Land of the Giants

MisssyM, a UK blogger,  did a post recently on obesity and who or what is to blame. At one point she says:

… I never really saw horrendously morbidly obese people until I worked in New Orleans in 1990. I was shocked and horrified at how human beings could morph into the size these people were. I genuinely had never seen people who looked like that before. And I live in Scotland home of the sliced sausage and the deep fried pizza!  

This twigged dozens of comments (she has a hefty UK readership base), about similar experiences while visiting North America:

…I have to agree with the US portions thing. When one of us ordered Lasagna in Las Vegas, it was immense. Huge. We thought we’d accidentally ordered for all 6 of us.

…Re Americans eating huge amounts. I think it is just a part of their psychology – everything has to be bigger and they always expect the biggest. Like many drive Mini Vans and SUVS. Also the idea of a ‘normal’ house is four or five times what we would have in the UK, it is ‘normal’ to have a triple garage and also to have a bathroom for every bedroom (why??) – The average American uses six times the world average amount of energy! And then they use environmentally friendly light bulbs to ‘save energy’…right!

…Americans these days wouldn’t recognize real food if they saw it! They are addicted to the substances added to fast foods and they literally live to eat

…When I visited the States last year, I was shocked at the poor quality of food in restaurants! And these people love it! They lap it up!

…Every occasion in the USA is an opportunity to pig out. Valentine’s Day is all about chocolate, Superbowl is spicy chicken wings and beer, St. Patrick’s Day is green beer, corned beef and potatoes, Easter is lamb and chocolate, Independence Day is barbeque, summer is for ice cream, Halloween is tons of candy, Thanksgiving is turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas is cookies, chocolate, cake, eggnog, turkey, pudding, etc. And the eating is not restricted to the day in question; it can start two weeks before the event and continue for two weeks after.

 …The portions are huge and so are the patrons. The two of us would have struggled to finish one plateful, never mind the side salads.

… The reason why the problem with obesity is so incredibly bad in the U.S. is that they have a completely different view on food (and a lot of other stuff). Quantity is valued more than quality.

 I found these comments so extremely interesting; I had to copy them here. We don’t even think about our penchant for quantity over quality anymore. (And Canada is not so different from the US on this). It all seems normal. We think it’s our god-given right to own a 4,000++++ sq. ft. home with a 3-car garage filled with 2 SUVs and a mountain of stuff we’ve bought, but don’t use.

In the 1950s the average North American home was less than 1000 square feet and our families were bigger. Less than 10% of the population was obese compared to 64.5% today. (Sixty-four point five!!! And not just overweight, but obese! That’s horrifying!) Our grocery stores used to be the size that our convenience stores are today. Now our grocery stores take up a few city blocks.

We get insanely angry when gas prices creep up a bit even though they’re still a fraction of what most of the rest of the world is paying. And we use 80% of the world’s natural resources, although we represent only 16% of the world’s population.

We’re all crying the blues now because the economy is taking a nose-dive — which has almost everything to do with the fact that we’re greedy, gluttonous hyper-consumer pigs who buy, buy, buy even if we have to borrow, borrow, borrow to pay for all our stuff.

We’re gnashing our teeth because our dollars don’t stretch as far as they used to and we have to work more to make ends meet. That’s because our ends are so damn wide and our dollars have to stretch to so much crap — a TV in every room, electronic gadgets in every hand, the latest, the greatest, the biggest and the most ostentatious of everything.

Meanwhile, two in three people worldwide lack access to clean water and survive on less than $2 a day.


39 responses to “Land of the Giants

  1. I know I gained 20 kilo’s when I spent a year in the States. And I was not skinny before. I didn’t really notice the weight gain, either, because a) I was constantly buying cheap clothes, b) the sizes were different, and c) it seemed I wasn’t the only fat cow around.

    I am fat now, as well, but I definitely notice it more in Germany, since buying larger clothes is much more of a hassle than it was in the States.

    I constantly remind myself what a great life we get to lead here in Europe. I own an apartment. I have a job. I can afford to have Starbucks coffee. I have friends and family close by. I can afford taking my critters to the vet. No one is blowing up my city. Water comes from the faucet. Life is good.

    I am off to now to place another micro loan. Thanks for reminding me that we are blessed.

  2. our first home was a little bungalow, very modest, 2 bathroom, three bedroom. the seller (original owner) raised her family of 6 in that house. they weren’t poor. this was the norm for our old ‘hood. do we just have more “stuff” now that makes us think we need more space? how did they do it? as soon as we had our second baby we felt cramped and felt the need to move.

    as for portions, i’ll never forget being pregnant in new orleans, looking for healthy food, and seeing the servers reactions in restaurants when i asked for something that wasn’t deep fried. they just didn’t get it. when i asked the hotel concierge for a vegetarian restaurant he scratched his head and came up with nothing (and we were staying at a 5 star hotel). just a different mentality i guess.

    i totally forgot to ask about your tooth sitch! i’ll get on that today and report back.

