Blaming American culture for the rise in obesity around the world

Obesity has America in its grip. It is spreading around the world. The United States of America inserts its presence into global culture. Its movies, marketing, and images travel across the seas. Love it or hate it, American culture penetrates even remote locations. The world population gets heavier. Last week we blamed processed food for the growing obesity crisis. The week before we chose not to blame the person for becoming fat. Should we place the blame for obesity on American culture? Let’s take a look.

USA is a fast-food nation. Portions are large. Calories are plentiful in a fast-food meal. Hamburgers with super-sized buns drip with melted cheese and special sauce. Nuggets and fries provide us direct physical contact with mouth-watering fat. Huge containers of soda quench our thirst. And it is not only the food. We crave it’s convenience and it’s price. Food swamps appear at almost every interstate exit. Signs along the way point out our favorite spots. Only a few more miles before we enjoy the meal. Then we are on our way. Logos of major chains appear in airport food courts and on street corners in foreign lands. We want you to share in our largesse.

KFC restaurant
Fried chicken anyone?

It’s not only fast-food outfits. Large portions in full-service restaurants ensure that we don’t go hungry. Calories come in unexpected forms. First there is the appetizer. They are always low in calories! Don’t forget the bread basket. It won’t hurt to have another basket. Alcohol is not available at most fast-food joints. Don’t worry! There is a wide selection at most full-service locations. And let’s limit ourselves to three beers or glasses of wine. The food at these places is much healthier than at a fast-food place. That is unless we order steak or fries or pasta alfredo or a pupu platter. We can always share a main entrée if we don’t mind scowls on the waiter’s face. Or we can eat half and take the rest home in a styrofoam container.

What about home cooking? The ideal meal is a small piece of lean meat, a starch, two vegetables and a piece of fruit for dessert. Well not every meal at home is ideal. Portions are growing. Some days there is not enough time to prepare an ideal meal for everyone. Besides, everyone at the table wants something different. Processed foods help fill in the gaps. Sugary treats are a nice change of pace from the same old boring fruit for dessert. At home we can store our favorite items for between-meal snacks. For many families, home cooking is not as ideal as we hear. We have developed some bad habits. I hope they haven’t made their way overseas.

plate of roast chicken, broccoli and rice
An ideal home-cooked meal

Our media glorifies a thin body. We live in obesogenic environments. The structure of our neighborhoods discourages walking and riding bikes. High-sugar/high-fat snacks assail us in our workplaces, at meetings, and at home. They pursue us everywhere we go. Images of food on street signs and screens in front of our eyes invade our brains. How can we stay thin? It’s a wonder we aren’t all overweight or obese. Diets are no longer cool. We opt for a ‘change in lifestyle.’ Health maintenance is not the goal. ‘Wellness’ is the new buzzword. Are they the same ideas with different names? Do other countries face the same challenges?

Advocates of intuitive eating reject our diet culture. Books, news articles, and videos demand we lose weight. We can’t escape marketing. Marketing by food companies selling their wares. Marketing by purveyors of diets, pills, and other quick fixes. Marketing of ideas by self-proclaimed dietary advisors every time we boot up. The cacophony of messages and images confuses more than it enlightens. Big Food feeds on our desires. The internet preaches abstinence while revealing the latest craze. The two poles feed on each other to achieve their goals. Big Food finds ways to market food that fits the fad. Critics on the internet condemn anything processed. Both sides gain while the consumer loses. Is America alone?

Intuitive eaters think before they bite. They don’t fight with their food. They make peace with it. They know it when they feel full. They accept and deal with their emotions. Intuitive eating doesn’t demonize foods. It rejects yo-yo dieting which may do more damage than carrying around extra weight. Likewise, the stress of food on the brain can lead to more eating rather than less. Respecting the body we have rather than stressing over the one we want is a better strategy.

We can also blame parents, work schedules, and social events for our weight problems. If our mom hadn’t fed us that junk when we were a kid, we would be leaner today. If work and travel didn’t force us to eat on the run much of the time, we’d exercise more control. How do our bosses stay so thin? Most of them have to attend working lunches at least twice a week. Then there are the parties we go to. Most of the food and beverages there don’t contribute to a balanced diet. Do our foreign colleagues face the same issues?

