Once again, I was asked the question I have been asked so many times before. It’s not why I came to Poland although that question is high up there on the frequency ranking. Instead today it was why Americans are so fat. When I am in America, I do not feel responsible for the global reputation of the American people but now that I live abroad, I feel the need to explain the complexities of American problems. You may feel that this problem is not a complex one, that Americans are simply gluttonous and eat too much. While that is one part of the problem, there is a little more to it.
One of the main contributors to the obesity epidemic in the US is the fact that many American people eat very poorly. My father always says about Americans, “We eat good!” and he should know because after a quadruple bypass he still goes to Taco Bell. While eating quantities large enough to sustain not only ourselves but maybe even 2 or 3 people, for some is the epitome of “eating good” but for me (and probably some nutritionists) it represents eating poorly. Eating poorly in my book means eating too much food loaded with salt, sugar, fat and preservatives. The food is packed with calories but not necessarily with nutrition. Eating well would be eating fresh food, fruit and vegetables as well as keeping salt, sugar, fat and protein intake within an acceptable range. Maybe a better question than why Americans are so fat would be why Americans eat so poorly.
Why do Americans eat so poorly?
It is hard to say. As a society, we have all the information we need to make healthy choices. We are probably the best informed consumers in the world. We are taught good nutrition at school and every food product contains fully transparent information on the label. Why do we make such bad choices?
To start to understand the problem, I welcome you to my hometown grocery store, which is in fact not a grocery store but a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The grocery section takes up one corner of the store. It is found directly on your right after entering, getting your shopping cart, and being officially welcomed by the Walmart Welcomer. On Misiu’s first visit he was in awe of the cracker aisle. He is not a huge fan of crackers but just the fact that there is a whole aisle just for crackers impressed him. There is a small fresh produce section, a meat and cheese area, a bakery, a dairy section, an aisle with staples such as flour, sugar and cooking oil and all the rest of the aisles are dedicated to things to drink and snack on and processed foods. (In this store the paper and cleaning products and shampoo and things like that are located in another part of the store) Most of the shelf space is dedicated to processed food, in fact. More and more shelf space in Polish supermarkets is dedicated to processed foods as well (Gorący Kubek, Pomysł na..) but not on the same scale.
I knew that we were going to have a problem with food right from the yogurt on the airplane on the way from Poland to the US. Although we were traveling from here to there, our breakfast yogurt for some reason was from the US. Misiu took one bite, said “What is this garbage?” and put it on my tray apparently thinking that I am genetically programmed as an American to eat garbage (Misiu actually said shit not garbage but I am trying to clean up my act). The yogurt looked like any other yogurt but it was incredibly sweet and had kind of a fatty texture leaving a feeling of fat on the roof of my mouth (as if you’ve eaten a spoon of Crisco shortening). Probably if you ate it everyday you wouldn’t notice the sweetness. That is the one of the problems with the food industry in the US. Sweet things are sweeter. Salty things are saltier. Fatty things are fattier. And just about everything is processed. Ok, Ok, all that processed food does have an ingredient list on the label and also a nutritional information breakdown. Once again, I stress that American consumers have the most information probably of any food shoppers in the world. Theoretically, we should be able to quickly see that this product or that is basically shit and we shouldn’t eat it. However, the information is usually given by serving size which is often unrealistically small, like a jar of soup which I would eat myself contains 4 portions according to the label. So I am not consuming the amount of salt, sugar and fat in one portion as stated on the label but 4 times that much as I down the whole jar. So what, you say, just choose another product. That is another problem. All the products are the same.
Back to our Wal-Mart shopping. We headed past the bakery items until we found the produce section which was considerably small for a shop so large. Alone in the produce section, we started searching for apples. We found them in plastic and styrofoam packs of 4. I don’t remember the price, but I do remember that it made me look twice, not to mention that later when I ate those apples my lips swelled up (after washing) from whatever had been sprayed on them. But they sure did look perty!