  3. I agree-Many North Americans and the culture are all about consume, consume, consume. However, some of us are trying to avoid falling into that trap. I don’t live in a big house, I buy recycled items such as clothing, am very strict with energy consumption and try to eat healthy, local food. 🙂 Also, there are a lot of morbidly obese people in the UK and Australia, maybe not as many as in North America, but still, they are there too. 🙂

  4. You would think that the global financial crisis would be a giant wake-up call to the world that our current economy of buy! buy! consume! consume! is not sustainable, and maybe we should all (governments, unions, people) take this opportunity to make it over into something that would benefit all of us, plus the developing countries, and the planet.

    But sadly, it’s all about stimulating the economy and getting back to business as usual – gettin’ everyone to buy a new car, or head to Costco for some patio furniture to replace last year’s patio furniture, which is the wrong colour now for 2009. It bugs me that peoople don’t learn from their mistakes.

  5. Gila – I wasn’t suggesting that the UK/Europe was more “blessed” than North America. We all have our positives and negatives.

    Meanie – Unfortunately, Canada has just as many issues as the US. Outside of our major cities you’d be hard pressed sometimes to find a vegetarian meal or a menu that doesn’t heavily feature deep fried foods. And yes, the era of the 2-bedroom bungalow definitely didn’t have as much stuff. A couple would share one small closet. Kids had a “toy chest” that held all the toys for all the kids in the family. People had maybe one car and a small tv in the living room. One big black wall phone. The kids had one outfit for school, one for church and one for play.

    Hannah – Yes, there are overweight people everywhere. The North American lifestyle is spreading – our fast food joints are springing up all over the world. France has actually tried to legislate against having North American fast food restaurants. US is seen as the ultimate in decadent/luxurious living, so of course, others want to emulate them. Countries where people have nothing are using their limited resources to raise cattle so the wealthy can eat steak –like Americans.

    Sky Girl – You should be proud of your tiny house and tiny car. I, too, would like more – but not necessarily more stuff. Even if I had tons of money, I can’t see spending it on a gigantic house. I’d rather spend it on travel and other intangibles like that.

    Alison – Oh, I know. Every once in a while, when something like this happens I think maybe things will change, but they don’t. I’d think with all the issues with products coming out of China, we’d cut back on the consumption of crap, but we don’t. I thought with the mad cow thing, we’d think long and hard about the whole livestock/consumption of meat, but we didn’t. I thought when gas prices were way, way up people would drive less or buy smaller cars, but they didn’t — they just complained more. I guess we don’t want to wake up from our little fantasy of living in the land of unlimited resources in a world where only those with the most stuff are important.

  6. We live in an apartment built in 1912. Rooms are small, there’s 1 bathroom and it’s plenty for the two of us.

    I have a friend in the States who has a one bedroom apartment with TWO batrhooms! I mean, what the hell?!?! She tells me this is the norm. It’s crazy…

    I actually went to a restaurant once where I asked if they could cut my portion in half, while I’d pay full price, simply because I knew I couldn’t eat all the food. The answer: No, we can’t do that, people would see your plate and think we’re not serving enough food. How dam stupid IS that?

  7. Argh. Dont’ get me started.

    I’m so sick and tired of do-gooders, bitching about the “epidemic” of obesity, like it’s someone’s elses fault.

    I, for one…have a weight problem. Yes, it’s a constant personal battle. Yes, it’s somethign I’ll always have to deal with. Ever since I was a teenager.

    Yet who’s to blame?

    Is it my genes? (Is it my fault I can’t burn off food as quickly as skinny people?)

    Is it the EVIL fast-food chains with their “Supersize” meals, forcing their grease down my throat?

    Is it our fast-paced life-style, with our drive-thrus’ and SUV’s and processed foods?

    Is it our technological society, with our computers and video games, discouraging us from going outside and excercicing?

    No…the blame lies on ME.

    I’m not afraid to admit it.

    I eat too much. And/or don’t cook enough at home. And/or dont’ excercise enough.

    And I’ll bet dollars to donuts (pun intended), that this probably applies to 99% of all obese people, too.

    WE’RE responsible for our bodies…NOT the rest of society.

  8. Dave – Ah yes, I remember you have a thing about HFCS. It’s a bastard all right, but can it be blamed for urban sprawl?

