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Waistlines around globe expand with arrival of fast food

CHICAGO – Fast food and expanding waistlines are not just an American health concern.

Even as McDonald’s, Yum Brands and Domino’s Pizza work to placate anti-obesity advocates at home, they’re taking high-calorie offerings to other parts of the globe and hooking a new generation in emerging markets. Their target customers, often part of a rising middle class with a more sedentary lifestyle, are in turn putting on the pounds.

Eating less home cooking, and consuming more processed snacks and sugary drinks, the average man is gaining weight in Mexico, Brazil and Chile faster than the worldwide average, according to the Waistline Index compiled by Bloomberg. The women are too, except in Brazil, where they are holding to the global average. In all three countries, fast food is a relatively new option.

The foreign influx is in some ways similar to the one 300 years ago, when the conquistadors brought smallpox and measles to native civilizations in Central and South America, said Tim Lobstein, director of policy and programs at the International Association for the Study of Obesity in London.

“The parallel now is the big transnational corporations also setting foot in these remote areas and bringing noncommunicable diseases,” such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Lobstein said in an interview.

Increases in these diseases, the rising cost of medical care and worries about childhood obesity may force the food companies to change some practices abroad and push them into new markets to achieve their desired growth. Already, legislators in Brazil are considering restrictions on marketing by fast-food companies.

Men in Mexico gained an average of more than 15 pounds from the opening of the first U.S. fast-food outlet in 1985 through 2010, while the nation’s women added more than 19 pounds, according to the research conducted by Bloomberg.

In Chile, men have gained 14 pounds on average since the first American chain opened in 1989, while women’s weight has increased 18 pounds.

Those figures top the global average. Around the world, men gained about 11 pounds in the 30 years through 2010 and women about 10 pounds, according to the data.

Health problems related to changes in diet and lifestyle have been well documented. Death rates in Brazil and Mexico from cardiovascular disease and diabetes surpassed those in the U.S. in 2008, the most recent data available from the World Health Organization. Chile trails those two with a death rate from the diseases close to that of the U.S.

The diseases are also affecting Asian nations, though obesity rates are lower there. In China, where Yum has more than 5,200 locations, the rate of diabetes will surpass that of the United States by 2030, according to the International Diabetes Federation in Brussels. KFC, which sells a fried sausage burger and popcorn chicken in China, is expanding to smaller cities in the Asian nation.

“The science clearly links eating out with obesity,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group.

“Restaurants need to realize that eating out is a big part of people’s diets and they have an important role to play.”

It’s not just fast-food companies that are responsible, said Michael Schaefer, the Chicago-based head of global consumer foodservice research at Euromonitor International. People also are consuming more processed and packaged foods from grocery stores and moving to cities, where they lead hectic lives and don’t have time to exercise, he said.

“Fast-food chains, because they’re so heavily branded, are not surprisingly going to come to be identified with that,” Schaefer said. “But it’s not the sole driving factor.”

The companies point to other influences on diet.

“The average McDonald’s customer visits us two to three times per month, therefore the vast majority of meals are eaten elsewhere,” Becca Hary, a McDonald’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

U.S. fast-food chains accelerated their overseas expansion in the 1980s and 1990s as their home market grew saturated. The recession that ended in 2009 spurred more store openings abroad, especially in emerging markets with growing middle classes. McDonald’s gets more than 60 percent of its revenue from its international business.