Next on our list was orange juice. I’m not too particular but I wanted to buy a carton of orange juice that had only orange juice inside of it. The juice options were vast, with calcium or without, with vitamin D or without and even with extra pulp if we so desired. All we wanted was juice with no sugar added. I found a big carton labeled for kids which said NO SUGAR ADDED and was disturbed to find out that it contained saccharrin. We finally found one with just juice, only to realize the next day at the breakfast table that it was not exactly what we had been looking for. Misiu said that there was something wrong with the juice. I tasted it. It was a bit sweet but I thought maybe it was the kind of oranges they used. I sat down and studied the carton until I found “concentrated for sweetness” in teeny tiny writing after the asterisk next to the slogan “Naturally Sweet”. I got up walked to the water facet and added some water. Problem solved, but how many people would do that? Few, I imagine. I myself would probably stop doing it after awhile too and thus drink more sweetness than I had intended.
We cruised the whole store oohing and aahing over the huge packages of goodies calling out to us. We found an enormous package of chips called “The Weekender” or something like that. It contained 3 pounds of potato chips! 3 pounds!!! The largest pack of chips you can buy in Poland, “TV PAK” is 165 grams + a current promotion of an additional 30 grams gratis which isn’t even a half a pound. Anyhow, we finished our shopping and after getting home we started to do some analysis. Yes, ‘cause we are interesting like that. The final result of our analysis was that it is cheaper to buy garbage. Not only was the fresh food section of the market poorly stocked, it was also relatively expensive. Right now here in Poland in my Polish kitchen, I am staring at about 200 apples from one apple tree in my yard that I don’t know what to do with. I’ve pawned off as many as possible on my neighbors and the girls’ nanny, my in-laws and I’ve made an apple pie (and eaten an apple pie) everyday for the last week. Those apples were free (well sort of) but I wouldn’t have any problem finding or buying the same amount of apples here in Poland. Why does fresh produce cost so much in the US? I’m not talking about organic. I’m just talking about the difference between an apple and an apple pie from McDonald’s. I read an article somewhere that in some locations in the US there will be something like “fruit and vege” trucks operating like ice cream trucks to supply some areas with the fruit and vege they can’t find at the local store. Gawd, it is sad that is has come to that, but bravo to whomever thought of the travelling fruit and vege truck. The next problem is get people to buy it.
Back to my US hometown with only one grocery store. We do however have 2 McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Taco Bell, a Subway, an Arbie’s, a Wendy’s and probably more that I can’t remember. These restaurants if you can call them that are a fast and cheap answer for the overworked American family that doesn’t have time to shop and cook and sit down together for a family dinner. Do Polish people work any less? Do they have more time to cook? Do they have more money to spend on fresh ingredients? I cannot see that Polish people work less or have more time to cook. In my experience, my friends here in Poland just organize their time a little differently. A lot of us with children find ourselves at 9pm or later in the kitchen preparing dinner for the next day. Maybe it is just a habit or social pressure to be a good homemaker,to live up to the Matka Polka ideal. Many Polish ladies (and myself) are struggling with that issue today. Polish people definitely don’t have more money (Gross monthly minimum wage in Poland is 1276 PLN which is about 450 USD) Apples are cheap but fast food isn’t. In Poland, it is still cheaper to make dinner yourself. Even if you paid yourself for the time it takes to make the dinner, it still comes out cheaper for most people. Having said that, homemade does not always equate healthy either. Exhibit A would be dinner at my in-laws. A typical dinner would be breaded chicken breasts fried in butter with salt or another flavoring aid added to the breading, potatoes swimming in butter and/or cream with a soup spoon of salt added to the pot and some kind of vegetable or salad. Last week it was fried cabbage containing a half a block of butter, bacon and another soup spoon of salt plus another of sugar. Once my mother-in-law called me while I was on the way to her place and asked me to pick up a kilogram of salt from the store. She was out of salt and couldn’t cook dinner. I brought her the salt and she said she was set for the next month. The next month! I bought a kilogram of salt 8 years ago and I still have most of it. Does salt go bad? Maybe I’ll throw it out and buy a new bag.
