On the latest Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker examines media coverage of rising obesity rates around the world. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!
I, like many (well, most) Americans have had issues with my weight. After going off to college in 2004, I noticed my weight beginning to climb until I started feeling unhealthy. I tried dieting and adding more exercise to my daily routine, but the extra weight stayed on. Then something miraculous happened: I left the country. During my year of study abroad, my waistline shrunk. Was I beating myself up about keeping to a certain number of calories a day? Did I take up an intensive exercise schedule? Not at all. So, what explains the weight loss?
In a word, culture. Although diet, exercise, and body chemistry are the critical factors in determining body weight, there is evidence that one's culture plays a huge role (pardon the pun) when it comes to obesity. While America is known worldwide for obesity problems, it isn't technically the most obese nation on earth. According to Forbes, that distinction goes to the tiny island nation of Nauru with a remarkable 94.5 percent of its population overweight. In fact 8 out of the top 10 overweight nations are located in the South Pacific. Part of the reason for this may be genetic, but part of the cause is the widespread poverty on these islands and the dependence on imported foods. Highly processed foods imported from the west are a cheap sources of calories; unfortunately they're also the unhealthiest. Cultural factors, including, "[the] notion that 'bigness' is a sign of wealth and power" also contribute to a culture of obesity which has left the South Pacific the fattest region in the world. Is America, like the South Pacific, a victim of having a culture of obesity? We certainly don't equate 'bigness' with wealth and power - quite the reverse, if our celebrities and icons are any indication.
Which brings me to France, the country in which my weight-loss miracle occurred. While the United States and the South Pacific are two of the world's fattest regions, France is championed for its low national obesity rate. How do the French, with a diet rich in carbs, fats, and oils, stay so thin? Researchers have called this the French paradox.
But the French paradox really isn't much of a paradox at all. When it comes to how French citizens stay thinner than Americans, both the quantity and quality of food consumed makes the difference. French consumers typically eat less processed food than their American counterparts, and when they do indulge in fats and sweets, they generally eat smaller portions. In my personal experience, I found processed junk foods to be more expensive in France than fresh fruits and vegetables - where in American supermarkets, the situation is often the opposite. America also has a 24 hour fast food culture with opportunities to eat just about anything at anytime, anywhere. In France, the majority of supermarkets are closed by 9PM - and you can't get a decent burrito anywhere.
So do I really attribute my weight loss to a geographical change? In many ways, I do. When I was surrounded by a culture whose values about food and eating promoted a healthier way of life, I found myself behaving like those around me. Think of it as positive peer pressure. This is not to say that all is perfect in the land of foie gras and baguettes. The French, like many cultures worldwide, are beginning to grapple with their own obesity problem as the fast-food culture spreads.
So how is my weight now that I'm back in the US? In 1.5 years, I've gained back most of what I lost in France. I can't blame America, though. In France I was able to change my lifestyle so I could eat fresher, smaller, and more slowly. I learned the right way to eat, but I just started to get lazy once I returned to a culture where it's a little harder to do so. Oh well, I gotta go... the pizza delivery guy is here.