Why do we have to blame anybody or anything? Blaming and shaming has become part of our culture. Let’s figure out what is wrong and how we can fix it. Fat shaming has no place in the 21st Century. Blanket condemnation of all processed food also misses the mark. Yes, there are many foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value. Not all processed products are junk. Processed foods allow the poor to feed their families on a budget they can afford. Food processing extends shelf life to prevent spoilage and food waste. Processed foods allow disabled folks to live at home alone. Culture grows without rhyme or reason. Fads appear without warning and fade away almost as fast. With ‘advanced’ technology, trends spread around the world for good or ill. Our contributions to world culture represent a mixed bag at best.

We can’t have a do-over on how we reached our present weight. We can take responsibility for the food we put into our mouths as we go forward. Information on food and nutrition is abundant. Understandable guidance to develop a personal plan is harder to find. Seeking help from a registered dietitian is a good place to start for anyone wanting to lose weight. Selecting one who appreciates our cultural heritage might be more difficult. An alternative is finding an intuitive eating coach. Look for one with formal education in dietetics or nutrition. We don’t need to be the biggest loser on the block. We can take it on ourselves to lose a little weight. A 5% loss in body weight is achievable for most of us. This modest goal can help with potential health problems.

Big Food will continue to manufacture less than healthy food as long as there is a market for it. It should limit marketing of junk food to young children and help establish supermarkets in food deserts. I call on it to open up distribution channels to get nutritious foods to areas without grocery stores. Restaurant menus should feature options for reduced portions. Fast-food operations offer different sizes of their menu items. Most full-service restaurants do not.

Diet books and internet stories on food are not going away. Neither is marketing of food products or dietary advice. Try not to be overtaken by the latest miracle diet or superfood. Binary thinking dominates social media. Chemicals in food are bad, but molecules are good. Fruits and vegetables are good, but meat and processed food are bad. Food processing is bad; home cooking is good. Natural is good; manufactured is bad. Too much information. Too little explanation. Let’s not have messages about food overwhelm us. Let’s focus less on food in our lives and more on living life to its fullest.

Obesity. It’s complicated. Who or what is to blame? Should we blame the fat person? Can we blame it all on processed food? Why don’t we blame it on a culture that glorifies thinness while surrounding us with more food than we need? Instead of searching for a source of blame, let’s seek understanding. Instead of oversimplifying the issue, let’s find solutions.

Next week: Dueling visions of Big Ag

5 thoughts on “Blaming American culture for the rise in obesity around the world

  1. If I ruled the world, I’d ban companies from marketing food of any kind to children under seven. Perhaps it’s just as well the Good Lord did not put me in charge because now that the genie is out of the box, it is perhaps impossible to go back. In the mean time, parents or grandparents or schools or child care facilities can do their best to counter. Two suggestions that I used when my kids were growing up. Each kid could buy one silly thing as we did the weekly shopping. And if the product had a long ingredient list, the rule was you had to read the ingredient label. I’ll never forget my daughter at the age of 11 making it all the way through a package of Devil Dogs. We were in hysterics by the time she finished.

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    1. If the period between ages 2-5 is the time that children set their eating pattern for life, banning marketing to kids is critical. A ban in itself is not sufficient. A business plan to sponsor children’s TV is needed or we will lose all children’s programming except for PBS. Even commercial-free programming is tainted as it goes first to rich kids on premium cable channels. The problem these days may not be television but the internet. That is a tougher nut to crack!

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  2. I agree with you on most points. I am not sure that we have changed. The difference between now and when we came of age is the speed of communications through the internet. The megaphone that it provides can spread ideas much wider. Go back to the early days of the republic, and they had newspapers to spread ideas, rumors, and reinforcing personal beliefs.

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  3. Lots to react to. Very important.
    1. culture doesn’t change for no reason, it evolves Darwinially but much faster.
    2. How much matters. So does self-control, which we are supposed to learn as toddlers, by then conditioned to believing in and depending on the unexplained, the magic and miraculous. Reality can’t compete, but it’s real.

    This issue of freedom to believe has permeated politics, health and interpersonal relationships — lately emerging as resistance to vaccination and science+based decisions. People believe what they want to be true.

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