Why are Americans so much fatter than Europeans?

I have a lot to catch up on after a month of qualifying exam craziness and 3 weeks tooling around Germany and Italy. (If it was supposed to be relaxing, why did we bring the kids?). I’m working to improve my blogging efforts, so I’m treating you all a different blogging style for a while. I vow to no longer spend 2 weeks “perfecting” a post—you have no idea how challenging this internets thingy is to us old folks—and instead I will try to bombard you with random stories and thoughts incoherently melded together by my overriding simmering impatience with the current food/nutrition situation. When I get boring or redundant, let me know.

“That can’t be good for you.”

The carbs vs. fat debate took on a new perspective for me in Germany, where—at least where we were, in Bavaria—the population seems to love both! The question floated in and out of our conversations over lovely meats and cheeses, tomatoes and mangoes, bread and olives (my husband’s family were the most wonderful hosts!): Why are Americans so much fatter than Europeans?

Here’s a menu item from a Munich restaurant.

Loosely translates to “fat with fat”

Crispy pork fat is mixed with lard and spread on dark bread. I ordered it, and it was delicious.  The Bavarian people seem to love saturated fat in all its many forms, but most especially when it comes from pigs.

At the same time, I’ve also never seen such a healthy bunch of old people.  We visited the German Alps (a popular vacation spot for older Germans) and the town was filled with people in their 80s and even 90s out toddling around.  Those with canes took the easier walks around town, but many were hiking (yes, even with canes) and there were plenty of older folks up on the harder trails as well.  Oddly enough, they didn’t look super fit or anything, just not too fat (although most were what we would call a little “heavy”).

The Germans do love to be outdoors, and they love to walk, but they don’t seem to be exercise fanatics the way Americans are. I overheard a group of Germans discussing an American friend they knew who “ran 6 or 7 miles a day.” After a few murmurs that I couldn’t quite interpret at first, one young lady seemed to speak for the group when she concluded, “That can’t be good for you.”

Surprise! All calories are NOT created equal

As with exercise, the culture that surrounds food seems to be very different. No one seems to really care about calories. Serving sizes were enormous. Menus, however, do designate if an item contains artificial colors, sweeteners, added “antioxidants” –and whether the ingredients are likely to be frozen or the items prepared off-site. Only about 25% of the retail space in a grocery store is given over to processed foods (which leaves lots of room for a wide variety of beer!). Everywhere we went (even after hiking an hour or so up a mountain), people were hanging out in beer gardens, eating and drinking and generally having a lovely time of it.  Everywhere we went, the food was excellent.

Of course, I must point out that Germany is also experiencing an increase in obesity. It may take longer for it to catch up to the Bavarians, who tend to be skeptical about “progress,” which means they may be more likely to resist the relatively new-fangled low-fat approach to nutrition adopted by the US 30 years ago. Good thing, too. While we were in Germany, a new study done by David Ludwig at Harvard was released which adds to the body of literature that seems to indicate that USDA/HHS-recommended low-fat diets are not going to be the answer to our obesity crisis. The reaction to that study by the arbiters of nutrition fashion at the NY Times was very interesting.

In a surprising reversal from his many years of advocating for the “eat less, move more” approach, Mark Bittman seemed ready to acknowledge that, hey, maybe not all calories are created equal. I was thrilled to see this (even though Bittman didn’t bother to add “My bad for the previous 13 years worth of misinformation”) not just because it is scientifically accurate, but because of the adverse affects that I feel the “calories in, calories out” approach has had on how Americans relate to food. “Calories in/out” not only misses the metabolic effects of food, but—by treating food primarily as fuel—it also dismisses food as a part of our social tapestry and our cultural heritage. This approach also easily lends itself to creating an ethics of “good” eating behavior vs. “bad.”

Embracing sacrifice?

The savory handful of meaty goodness that is a doner kebab

If food is just fuel for the body, there is no reason to enjoy it, to savor it, to wax poetic about it (as my kids did over the Turkish doner kebabs–“savory handfuls of meaty goodness”–we had in Munich). You just eat it, as “ethically” as possible, and carry on with your hair shirt weaving.

James McWilliams (who is probably a really nice guy, but strikes me as being someone who would be a real buzz-kill at a party) exemplifies what may be a uniquely American notion, that eating should be a Puritanical experience of acquiring nutrition in the most joyless way possible:

“To really eat ethically more often than not means to avoid the primacy and exclusivity of taste. It means to forgo foods usually associated with “fine dining”—rich cheeses, meat, luscious desserts, and seafood dished out in fancy restaurants—in exchange for (as Mark Bittman’s work quietly reiterates) a humble bowl of beans, greens, and whole grains cooked up at home (with the leftovers eaten all week for lunch). It means, in essence, embracing sacrifice, even asceticism. Any committed vegan will have some sense of what this entails.”

