Korea has fallen victim to the paradoxical first-world syndrome where the poor and people from small rural communities are more obese than better-off city dwellers.
Until the late 1990s, the wealthy were fatter because they ate more, but an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise mean it is now usually the poor who become obese.
◆ Poverty Trap
According to a report from the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Korea Centers for Disease Control submitted to lawmaker In Jae-keun, the obesity rate in the top 25 percent of the income bracket is 29.5 percent but in the bottom 25 percent it is 34.3 percent.
In 1998, the proportion was still just the other way round, with 26.6 percent in the top bracket and 24.8 percent in the bottom. But over the next 15 years, the obesity rate among the rich rose only 2.9 percentage points but among the poor 9.5 percentage points.
Kang Jae-heon at Seoul Paik Hospital said, "Obesity among the low-income bracket is a common phenomenon in developed countries, where staying healthy costs money. Becoming obese is easier if you're born into a poor household, and that leads to discrimination on the grounds of appearance and makes it harder to find a job, so the result is that poverty is passed from generation to the next" -- the so-called poverty trap.
The difference in obesity is also apparent among city and country dwellers. As of 2012, the obesity rate among urban residents stood at 31.5 percent and among rural residents at 37.6 percent.
Oh Kyoung-won at the KCDC said, "Obesity is frequent among women after they turn 50 and the population of elderly women is higher in rural areas than urban areas," which explains the rise in rural obesity. Also, average wages are lower in rural areas, leading to lack of health and fitness facilities.
Oh said, "There are no differences in terms of nutritional intake between urban and rural residents, but city dwellers tend to walk and expend more energy, according to our study."
◆ Gender Gap
There is also a distinct gender difference when it comes to obesity. According to the KCDC, one in three adults is obese, but the rate is 36.3 percent among men and 28 percent among women.
However, after 50, when menopause sets in, the obesity rate among women is higher. Experts say young women often go to extremes to stay thin, which explains the lower obesity rate.