Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What the world eats. Quite the difference between countries.

My husband recently returned home from a 9-day business trip to Germany. All the while he was there, he kept telling me: "Nobody here is overweight...What's wrong with Americans?"

Here on the East Coast of the U.S., we have our fair share of overweight and obese people. In fact, when I first moved here from Canada 5 years ago, I was astonished at how large and out of shape people here were! Then I walked into my first grocery store and finally understood. Compared to Canada (at least where I came from in British Columbia), the grocery stores here were packed with more junk food than I'd ever seen in my life. I also couldn't for the life of me find a can of tuna that didn't contain soy because it was packed in vegetable broth, or couldn't find a sprouted grain bread product that didn't contain excess sugar (I've found one now thankfully).

The other difference between my home country and here is the lack of physical activity that people participate in each day. I swear, since moving here, I've driven more in my car in the past 5 years than I have in my whole life! I used to walk to stores, ride my bike or take the bus. There's none of that happening here, that's for sure.

The increased physical activity is also what my husband noticed in Germany and felt attributed to the lack of fatness. Women (beautiful ones he had to tell me...) rode their bikes everywhere wearing dresses or skirts, while the men wore their suits. That was just the way it was.

Here I once tried riding my bike to the gym and to school, but because of the lack of sidewalks or bike paths, I saw my life flash before my eyes as cars tried to use me for target practice. I never did that again.

Daily food choices just are totally different in Germany compared to the US (and yes, I'll admit, parts of Canada), which accounts for a lot of the differences between body composition of the people. My husband absolutely LOVED the HIGH FAT diet of the Germans. Yes, I said high fat. But, the diet wasn't high sugar, which is the difference between here and there. For example, there isn't such as thing as low-fat milk over there. Whereas here, we push low-fat milk like it's supposed to be a calorie-saver. However, the lack of fat leads to lack of satiety. And, there are beneficial fats in milk (like MCTs and CLA), that might actually increase fat oxidation.

Doesn't it seem strange that for the past 40 years, our country has been pushing a low-fat diet and the people have gotten fatter??? When in other countries fat isn't restricted, and the people are leaner? Hmmmm....

Anyways, to prove my point a bit more, have a look at the difference between food intake from families around the world in this slide show from the book "Hungry Planet" by Peter Menzel. This is a slide show portraying a week's worth of food from families across the world.

Pay close attention to the vast difference between each country/family. For example in the US and Mexican families, the fluids are all in plastic bottles (in Germany, the bottles are glass), there's a lot of fast food and processed food, and specifically, from the North Carolina family, there are BARELY any fruits and vegetables in their weekly grocery line-up (but there sure are a lot of potato chips! [don't those count as vegetables?]).

I'd be interested to hear all your thoughts about this and if you think there's something drastically wrong with the way many Americans (and some Canadians) live their lives. Lack of physical movement and poor food choices sure aren't making anyone's waist line smaller.


Larissa in San Antonio said...

To speak specifically about the Mexican family with all the plastic bottled fluids, notice that those are "Coke" bottles. Coke maintains a solid place in Mexican culture for a variety of reasons: 1) In some areas, Coke is more easily accessible than clean water; 2) Coke is sometimes used as a medicinal treatment; 3) Coke is a major sponsor of MANY sports in Mexico, one of which is soccer; 4) Coke has a looong history of marketing to the Mexican population, and has instilled itself in the Mexican imaginary as one of the greatest icons of the "West" (the U.S.). So Coke is not so much of a reflection of the Mexican family's diet or beliefs about nutrition as it is a reflection of the place Coke holds in Mexico's economy and history.

Bernee said...

I am from Canada (Toronto) and when I moved to the US (about 9 yrs ago) I too was shocked by how large everyone was and was amazed at all the junk food in grocery stores. The worst part was that I had a difficult time finding fresh fruits and vegetables at grocery stores. They were always stale! I was also suprised that everyone ate out all the time and never cooked their own meals. I was unable to get yogurt that wasn't fat-free and everything was fat-free. What is interesting is on my most recent visit to Canada this year, I was unable to find my favourite balkan style yogurt because now all they had was fat-free. But I was so excited to see the fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery stores that I felt like a kid in a toy store. I was able to get the freshest looking asparagus that I had ever seen (from BC BTW. I was also surprised to see so many flavours of ricecakes (from Quaker Oats) that they don't have here. Most of the Quaker Rice cakes here are sweet like chocolate and caramel. In Canada they had tomato and basil and other great flavours. I guess there isn't a market here for them.

Henri said...

I don't really think a diet high in fat is healthy, even though the Germans are doing it.

My personal opinion is that Americans are fat, obese and sickly because they eat crappy food.

I try to eat a diet that doesn't contain anything manmade, nothing from a box should be eaten (rice, beans sometimes come in a box so obviously exceptions).

Sugar, processed foods, junk food is probably eaten A LOT more in the U.S so that's a huge factor.

I'm kind of rambling, but I like the points you made, I really like these food nutrition articles, keep em coming! :)

Cassandra Forsythe said...

Thank you Larissa! That is great information. Too bad water wasn't more popular and prolific than Coke.

Bernee: I miss those tomato basil rice cakes. I almost forgot about them because, like you said, there's none of that here!

Henri, a high fat diet can be very healthy if the fat is from natural sources and a balance of sat, mono and poly. If you're interested, the Nutrition & Metabolism society has a lot of good information about it, and my lab group has published several papers on this topic. Here's a link that might interest you: http://www.nmsociety.org/
Thank you for you comments!

Henri said...

Thanks for those links, will check em out!

Ilyse said...

I commend you for drawing attention to what the world eats, and I also believe we need to look at what fuels the food decisions many Americans make. It is an unfortunate fact that calories are cheap and nutrition is expensive.

In "Omnivore's Dilemma," Michael Pollan aptly notes: "One reason that obesity and diabetes become more prevalent the further down the socioeconomic scale you look is that the industrial food chain has made energy-dense food the cheapest foods in the market, when measured in terms of cost per calorie."

Pollan goes on to describe a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that compared the energy cost of different supermarket foods, and found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies, but only 250 calories of carrots.

I have learned from my own work and volunteer experiences with people suffering from hunger that poverty can be defined as a lack of choice. Many families may be simply choosing to eat rather than choosing to eat food that lacks nutritious value.

I agree that American markets need to make fruits and vegetables more affordable and available. I see a hopeful solution in The Farmer's Market Nutrition Program, which expands WIC and Food Stamp benefits for use at venues that sell fresh produce.

To learn more about how poverty affects people's access to nutritious food, I recommend reading Joel Berg's "All you can eat How Hungry is America?" and Mark Winne's "Closing the Food Gap: Resettling the Table in the Land of Plenty."