Unreported World: Obesity in Paradise

Last month I flew to the Samoan Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to investigate an epidemic of obesity. American Samoa has the highest rates of obesity in the world – up to 93% of people are overweight or obese and one in three have diabetes; Samoa is not far behind..

Most people think of your typical Samoan and an image of a strong rugby player or sportsman pops up. But the reality is, the obesity crisis has little to do with genetics. The governments of Samoa and American Samoa are trying to tackle the crisis but we found out that both remote Islands are still being flooded with unhealthy processed food from abroad, as well as fatty offcuts of meet that are seen as unfit for human consumption in many other countries..

Me & Samoan Tavita

The Samoan islands are modernizing and with that has come a shift to a more sedentary lifestyle. We met 33-year-old Tavita (left), a former taxi driver who weighs 27 stone. He has high blood pressure, he’s close to kidney failure and doctors have warned him that if he doesn’t get fit he’ll die young.

Samoans also view imported food as being of higher status than local produce, even though it’s less healthy. In a communal society where eating is a central part of life, it’s hard to go against the grain and change your diet. Tavita has the odds stacked against him.

Me and Laurie May

We also flew over to neighbouring American Samoa, where we met 28 year old Laurie May. Diabetes has affected her retinas, meaning she has now lost 75% of her sight. She’s pregnant and if she doesn’t get her weight and blood sugar under control she could lose her baby..Laurie May explains that her mother also had diabetes and died at 48 from heart disease. Even though she’s expecting a baby, she’s still struggling to change her diet. “Soda was my addiction” she says, “If I don’t want to eat, as long as I have soda, I’m good.”

Back on Samoa at the diabetic foot clinic in Apia, doctors were fighting to save patients from having their limbs amputated. One woman, called Sina, was brought in with a severely infected wound on her foot. Diabetes has damaged her circulation and nerve endings, meaning she can injure her feet without noticing. The infection has got so bad her foot may have to be amputated. But despite her desperately poor health, Sina’s family bring her a plate of chips and mutton flaps for lunch. She admits she doesn’t actually know what diabetes is, or what causes it. I felt heartbroken when she looked to me for answers..

“Most of our diabetic clients have very little knowledge or education on what the diabetes does to their bodies," podiatrist Helene Stehlin says. “They’re coming in with these massive issues and we're pretty much having to start from the beginning on education.”

Nowhere is the crisis more apparent than at the hospital morgue on American Samoa. Fagaalu the mortician has been working there for 20 years. The biggest coffin they offer is three feet wide and can hold a body of 35 stone, but at least twice a month, the bodies are so heavy that a special, larger casket has to be made. He says the bodes are getting bigger and younger. “Now we see the old burying their young, we need to go back to the old traditional ways. We are a people of the land, we were built that way, that’s what made us strong,”.

This isn’t just a problem for the Samoan Islands though. A recent study estimated that by 2025 around one in five adults will be clinically obese, in fact people now are more likely to be overweight than underweight and as this nutritional transition from local produce to processed foods continues around the world, the World Health Organisation says Obesity is now killing more people than than malnutrition. It’s a global health crisis..

Watch Unreported World 'Obesity in Paradise' on Channel 4 Friday 28th at 7:30pm