    Jazz – 1912? Sounds like it might have a hell of a lot of character. I don’t get the giant homes either. Who does all that cleaning? The window treatments alone would bankrupt me. And food portions? Why is it that whenever you get an omelets in a restaurant it’s made with 3 eggs? Who eats 3 eggs at a time?

    Friar – Yes it is your fault, BUT if all you had available to you was good, healthy, non-processed food you might never have gotten into this cycle in the first place. If there were no fast-food chains? If the grocery store didn’t carry frozen meals, but only natural ingredients? If there were no drive-thrus? If there was nothing to do from noon until 2:00 every day except relax and enjoy your lunch. If the infrastructure didn’t demand that everyone had to own a car? If everything you needed to accomplish most days was within walking distance? Of course we still choose our lifestyles, but it takes a lot of knowledge, discipline and determination to live in this society and eat properly and get an appropriate amount of exercise and not get caught up in the whirlwind of faster = better.

    Lesley – It IS a big statistic to wrap anything around. And so sad, because a whole bunch of these are kids who don’t even stand a chance anymore. They’re saying we may be the first generation whose lifespan will exceed that of our children – because our children are in such bad shape.

  9. It’s funny that obesity has become the norm. I’m on the edge of obesity, with a body mass index of around 25, yet I’m told that I’m “skinny.” We’re just so used to seeing overweight people that we assume that’s a natural size.

    Traveling through Japan, Romania, and France put that into perspective. Not only were the portions smaller (ie, much closer to a healthy size), but the people were leaner as well. Seeing what healthy people look like, it’s easy to see where the fat north american stereotype comes from.


  10. @XUP

    I dunno….there’s nothing prevent me (or most other people), right now…. from eating healthier, from cooking our own food from scratch. And watching every morsel we eat. And ditching the car and walking everywhere.

    The resources are there…if we chose to use them. It’s just a matter of putting in the time and effort

    …But do I want to spend a big chunk of my time walking to the market and buying the right groceries, and spending several hours a day chained to the kitchen?

    Or do I just want to get the quick and easy food, and take the time to focus on my other interests in my life? Like writing, outdoor activities, excercise, artwork, etc…even watching TV

    It’s a matter or personal choice. I chose the latter.

    Not saying that it’s necessarily the right decision, nutrition-wise.

    But regardless, this lifestyle choice is still 100% my responsibility.

  11. Erigami – Thanks for that perspective. It’s interesting to that you noticed a difference going there, not just them coming here.

    Friar – I’m not disputing that we all still have choices. I’m just saying if you had no other option but to cook your own food, then the whole thing would be moot. Personally, I think it’s really sad that something so important as the very stuff that keeps us going, fuels our bodies and brains is something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible, with no attention to quality, nutrition or harm it might be doing to us. With the right shopping habits, it doesn’t take that long to prepare meals at home. By the time you get dressed, drive to Burger Sloth, place your order, wait for your order, snarf down your pseudo-food and drive home again, you could easily have made yourself a delicious meal at home and enjoyed it in a relaxing atomosphere. And you pay several times over for poor eating habits now and in the future. Your food should be chosen more carefully than you choose anything else you buy. It should be enjoyed with pleasure and attention to taste, texture, colour, scent. In some countries people grow up with an attitude like this toward food — one of life’s greatest pleasure. In other countries the attitude is getting as much as possible for the least amount of money in the least amount of time and getting it down you as quickly as possible.

  12. Not that it matters, but my state (Colorado…well, it’s not my state. I’m not really responsible for it, thank goodness! Ha.) is the leanest state in the US. And, we still have a 17% obesity rate.

    (There is a complete list on WebMD.)

    For our sake and the sake of my daughter, we try to make good choices for food, try to stay active, and not slip into the excess mentality. But, we have the time, money and opportunity to do so. To a certain extent, it’s all about choices.

    Sometimes I wonder how people can let themselves get into such a situation, but I have a feeling it’s like that little frog who tolerates the water in the pot as it gets warmer and warmer, not realizing that it will be boiling soon enough.

  13. @XUP

    You say we “should” chose food carefully, and “should” emjoy it.

    Yeah, but those are YOUR values.

    So many families put a HUGE emphasis on the Kitchen and the whole Meal-Time ritual. By the time all is said and done, and all the dishes are washed, you’ve used almost 2 hours of your day for one meal. (Sometimes more!)

    That’s fine…but not all of us are like that. Some of us HATE preparing food, find it stressful, and would much rather do other things.

    Say it’s a beautiful summer evening…the fish are biting, the water is calm. At the last minute, I decide I want to take my canoe out. I only have a window of a couple of hours to capture this opportunity after work, before it gets dark.

    But I’m hungry, I need to eat something.

    Well, I can go home, make a salad, cook some pasta, put out napkins, wash the dishes, relax…have coffee….feed the budgie, water the cat..and burn valuable dayilght and miss out on half the evening.

