The research believed to be among the first studies to focus on environmental risk factors for obesity in Europe was published in the June 2006 issue of the European Journal of Public Health.
"I've seen many changes in Central and Eastern Europe, which I had suspected could be linked to obesity," says Borsika Rabin, a doctoral student from Hungary at Saint Louis University School of Public Health and lead investigator. "We didn't have too many McDonald's before the Soviet bloc collapse began in 1989. So I wasn't surprised by the study results."
The obesity rates in all Western European countries were lower than rates in Central and Eastern European countries.
"This study shows the importance of environmental factors in shaping obesity," Rabin says. "The higher obesity rates in Central and Eastern Europe seem linked to political changes that influence the lifestyle of the inhabitants of those countries. The working environment changed and fast food became more popular."
The Saint Louis University study explored the relationship between the prevalence of obesity in 24 European countries and the economy, types of foods, urbanization, availability of cars and roads, and government characteristics. Researchers examined statistics from 1997 to 2002, after the end of the communist economy in the central and eastern part of Europe.
Obesity was least prevalent in Norway, where 6 percent of the population was obese, and most common in Hungary, where 19 percent of residents were obese. France and Italy were among the countries with the lowest obesity rates, and Lithuania and the Russian Federation ranked among the highest.