So the fast food/junk food is cheaper in the US and that’s why they eat so much, right? Well, not exactly. If it is cheap to eat a huge pile of food it stands to reason that it would be even cheaper to not eat it, so we cannot rely on that explanation alone. Also how many mega-rich reality TV stars have I seen stuffing their faces with food from the drive-thru. Sorry, but if I were a rich pop star or hotel fortune heiress there is no way I would eat that stuff. I don’t eat it now so I especially would not do it if I had money to eat the best of the best. I am now re-thinking my idea of it is cheap to eat a pile of food but even cheaper not to eat it. That is true that the pile of food costs x amount of dollars and not eating it costs nothing but is it half cheaper to eat only half? I remember my last visit in McDonald’s in America when I actually ordered something (my last-last visit was with some friends and I couldn’t order anything-the place was so filthy). I ordered a burger, small fries and small Coke. I was informed that it would be cheaper to order from the value menu which meant a Big Mac or 2 burgers, a huge fries and a bucket of Coke. I explained that I couldn’t eat all of that. The response, “So what it is cheaper. You can throw it away.” Thus, it wasn’t cheaper to eat half. It was cheaper to eat more. And that brings us to the problem of portion control in America.
Why do you eat and when do you stop?
I eat when I am hungry and I stop when I am not hungry anymore, not when I am full no matter how much food is on my plate. I try not to eat when I am not hungry and I try not to stuff myself. Of course, I sometimes eat too much and I snack and I eat cake and cookies sometimes and even chips. I use the internal cue of my own hunger to start eating and the satisfaction of that hunger to stop eating. Many people use the external cue of portions to determine how much they eat. In Poland, you’d probably be ok with that but in the US portion sizes are much larger and more dense with calories (additional fat and sugar) resulting in a larger and denser YOU!
Back in the days before my kids, I even used to go out to restaurants, the real ones with menus and waiters and napkins. In Poland when I order dinner, I can eat the whole dinner and even a little bit more actually. The last time we ate in the US, we ordered appetizers and dinner. After the appetizers arrived, we cancelled our dinner order. We watched as the family next to us piled their plates high at the salad bar and then went back for more. They were behaving like gluttons and were totally unembarrassed. Being gluttonous is not embarrassing in America (all-you-can-eat buffets, need I say more) but in Poland it would make people talk. One American acquaintance of mine in Poland who is very overweight does her shopping in several different shops just so she can avoid the stares that she thinks are saying –Hey, is that all just for you? It all is just for her but she can’t stand the stares which she never thought about in the US. Her embarrassment isn’t enough to lose weight (she is happy with her weight) or to stop buying all that stuff. I, on the other hand, am lazy. In fact that is my diet plan. I am too lazy to go to the store and buy something. Heck, I am too lazy to go to the kitchen to get something to eat. Embarrassment also works on me. When I go out with my Polish girlfriends, I eat much less than when I go out in America with my American friends. One reason is the portion sizes but another is the size of my friends. No one wants to be the biggest in the group and then eat a lot on top of that, but if everyone is bigger (even a little) and eats more then I can join in. What is considered normal in Poland is often called skinny or even once I was called malnourished (Don’t they have food over there in Europe?) in the US. What is considered overweight in the US would draw comments in Poland.
When I was pregnant, I was neither too lazy nor too embarrassed to eat and gained about 12-15 kilograms (26-33 pounds) during each pregnancy. I remember my doctor telling me as I reached the 10 kg mark in about the 7 month of pregnancy that I should lay off the chocolate. He explained that gaining too much weight was bad for me and my baby and would make the birth more difficult. I informed him that my chocolate consumption was none of his business, but he did have a point. How many doctors in the US tell their pregnant patients to watch their weight? When I was shopping for maternity clothes, the shop assistant brought me a medium that I could not have fit into even if I had not been pregnant. I laughed and wondered out loud who could wear such sizes. She informed me that their biggest sellers were sizes small and extra small. I took my large and got the heck out of there.
