Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why Obesity Is a Bigger Problem in America Than in Europe

It's a common joke around the world - Americans are fat. 60 million adults in America suffer from obesity, and an estimated 9 million children are well on their way to a future as an obese adult. At the same time, every western European nation has an obesity rate lower than that of the United States. American culture emphasizes three things over Europe that all factor into the disparate obesity rates: big plates, processed foods, and cars.

Numerous studies have shown that portion sizes in the U.S. are bigger than in Europe. Americans tend to use bigger plates and fill them up with more food before even beginning their meals. Europeans eat smaller servings that Americans would scoff at, but still manage to consume the calories and nutrients their bodies need. It turns out the portion size difference is even true in fast food chains. For example, American Burger Kings sell a Triple Whopper - but walk into a Burger King in the U.K. and you'll only find a Double Whopper on the menu. In fact, many American restaurants glorify overeating. Most Americans can probably name a local eatery which challenges its patrons to eat an enormous amount of food in one sitting, such as a whole pizza or a multi-pound steak. Successful participants are rewarded with a free t-shirt and and their picture immortalized on a "Wall of Fame." To make matters worse, the food in these challenges is always extremely greasy or otherwise unhealthy. It's never a "salad eating challenge."

In addition, the American diet is dominated by processed foods, which are often high in corn syrup. The U.S. government created financial incentives for farmers to grow more corn decades ago when many Americans were undernourished, but over time the problem has swung in the opposite direction. Now the U.S. overproduces corn, so it processes it into high fructose corn syrup, which is then added to most of the packaged foods sold in American grocery stores. Some studies suggest that it's easier to work off the calories consumed by regular sugar than it is to work off the calories consumed by corn syrup. The extremely low cost of adding corn syrup to products has other unexpected effects. Corn syrup lends an extra amount of sweetness to foods where you normally wouldn't expect it, such as processed tomato soup in a can. American consumers become used to the sweetness of their foods and have a hard time enjoying more natural tomato soup recipes which would be lower in calories. Europeans tend to avoid the whole problem of corn syrup by limiting the amount of it that can be added to products and cooking their meals from scratch with fresh ingredients.

Finally, American culture idolizes cars. Americans not only rely on cars to get around, they view them as an important part of their social status. Teenagers about to get their licenses beg their parents for a new car, lest they be the least cool kid in school. The wealthy build curving driveways in front of their mansions to show off their multiple luxury convertibles. Europeans aren't nearly as obsessed with cars. Their cities are compact and efficient. Europeans often walk or bike to work, school, or the store. Their well-run public transportation systems lead many to not even own cars. Even when taking the bus or train, a European citizen would need to walk or bike to the nearest stop or station. Because of this, Americans lead much more sedentary lifestyles than do Europeans. As a result, the extra calories consumed via larger portion sizes and artificially sweetened foods never have a chance of being worked off.

American culture has given the world some of the best of music, movies, art, and fashion; however, through its emphasis on eating, processed foods, and cars, it is also giving its citizens higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

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