I’m inclined to extend that young German woman’s assessment of her American friend’s exercise habits to this approach to food: That can’t be good for you. It may adequately feed your body (of course, it may not do that either), but it seems like it might shrivel your soul up just a little.

I find it difficult to imagine the Germans ever adopting this approach to food (ditto the Italians). Would McWilliams then consider the entire culture of food we encountered in Europe to be “unethical?” Germans and Italians were all about the “primacy of taste.” If the food police in America extend their current crackdown to saturated fat, I’ll be joining my father-in-law and his wife in Munich, where lard will never be four-letter word. (Yeah, I know. In German, it’s more like a fourteen-letter word.)

Connection vs. alienation

I’ll be the first to admit that the problem is a complicated one, but it is worth considering: maybe what helps make Americans fatter than Europeans is our attitude towards food. It seems counter-intuitive, but maybe if we cared more about food and what it means to us, we’d actually eat differently. It’s not a matter of quality over quantity, but a matter of connection vs. alienation. And it’s not just a white people thing either.

My friend, Elisa Maldonado wrote a terrific article about her experience with the standard American approach to “healthy eating.” You can find her article here. A friend of hers commented on the article, saying that “being both mexican american and native [her] body always felt weird and unhealthy” when she tried follow standard recommendations. Elisa and her friend make a case for the possibility that our ethnic background influences what dietary pattern will work better for us. If we can connect to (rather than be alienated from) both our traditional food cultures and the messages our own bodies send us in response to food, we may stand a better chance of discovering what foods leave us satisfied and healthy—in both body and soul. And we won’t have to “embrace sacrifice” to get there.  

10 thoughts on “Why are Americans so much fatter than Europeans?

  1. Just frickin’ exercise. All of the rest of this is basically superfluous. Only full time athletes and body builders require more than a couple of hours a week.
    I basically have no sympathy for fat people who don’t spend two hours a week or more in the gym – and I mean ACTUALLY WORKING OUT, not swinging 5lb weights around and calling it a day. What you watch on television is crap, you sleep too much, and you eat when you’re bored. No wonder you’re fat.
    I eat *whatever I God damn want* and I’m 100lbs. Because I move. Welcome to thermodynamics. You have plenty of time – stop making excuses, tubbo!

    1. Wow. Since you have all the answers–and by that I mean, the one answer you have–perhaps you could explain to me how, when I was 60+ lbs overweight and exercising 2 hours a day (1 hour of heavy cardio, and either ANOTHER hour of cardio or an hour of weightlifting) and eating 1200 kcals (I know because I weighed and measured EVERYTHING) of “healthy” foods like brown rice and tofu, I couldn’t lose weight? I didn’t watch TV then or now, as a mother of 3 sleeping “too much” was a remote fantasy (right up there with marrying Bruce Springsteen), and I’ve never been bored in my life except at PTA meetings where it’s considered bad form to bring a book.

      While you’re at it, maybe you could explain how the vast majority of people I knew growing up were “normal” weight when our town did not have ONE SINGLE GYM, most of the adults I knew did not own a pair of sneakers, and no, they weren’t all manual laborers (please–I grew up in a small Southern town full of lawyers, secretaries, teachers, and businessmen). Interestingly enough, the people I did see who were fat belonged to the African-American community down the road; they were the ones who were day laborers and field workers–and by the way, many of those families didn’t own TVs in the 70s. Yes, some of the kids were active; others (me & my friends) were not. But we weren’t fat.

      Fat people don’t want your sympathy. Just an acknowledgement that “thermodynamics” is more complicated than calories in, calories out. Humans are not bomb calorimeters. Calories in-calories out “would make perfect sense if you had a test tube in your belly and a Bunsen burner up your butt,” to quote John Raht. Maybe you do, but I–and most fat people I worked with–don’t. I’m glad your way of doing things works for you. It doesn’t for everyone.

      1. If you ate as little as you claim, and exercise as much as you claim, I think you need to go to the doctor and have your thyroid checked. None of those numbers makes any mathematical sense.

        1. I appreciate your concern. I did exactly what you suggested 14 years ago. The cute little doctor that examined me said there was nothing wrong with my thyroid but that my blood pressure and glucose levels were going up and maybe I should try eating less and exercising more. I have earned a place in my version of heaven (where there is no laundry) for not punching him in the face on the spot.