What has been happening to the sizes in the US? If you look at the sizes in people’s closets, you just might think that the American population is shrinking not expanding. I personally have got GAP jeans in my wardrobe spanning a decade or more. The oldest and the “largest” pair is a size 6. There are a couple of 4’s, a lot of 2’s and even a 0. Soon they will be running into the negative numbers. I distinctly remember in high school buying a GAP size 8.
I never really thought about the fact that someone was overweight or not until I left the US. My first time abroad I got a feeling of something being different (other than the obvious different country, different language thing) but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was the lack of larger people on the streets. Poland, don’t feel left out, you still have more public drunkenness than in the US. I have started to think about it lately because more and more of my students go to the US on business or on vacation and I get asked about it more often. I thought I would try to write about it to get my thoughts in order so I can answer with some sense. I understand that some people are destined to be overweight. But 64% of the population in the US as overweight and 26% of those as obese is not some people. That’s getting closer and closer to all people. When I look back at my primary school photos there was one “fat kid” in the class (I know, kids are cruel because for a year or 2 that fat kid was me). I’m afraid of what the class pictures must look like now. But we cannot blame the kids. It is their parents that have taught them how to eat. When we were kids, my sister and I were allowed to split one small glass bottle of Coca-cola per week. I don’t know if it was because it was expensive or because it was a bottle of liquid sugar. Tap water in Poland is not really drinkable. I try to ignore the amount of money I spend on drinking water, but even if Coke was 10 times cheaper I wouldn’t switch over.
In America, many people stick to the illusion that their status of overweight is either temporary (I’m really a thin person) or genetic (I don’t eat anything). While I do believe that there are tendencies for some people to be larger than others, you cannot get to 400 pounds by not eating anything. After having my children, I returned more or less to my pre-pregnancy weight. I gave myself maximum a year to do it and I achieved my goal. The weight doesn’t look the same as it did before, but I’m satisfied. Some of my American friends refer constantly to their baby weight, that they can’t lose their baby weight. If your child can walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school, you cannot use the baby weight excuse anymore. It is just plain weight, drop the baby part. I won’t lie and say that I wanted to lose my baby weight just for me. I wanted to lose it because most of my friends in Poland who have had children are thinner after having a baby than they were before. Yep, that’s right, thinner.
If you are overweight that state may have snuck up on you over the years with a little extra potatoes here and a little too much pie there, but the fact that you are overweight shouldn’t be big news unless you are Misiu. I have many ways of monitoring my weight. First, I can weigh myself. Next, I can see how my clothes fit, or don’t fit to be more precise. I can look at myself or look in the mirror. Lastly, I could calculate my BMI. Misiu, on the other hand, is able to ignore the sensory intake of all the methods of monitoring his weight except the last one, the BMI. He recently returned home from work with the shocking information that he is overweight! “Really, how did you know?”, I asked. “I calculated my BMI!” he shouted.
