My wife and I are currently visiting family and friends in Chicago, and I have been compiling a little mental list of certain traits in our modern US society that promote the obesity that afflicts so many of us. Of course by now everyone knows about an excessively car-based culture, lack of exercise, and too much pop and fast food. But I thought I'd note these other little quirky things that seem to me to favor weight gain, and that I would never have noticed if I hadn't spent some time outside of the US and then come back as a semi-outsider. So here goes:
Portion sizes. I'm of course not the first to say this, but portion sizes in US restaurants are often just huge. Really about twice the size of what I'd expect in a Colombian restaurant. Same thing with juice in bottles, which is often like three times what any normal human being would want to drink in one sitting.
Eating out a lot. These large portions wouldn't be such a problem if we were smart and took the excess half home in a doggy bag. Then we'd get two meals for the price and calories of one. Even if you were to eat an entire excessive restaurant portion once a week or once a month, it wouldn't be a big deal. But if it's an almost everyday occurrence, you're sure to get fat. If you eat out all the time, you'll never take home doggy bags, and never use them even if you do. So you fall into the trap of constantly eating much more than you should.
Concentrated calories. In Colombia you sometimes do get a huge portion of food at a meat grill place, but even this seems less obesity-promoting than in the US. You see, in Colombia a big part of any obscenely sized plate is plantain, potato, and cassava, mostly boiled and seasoned. These foods are mainly water by weight, with a lot of fiber, so they fill you up with water and bulk in addition to the starch. Conversely, many restaurant foods in the US aren't even that big physically (a burger and fries doesn't take up much space on the plate or in the belly), but there's little water and fiber in them. In the case of fries, the water has been entirely replaced by calorie-filled oil. So a lot of US fast food or comfort food has really concentrated calories.
Buying prepared food. This last point of concentrated calories brings up the larger issue of eating fresh food vs. eating food that comes to you already processed in some way. I think most people are aware by now that heavily processed foods like cheetos or pop are bad for you. But I'm going even further to say that even light processing can be dangerous if it happens out of your sight. For instance, when we make juice in Colombia, we take fresh fruit that we've selected and bought at the market, we blend that fruit with water, we strain out the seeds and some of the pulp, and we mix it with unprocessed molasses to sweeten it. This is almost unheard of in the States, in part because fresh fruit can be so pricey that it would be a waste to just blend it up. At any rate, the result is that when you get juice in the US, usually it has had all the fiber taken out, and an amount of sugar that you didn't control. In other words, what isn't normally a calorie-concentrated food becomes one. The same applies to potatoes you've cooked versus pre-fried potatoes, or ground beef you watched get ground vs. some mixed ground beef with filler you got in styrofoam at the supermarket. When you don't use fresh ingredients in their original state, you don't know what has been taken out of them or added, and as such you are prone to obesity-causing factors. I've found that even when I eat Chinese fast food with a lot of vegetables, my body doesn't feel as it normally would when I eat fiber and veggies. Could it be that some part of their storage and cooking process takes a lot of the "vegetable" out of vegetables?
Lack of stairs. We had to stay a night at a Florida hotel this trip, and when I had to get some stuff from the lobby, I was amazed to find that the stairs were almost impossible to use. They were hidden, and you could only get in from certain entrances to go up. So even if someone had wanted to get some exercise, he'd find it nigh impossible. The stairs in one hotel obviously aren't going to make or break our obesity epidemic, but if you add up all these kinds of supposedly labor-saving measures in public places that are forced upon us, you get a society in which you can't make healthy choices (eating well, exerting yourself physically in everyday activities, etc.) even if you want to.
Salty food. This was a surprise to me, because excessive salt causes a lot of other health problems, but it obviously has no calories to make you fat directly. I've found that the excessive salt that many restaurants put in their food causes a thirst in me that is not easily quenched by plain water. I believe that sometimes if you've consumed a lot of salt, your body sends you signals not only for water but for potassium to balance out the salt's sodium. That's what it feels like in my body, anyway, This cry for potassium takes the form of a craving for fruit, ie for something sweet. In Colombia, when I feel this way I drink some fruit juice or lemonade, and it's even more quenching than straight water. But in the US, I've had to try to sate this urge with pop or artificial fruit juice. These drinks are indeed sweet, but they don't successfully give me the potassium my body needs, so I end up drinking a lot of them. This of course means I'm drinking a lot of sugar, read calories, all because my food was too salty.
Sugary food. We all know that too many sweets are bad for you. But in my two recent forays to the US, I've been surprised to find a palpable difference in the sugar content of many foods. Muffins, yogurt, cereals, box juices. The US incarnation of these things all taste cloyingly sweet to me when compared with their Colombian counterparts. It's not as if these processed products are sugar-free in Colombia. It just seemed to me as if they had more sugar in the US. It would make sense if this were true. After more than half a century of processed sugary food in our culture, I have to believe that there would be some one-upmanship among manufacturers, such that the consumer demand for sweetness, and hence the minimum bar of what's considered normally sweet, would constantly be rising.
Alcohol. I don't know if this is exclusively a Midwestern thing, but it's certainly a big deal here. People drink a lot. They drink beer and wine for many meals, especially dinner. Aside from the devastating effects alcoholism has on people and families, it makes you really fat over time. Especially beer has a lot of calories, and its consumption is favored by the salty food that makes us crave quenching. My wife has been amazed at how much alcohol people here are able to put away in one sitting. In Colombia, excess alcohol consumption is something kids do for a period, and only when they go out and party. It's not such a night-in, night-out affair.
Credit cards. Okay, this one isn't really about obesity, but it's another thing I think we need to be alert about. When we got into the US this time with no cash and no working ATM cards, I was pleasantly surprised that I could conduct most of my transactions by credit card. It saved us a night sleeping in the airport. But I also became aware in these twelve hours or so of spending without cash left me discombobulated. I felt as if I hadn't spent anything, because I hadn't had to open my wallet and fork out cash. If this is the case for me, who always keeps a nightly diary of what I've spent in the day, how dangerous could this sensation of getting without spending be for most people? I guess the answer lies in the massive credit and debt problems we've been facing as a nation.
So those are my little outsider observations about some insidious contributors to our obesity problems. In my time here in my mother's middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, I must say that many of these factors haven't been very present. There's a lot more fresh food at restaurants, smaller portions, less salt, and more natural juice. Most importantly, we mainly eat at home, not out at restaurants. And I also notice that the well-heeled young people in this neighborhood aren't so fat (though my wife notes a bit of beer belly presence in 20-somethings). On the other hand, on my recent sojourns into remote, lower-income exurbs, I have noticed all these obesity-causing factors, and their obese victims, in full effect. So while it's heartening to see that not all of us are being affected by the obesity epidemic, it is sad to see obesity as yet another indicator of the brutal, yawning breach between rich and poor in our country.