          This is not a matter of math; it is a matter of biochemistry. (You may be different, but my own pancreas is notoriously bad at math.) For some folks, the eat-less-move-more approach works just fine. For others (me), not so much. I had to change what I was eating, not how much. I actually eat more and exercise less now (so much less, that the time I spend exercising approaches zero on most days) and I maintain a normal weight with ease and without hunger. The calories-in-calories-out notion is right up there with the sun revolving around the earth in terms of things that seem to make such good sense (look! the sun comes up over there! and it goes down over there! and we’re in the middle! Hey, it obvious to anyone with half a brain that the sun goes around the earth every day!!!) but which fail to explain GIANT HUNKS OF REALITY. So, you may want to consider facing forward into the future and contemplating the possibility that calories in/out doesn’t explain a great deal of what is happening in any given individual’s body.

  2. very good text !! so i am from germany ( franconia ). Here in my Region the peoples are obsessed by sausages, roasted beef, beer and many, many more “unhealthy” food. But believe me, it is much better to live with taste and flavour than living a bit longer without the daily pleasure of eating and drinking. We have a speciality here that may be the pure horror for all the people with health-obsession. Take a look at that http://www.schaeufele.de Greatings from the pork-eaters-heaven 🙂

    1. OOO–YUMMY! We had that while we were in Germany. It was scrumptious–and of course, not unhealthy at all (now, the potato knodel, that may be a different story). But you are right. Healthy or unhealthy, it is better to have a life than a “diet.” Luckily, it doesn’t take too much effort to figure out how to have both: get your animal products from close to home; use the fat that these animals naturally create; and enjoy your colorful veggies in abundance (because if you put fat on your veggies, they are actually pretty awesome!). Vary as you see fit. Not much more complicated than that. Thanks so much for the link and your perspective!

      1. I have to say thanks for the opportunitiy to train my ( limited ) english-skills here. I guess the main difference is not the food but the soft-drinks which make people fatter. Europeans prefer less sweet soft drinks than the us. Every time when i am in USA and i place my order with an ” no ice please” i realise that, for example, a coke is so much sweeter than in Germany. But that is absolutely necessary cause very cold drinks need more sugar to get the taste. What i miss here is the great BBQ-Cultur of the States ! I also had some superb american food in little restaurants in the middle of nowhere.

        1. You’re right about sweet drinks here in the US. My kids commented on the less-sweet taste of soda in Germany–the no ice thing makes sense.
          Yes, we are big fans of the BBQ culture here, too! Eastern North Carolina, where I grew up, considers itself the home of pit-roasted pork BBQ (we can be very snobby about it). New Orleans has a great meat heritage too. We love the andouille and boudin (which are kinds of sausage) when we visit there.
          PS – Your English is excellent!

  3. I think the Europeans get away with eating bread because they’re still eating so much animal. I strongly believe we are what is called a facultative carnivore, which means that we are not obligate carnivores–we can get by without meat for a while and not die–but that ultimately we are at our very best when meat’s a part of our diet. Not just the muscle either, but the fat and organs as well, especially liver. Which I hate, but it’s interesting to me that while no two traditional cultures seem to agree on which parts of an animal are appropriate to eat, nearly all or all of them agree that liver is sacred and special. I don’t think that’s an accident.

    Also I think that foods can be loosely classified as either nourishing foods, or displacing foods. Eating too much of a displacing food leaves you less room for the nourishing foods and it can even take away from what nutrition you *do* get from the nourishing foods. I.e., the effect of carbohydrate consumption on B vitamin reserves is well-known among scientists by now. And excess fiber consumption takes away from mineral absorption. Again, if we go back and look at traditional European diets, they eat a lot more nourishing foods (animal foods, primarily) than we do, and somehow I think it balances out the displacing foods like bread.

    Even with the Mediterranean diet, the actual one, not the trendy American version? Mediterranean people usually eat a lot of *pork.* No surprise they’re living longer.

    P.S. Go to the USDA nutrition database and look up lard. It’s actually not all that saturated. Less than half of it is. It’s something like 45% saturated, 45% monounsaturated and maybe 10% polyunsaturated, give or take (I may be off by a few percentage points). Contrasted with butter or coconut oil which are over 90% saturated. Although those are good for you as well.

    1. You are right about the sat fat content of lard. In fact, I like to think of lard as a “whole fat” (akin to the notion of “whole grain”); it supplies an array of fatty acids from which the body can then choose the ones it needs. (The phrase “whole fat” is the brainchild of Allison Boomer, RD.)

      I also very much agree with your take on how eating nourishing foods seems to counterbalance the stuff that isn’t. That’s the premise of my approach to nutrition in general. Get what you need first.

      My dad has successfully maintained normal blood sugars for about 5 years now, after a diagnosis of prediabetes. He eats eggs and veggies for breakfast, meat and veggies for lunch, and whatever garbage my mom serves him for dinner. I think he’s able to “handle” the evening meal better because his body is not having to struggle for nutrition and glucose control all day long. Just my own hypothesis.

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