banner by Alex McDonough and Zemeng Wei

Tipping the Obesity Scale Around the World

by Zinni Nebroski

When my family and I traveled to Europe last summer, one of the biggest surprises we experienced wasn’t the etiquette or currency. It was the low obesity rate and the differences in food culture between the U.S. and Europe. With over one-third of American adults obese and another thirty-two and a half percent overweight according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, it is no secret that our country is facing an obesity crisis. While there are a handful of countries with higher obesity rates than ours, America possesses the greatest number of obese individuals on the planet. As I sat in a Cracker Barrel after our flight home, I asked myself, “Why did last night’s Italian food make me so thirsty while I was rarely thirsty after days of meals in Scotland? Do the men biking to work in London wearing perfectly tailored suits worry about getting their clothes dirty? Do the open-pair markets overflowing with gorgeous produce in Paris motivate individuals to consume healthy, local ingredients? What are the deep roots that cause the massive weight divide between developed nations, specifically the U.S. versus European and Asian countries?”

One of the greatest contributors to the weight divide between developed countries is a matter of daily physical activity. Americans have deeply ingrained sedentary habits. From our lengthy commutes, to office jobs to hours of television every day, the average American spends eleven hours a day sitting, with less than five percent of adults participating in thirty minutes of physical activity each day. Additionally, many Americans aspiring to be more active and thus improve their health, especially around the New Year, join a gym, only to burn out in a short period of time and settle back onto the sofa. As David Reiseman, a representative of Gold’s Gym says, “At the end of the day, the toughest part of working out is getting to the gym.” Anyone who has watched the Home Shopping Network has probably laughed at the ridiculous products people are willing to pay money for to chase the receding dream of a “beach body.”

In contrast, the normal lifestyle of a Japanese individual incorporates a significant amount of walking and public transportation. Similarly to Japan, French culture is very movement-based, with individuals climbing stairs, riding bikes, and using public transportation regularly. From my experiences, this movement-based culture is prevalent in both Paris and London. There are a surprising number of flights of stairs to public transportation stops and a greater emphasis on getting places by bike or foot. Both cities are very pedestrian-friendly. One of the most curious sights I saw in London were the impeccably tailored businessmen in suits biking to work with satchels on their backs, a regular morning sight weaving between the cabs. From this observation, it can be gleaned that countries with low obesity levels maintain more active lifestyles by participating in regular activities that stem from the rhythms of daily life. In other words, moderate activity is ingrained into the day, rather than squeezed into a schedule. And, as is always stated in weight loss advertisements, small changes add up over the long run.

The typical American diet, loaded with high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and the prevalence of potentially destructive attitudes related to food provides the perfect fodder for exploding waistlines. One of the tendencies Americans have of overconsumption can be linked to frequently consuming high-calorie, oversized portions of restaurant food. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household in 2015 spent $3,008 on restaurants and take-out, with $4,015 going towards traditional groceries. Still, compared to other countries, the U.S. actually spends a smaller percentage of income on food, a curiosity caused by a variety of factors, including the wide availability of food as well as a data skew caused from economic disparities. The effects of fast food, the longtime American staple, is well-chronicled in the documentary Super Size Me, in which an otherwise healthy and active man consumes only items off a McDonald’s menu for one month. His weight rockets and his energy flatlines, presenting a sobering picture of the health effects related to consistent consumption of nutrient-poor foods. The diets of other countries with low obesity rates are, not surprisingly, much different than our own, often with a greater focus on grains, fresh produce, and an avoidance of excess sugars and sodium. In my conversations with Scots who lived in fairly isolated areas, getting to a large store with much variety (in contrast to a local store with some food and household basics) can mean a drive of about two hours on winding scenic roads. In this case, the decision to buy food is a significant expense of time and money, with waste and excess being minimized wherever possible. Another interesting aspect of small-town Scottish life is the total absence of national chains, in order to preserve the existing character of the town and support the local economy. The effect is a refreshingly authentic sampler of local cuisine. And these dietary differences were palpable: When I was traveling in Europe, eating full meals out at least two times daily, I was surprised at how portions were smaller and didn’t make me excessively thirsty. Though I was drinking a significant amount of water to keep up my hydration and energy, I believe that had I been consuming typical American restaurant food I would have still experienced at least some degree of elevated thirst.

The uniquely American tendency to overconsume can additionally be connected to the high levels of stress many individuals experience, most commonly from money, work, and family issues. A publication from Harvard Medical School examined the phenomenon of stress eating. During periods of extended stress, the adrenal glands release a hormone known as cortisol, which causes higher insulin levels and a drop in blood sugar, increasing one’s appetite. Additionally, if a person experiences a cortisol craving and turns to foods high in sugars and fat for comfort, there is some evidence that these foods inhibit brain activity within the stress-related areas, giving temporary relief to the individual. It undeniable that the problem of stress eating is correlated with obesity, which gives rise to one of the underlying problems: stress. According to the American Psychological Association, between August 2016 and January 2017 the average stress level of Americans rose from 4.6 to 5.1 points as seen on a 10 point scale. While multiple sources point to a rise in global stress, specifically noted within the UK, the locations I visited in Europe gave the impression of being decidedly more laid-back than America, specifically Scotland and Paris, in which citizens existed in a society that makes significantly different lifestyle choices than America, whether that is a close-knit community that radiates courtesy and kindness or a country where citizens receive 27 paid vacation days.

Some of the most interesting contributors to the ponderous weight divide between countries are the preexisting economic conditions of the country, as well as the financial incentives that certain nations have imposed upon citizens to maintain or lose their weight. In America, buying food in bulk from readily available supermarkets is often cheaper than making daily trips to a market. Additionally, the time and monetary commitments of sustaining an active gym membership may not be attainable to all citizens, providing another excuse to skip a daily workout. Within the U.S., some countrywide weight-loss campaigns and research studies have been enacted such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, aimed at ending childhood obesity, and The National Weight Loss Control Registry, which studies and tracks the successful habits of individuals who have successfully lost weight.

Internationally, perhaps the most notable example of a financial incentive for a healthy weight is Japan’s Metabo [short for metabolic syndrome] Law, introduced in 2008, which requires companies and local governments to measure the waistlines of individuals between the ages of 40 and 74. If an individual is found to be above a set number, they will be asked to lose weight. If they have not made weight loss progress within three months, they will be given mandatory dieting counseling and potential education after six months. For Japanese companies and local governments that do not meet certain requirements after a certain period of time, the national government will enact financial penalties upon those institutions. Other countries have experimented with national financially incentivized weight-loss programs such as the UK’s Pounds for Pounds program, which financially rewards supervised individuals who have successfully lost weight. However, there is significant evidence that economic rewards for weight loss are not effective in the long term.

The issue of obesity in America is multifaceted, complex, and should not be taken lightly. The roots of this problem, such as a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and economic conditions run deep and require thoughtful analysis if strategies are to be developed to resolve these problems, especially among America’s wildly diverse population. Through close evaluation of both America’s existing versus international food cultures, valuable insight may be found to make America a healthier country. These choices could manifest themselves through individuals adopting a lifestyle of routine movement or choosing to invest in the local economy through supporting small businesses. Food culture in America has the potential to change for the better, one meal at a time.