Misiu does not consider himself politically correct and also is not exactly tactful. If you ask him why he has a little extra around the middle he will tell you exactly why. He eats more calories than he burns. He knows exactly how to lose weight too. He has to burn more calories than he eats. It is simple but not easy. One Christmas in America, we were invited to my cousin’s house for a family get-together. I couldn’t wait to go as my mother and I had been cooking all day, but she wouldn’t let us eat anything. “It’s for tomorrow,” she said. When we arrived at my cousin’s in the evening I said hello to everyone and then dived into the buffet table. My cousin (weighing in at my estimation 130 kilograms about 280 pounds) asked surprised if I eat like that everyday. I replied that I do and continued to stuff my face. Misiu on the other hand would not touch the beef that I was inhaling. “Chris,” he said, “ you shouldn’t be able to cut beef with a fork. What’s in that meat to make it like that?” Hmm, I hadn’t thought about that. My cousin started the topic that she wished she could eat like that and stay so slim but with her genetics (mine too, we are 1st cousins) it was impossible. I highly doubted that considering the fact that she had doubled her weight in just 10 years but I replied something like, “Yes everyone is different…” so on and so on. My cousin defends, “I have even tried not eating anything but even that doesn’t work.” Misiu, always the diplomat states, “You didn’t do it long enough. For sure if you didn’t eat anything for a month, you’d see results.” The evil eye was shot at him from around the room. He had broken the rules. He tried to break the illusion. I commented something like not eating anything isn’t healthy (because it isn’t) and that it can wreak havoc on your metabolism (because it can). My cousin agreed but Misiu stated that their is nothing wrong with being hungry from time to time. My cousin continued on with the conversation to which Misiu gave the true if not distasteful observation that there were no fat people at Oswięcim. Luckily, he said it in Polish and my cousin was not paying attention to him by that point. We are not very good guests. We come to your house, insult you and eat all your beef. (Oswięcim is the Polish name of the city where the German concentration camp Aushwitz was located)
Food in the US is also more and more a form of entertainment or recreation or even comfort as the phrase “comfort food” can attest to. Is there a similar phrase in Polish? Misiu calls food ads in the US food porn. Graphic images of ooey gooey cheese or chocolate but no images of people actually consuming the food. Is it shameful to eat? Most of the ads are for fast food chains or other processed foods full of preservatives and other additives that make the food taste so darn good. Some ads show what a good time can be had in connection to that food. Our food, if not part of a balanced breakfast, is at least part of a happy childhood. When I tell people that my children do not eat at McDonald’s they look at me as if I am denying my children something essential to life. A new McDonald’s is being built near our apartment in the City, so we have opened the dialogue with our children that some people like to eat there but we do not. Lizzie had one opportunity as a guest at her friend’s house to try some McD’s food. She didn’t like it (except for the juice box and toy) so we are using that fact to our advantage. One thing is that our McD’s is going to have a killer playground. Generally, the McD’s looks quite nice. The last McD’s I visited in the US was so filthy that I didn’t even want to sit down let alone eat something there. Misiu says that with a 64% rate of overweight folks in America, McD’s doesn’t have to be nice or clean anymore, they’ve done their job. When do we decide that it is ok to give our kids garbage to eat? When do we switch from the Gerber jars to the Happy Meal? Why are we so careful with our babies and breastfeed them and then give them juice boxes which make their tongues blue?
I don’t know where to fit this into the rest of the information but how must someone feel physically who eats the typical American diet. I imagine tired, sluggish, gray, fuzzy, bloated. Not to get too graphic but I suppose you’d have terrible gastric problems in addition to immunity issue, skin problems, yeast problems.
One thing I would never say to an overweight person is that you cannot possibly be hungry. I know that for me the more weight that I carry, the hungrier I get. The larger the portion I eat now, the hungrier I will be later. I saw a program on the Discovery channel that said that stored fat on our bodies in an attempt at self-preservation produces enzymes which spur on our appetites. Scary!
Of course, if you watch other channels and not just the Discovery channel you might think that everyone in America is tall and thin with perfect teeth and meticulously groomed eyebrows. Even in the background scenes you can see people riding their bikes, jogging, rollerblading. In my hometown, Misiu looked at me as if I were a crazy person when I explained to him that we had to drive from the gas station to Wal-Mart because there were no crosswalks. Forget about sidewalks. There was no way to cross the street at a busy intersection. And that’s another reason why Americans have weight issues. We don’t exercise as much as we should and are not embarrassed to drive from one end of the shopping center to the other. On TV, we would jog or rollerblade or ride our bikes from one end of the shopping center to the other wearing super white tennis shorts to match our super white smile. Maybe that’s what inspires all the questions from my students. Maybe it is the difference between what they see on TV, the TV America, and the real America that causes the confusion.
My last student who came back from a business trip in the US couldn’t wait to ask me something. Here it comes I thought and I started to answer the question before he even asked. “No, Chris,” he said, “we don’t want to know that. We want to know why you sell mini-skirts in a size XXXL?” Well, why the heck not? That’s one good thing about America, the freedom to buy a mini-skirt in size XXXL. If you think you can work that mini-skirt, then work it girl!