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.


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.


  1. Hi Curtis! interesting. So can we follow your progress to see if there's a change? Also, although the Dutch seem to me to be quite unaware of food they do have some good cultural habits, eating early in the evening for example. however you have a point about the turks pizza, mediteranean food is pretty good.

  2. I love the food in the US, especially the portion sizes, but I do realise that I would be the size of a house if I lived there for any length of time ;-)

  3. @persephone: follow my progress? Ugh! But, um, yeah. I'll try and update. I guess that will help me maintain motivation. Damn you (and thank you) for the suggestion :)

    @mehitabel: I know exactly what you mean. When I lived in the US, I was up to 95 kilos (210 pounds) at one point! My friend Greg convinced me to join Weight Watchers and I dropped to 82 kilos (180 pounds) and that's when I learned that it was my typical US diet, not my "sedentary lifestyle" which was making me so large. If Greg hadn't intervened, I could have gotten much larger.

  4. Hi, European here.

    I am not so sure whether the ingredients and the types of meals make such a big difference. As you mentioned, portion sizes (and free refills for soft drinks!) may make a big difference.

    @persephone: Eating early in the evening may be good, but the South Europeans eat late and are still quite in good shape - of course, we would need more detailed data to discuss this any further.

  5. Well, all the young people I know love those energy drinks. I expect diabetes to skyrocket here in the next decade.

    Also, for those who read Dutch, this book was neat:
    Dik: Hoe de wereld verndert omdat wij steeds voller worden by Henk Dam. He's a journalist so it was just different chapters talking about how Europe is getting heavier, how retail has been affected, the pro-fat movement... really interesting.

    I definitely eat healthier in the Netherlands. When I'm in the US, it's soda with fatty foods (om nom nom) and lots of sugar everywhere. Great place to vacation :)

  6. Must say, I can't imagine you at 95 kg... But I agree, Weightwatchers (in A'dam West) has also done magic for me (just realisation of portion size, e.g.). Thanks for the blog, and best wishes for your family in the beautiful Baarsjes.

  7. Hello, I am curious here in a America we are told that we should ingest 20,000 calories a day, what is the european standard? Also keep in mind 20,000 calorie diet is based on the average american male in his prime doing heavy labor. I would also like to know what is concidered european servings for meat, fish, poltry, game, vegetable, fruits, ang grains.

  8. @ victoria: I do not know if you made a mistake but your number is quite scary. In Europe, the guideline is 2000 calories.

  9. Google maps reveals there's a FEBO in walking distance from where you live. Closer than any fast-food restaurant from where I was living in the USA (unless one counts the 7-11). FEBOs and other "snackbars" (places where the most of the items sold are deep-fried) are very common in the Netherlands. Talking about unhealthy options, I did notice there are quite a number of coffee-shops closer to your home than the FEBO is.

  10. I'm pretty much stuck in the US for now, but here's a conversation I can contribute to.

    Portion control does seem to be a key element for weight loss. Around 2005 I was roughly 240 pounds (108.8 kilograms), thanks to my love of cheese and fried things. At 5'6" and a sliver (roughly 1.68 meters), I looked like a potato. My wife and I subscribed to a menu planning service that provides weekly recipes for reasonable meals. That was pretty much the only change: a menu that we mostly stick to. Nevertheless, my weight has been 155-160 pounds (70.3 - 72.5 kilograms) for about a year.

    I am also no longer capable of eating an entire pound of cheese at one sitting now that I've gotten used to healthy portions ^_^

  11. My dietitian recommends a 2,200 kcal/day diet for me. I think that Victoria is using calories in her measurement which be 2,000 kcal/day. Dietary calories are usually measured in kilocalories but the packaging in the US only mentions calories.

    I have a problem with averages. I'm 6' tall and the day I left the Marine Corps I was 200 lbs. That put my BMI at 27.1 which is considered overweight, except that I was fit, trim and very healthy.

    A few years ago I decided to stop worrying about dieting and focus on eating healthy. I try to eat smaller portions, more vegetables, fruit instead of candy and less prepackaged food. I'm not perfect but I'm happy that I've lost 55 pounds and am down to 260, though I doubt I'll ever get back to 200. I wouldn't want to enlist again... ;)

  12. Another huge contributing factor that you did not mention is High Fructose Corn Syrup. In Europe it is not used and in the USA it is in damn near everything and you have to read every single label to avoid it. I gave up HFCS three years ago and it was at that exact time that my weight stabilized. And I never even drank soda on a regular basis, I was getting in in fruit juice and other places I never suspected until I started reading the ingredients!

  13. As a fairly large American (6'5" (195cm) 270lbs (123kg), I have a perspective as well.

    I've been conscious of my caloric intake and I work in a very typical American office. Here are the things I have noticed:
    Most Americans don't make time for food. Europeans do. Americans regularly snack or ingest fast food; there is soda and candy around everywhere.

    I've started to view sugar, rather than meat, as the poison that makes us fat and unhealthy. Under that viewpoint, we're surrounded by poisons and it is regularly offered.

    American portion sizes are too large. The agribusiness here and the corporatocracy ensures that portions keep getting larger.

    America lacks a food culture. Vegetables and pickled vegetables are not a regular part of the diet. I typically eat Asian food, and much of that has a pickled vegetable accompaniment. Similarly, European foods tend to have some sort of fermented food at a meal. With a lack of food culture, there is no overarching guideline as to what is an appropriate meal.

    The American government, in cahoots with industry, has accidentally polluted the message as to what is healthy. The food landscape is confusing. Michael Pollan calls it 'nutritionism', and we find that industrial and packaged foods practise nutritionism: they treat food as a way of getting nutrients, and in doing so, put calcium supplements in bread, vitamin D in milk, and all sorts of odd chemistry.

    American cities are not well planned. Most require that you drive from place to place. Americans are also addicted to their cars and place a lot of identity and value into the cars that they drive.

    Because of this, traffic is bad and people don't have time to work out. Oddly, I do find that many people who work out at the gym drive to the gym. The car is so engrained that people are unconscious of it and don't think of other methods to go to the gym.

    Getting exercise is very difficult in America because it has to be a planned activity. I'm lucky to walk to work, but I had to work very hard to make that a reality. Most don't have the financial resources or consciousness to make that possible. In Europe, walking and riding bicycles are normal behaviours.

    Most drinks have a lot of sugar in them. And many Americans drink to get drunk, not as a part of culture. Alcohol has a lot of calories in it. Most people don't understand that nor do they track it.

    My weight has stabilised; I've lost 40 pounds in the last year or so. I did so by walking and reducing my caloric intake and listening to the feelings that my body gives me after eating things. I track my calories, and I've learned that common American foods are packed with calories, but not really with belly-filling elements. Pizza is a great example: at about 350 kcal per slice, I can easily eat 4 or 5 slices to get full. But that is a LOT of calories.

    America is really great at doing everything wrong and then flouting its ignorance. I have a feeling that just by leaving America, I will lose an additional 40 pounds.

    Oh, and har-har on the elephant in the room. I, sir, am no Republican.

  14. @Abigail: while I didn't realize there was a FEBO close to me, I am aware that there are a lot of shops around where I can grab a quick kebab or lahmacan and that's a far healthier option which I remember seeing as much in the US, but it's standard here. It's not that there isn't bad food here, it's that there are many healthier options and smaller portion sizes.