obesity epidemic continues to spread globally, all countries have room for improvement when it comes to the health of their populations. But those nations ranked as having the unhealthiest populations generally face greater public health crises and require urgent action to reverse current lifestyle trends. Investing in preventative healthcare and health promotion strategies to encourage healthier eating, more exercise, smoking cessation and reduced alcohol abuse can help turn the tide over time.


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