Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fat Americans, Thin Europeans?

For some people, any discussion of weight and weight-related issues is offensive, so if the title of this post didn't scare you off, let this be a warning: I will be discussing body weight issues and if you don't like that, stop reading. But in an unfortunately apt turn of phrase, ignoring this topic is ignoring the elephant in the room.

Years ago I lived in Hawaii for a brief period of time. Fortunately, it didn't last long as I was homeless, but when I got out of that situation and moved back to the Pacific Northwest, I couldn't believe my eyes; everyone looked sick. They were so incredibly pale in July that it took me some time to adjust to it. Only having been in Hawaii for a short while, I had nonetheless developed a very deep tan, just like the other Hawaiians. It wasn't that people in the Pacific Northwest were particularly pale, it's that I quickly became used to everyone having a deep tan.

Whenever I return to the US, I immediately notice that Americans are far larger than their European counterparts and it's a subject I've heard a number of my European friends bring up: why are Americans so obese?
The latter article notes that "the average weight for a U.S. male is 194.7 (89 kilos) pounds and 164.7 pounds (75 kilos) for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control".

To compare, for the British, generally considered the most overweight people in Europe, are considerably smaller than Americans. According to this BBC article, "on average, British men weigh 79.75 kilos (175 pounds) and women 66.7 kilos (147 pounds)."

Think about that: the British are the most overweight people in Europe and many Americans would love to weigh that little. Then there's this MSNBC article talking about how French women are getting larger and topping the scales at an average of 137.6 pounds (63 kilos).

So the average French woman weighs almost 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) less than the average British woman and almost 30 pounds (13.5 kilos) less than the average American woman.

Why?

Food. Sure, there's all this talk about "sedentary lifestyles" and things like that, but it's the food. Sit down and do the math and you'll find out that a hard workout will let you eat a larger dinner that day, but it's the food you eat which makes all the difference (particularly when you consider how often you're likely to work out).

 Lahmacun, or "turkse pizza".
Photo by Kenneth Jorgensen
Many stores here offer ingredients, not meals. If you have a bunch of ready-meals on hand, it's far easier to eat something than if you have to cook.

Similarly, our work offers free snacks to employees: grapes, clementines, apples, pears and bananas along with a few instant soup packets. No candy bars. No crisps. You can pay for a can of Coke or have some juice for free. There are no McDonalds or Burger King "restaurants" in easy walking distance of where I live (that I know of). If I want something quick, I can pop to a shop and order a lahmacun ("turkse pizza" as their called here) and if I feel really hungry, I can get chicken on it, but it's still far fewer calories than a Big Mac and a damned sight tastier.

Europeans had better not feel too smug, though. When I lived here 10 years ago, it was hard to find microwave dinners but today it's easy. More fast food restaurants are showing up and all over (Western) Europe, waistlines are increasing and though it will take a while, Europe will find that it's more than their economic clout which is catching up to the US.

Update: naturally I forgot to mention portion sizes. For my first meal in Europe, I was eating the appetizer with a growing sense of unease as I realized I hadn't ordered an appetizer: I was eating the main course. Not only do Europeans eat healthier food, they eat far less of it. So it's not just quality, it's quantity. I might have some fruit and cereal for breakfast, but I miss the "chicken fried steak breakfast" with hash browns smothered in gravy and buttered toast. And for the record: I'm at 87.5 kilos today (193 pounds) and definitely well above the European average, though less than the American. Time to start counting calories.
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