    Or I can run into Burger Sloth…get some quick burgers which I eat driving to the lake.

    So yeah…food wise this wan’t great. But stress-relief wise, and fun-wise, I’m way ahead. I’m maximizing the time I spend outdoors doing what I want to do, relaxing and enjoying the fish.

    I dunno…as a bachelor who hates to cook, all I can say THANK GOD for President’s Choice food. AND Burger Sloth. 🙂

    Anyway, good discussion, here.

  14. The response I got to this post completely blew me away. Do you know that when I wrote it, I expected to be heartily and roundly criticized. I expected to be called “sizist” yet only one person (who interestingly is the only person who commented whom I know personally) did that. Yet, I gave a very hardline and purposefully one sided view on obesity. A lot of people who claimed to be “obese” agreed with my hardline assessment.

    I also expected US citizens to wade in and defend their country- they did not do that. In fact my US visitors gave me a great deal of insight into attitudes to food and excess in the USA (and Canada, by way of your comment, XUP) and severely criticized the US way of life.

    Another thing which did not happen was no-one pointed a finger at the Scottish bad diet- famed throughout Europe and butt of many English comedians’ jokes? They could have.

    As you say it is a small part of a wider debate about excess and waste. And we’re all suffering the fallout on that at the moment- no matter where you’re from.

    The debate on this will go on and on. It is tremendously interesting and possibly the nub of the current human condition, I think.

  15. Can I also point out to Geewits that I do not smell, have fairly nice clean teeth and do not base my life on an Austin Powers movie! (although sometimes I wish i did)

    I do however, live in a castle with ghosts, go pheasant shooting at the weekend and worship the Royal Family (to whom I am distantly related). What ho!

  16. No! I did not mean that we are blessed in Europe in comparison to the States! I meant the Western world in general, compared to all the people living in poverty. I love the States…

    I actually think the difference between the States and Europe is being reduced by globalization. Germany actually has the highest obesity rate in Europe. And with more and more chain stores, it really doesn’t matter where you live anymore, chances are you will be living in the same kind of furniture and wearing he same brand names. One of the reasons why I am a huge fan of Etsy, by the way.

    Considering that we supposedly have a financial crisis on our hands, I was shocked at the revenue generated during Xmas, and the millions spent on fireworks. Starbucks is still going strong, with 7$ a coffee. How bad can it be?

    What annoys me most is that our environmentally “aware” government is currently urging people to buy cars, spending tax money on subventions. I can somehow understand that the automotive industry is important for the economy, but how sick is it to suddenly tell people to buy cars, when for years we have been told to take public transport and save the environment? Still waiting for the campaign that urges people to smoke more… same thought.

    I don’t even have a driver’s license. I live in a major city with awesome public transport and a dependable cab system. Gas prices are usually three times as high as they are in the States, there is no parking anywhere close to my place… I never wanted or needed a car. My place is tiny, but I own it. I also have a bike and I walk a lot. My favorite shopping is on Etsy, and I am really trying to consume less… but it is hard a times.

  17. Well, that’s not true of every American — we don’t have a tv, we drive a 1987 VW bus, and we pride ourselves on wasting not one bite of food. And we’re not fat. Generalizations are tricky . . .

  18. CP – Good analogy. I think it’s difficult when the temptation is all around you to overindulge and the education to the contrary is not.

    Friar – I think it’s a bit more than just my values — it’s also medically sound. But you’re right, everyone is perfectly free to make their own choices and set their own priorities.

    Geewits – Ha ha. Like I said to Gila – we have issues on this side of the pond and they have a whole other set of issues on their side.

    MisssyM – At 64 point something percent, obesity is a big problem that’s only getting worse, so it’s difficult to defend. The other stuff about the rest of North America’s penchant for excess has got to be geographically based. We have so much damn space, so we have to fill it up.

    Gila – I have lots of relatives in Germany, so I know very well that keeping trim is not a national trait. (ha ha) And yes, I’m appalled too that people are being urged to buy cars again. Didn’t we just have a big gas crisis less than a year ago? We seem to have no visionaries in government anymore – no one who can see the big picture. It’s all about knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes. I wish I lived in a city with a reliable and efficient transit system. Something I’m going to remedy as soon as humanly possible.

    Ellie – Ya, you guys are my heroes. No one was suggesting all North Americans are like this. We’re talking averages. The average North American home is 3 or 4 or more times bigger than it used to be and more than the average home in Europe or the UK or most other places. We drive bigger cars than any other continent, we consume more natural resources, we’re fatter on average than other nations, etc., etc. I know very well that there are many who are trying to live a more mindful existence and those who just can’t afford to indulge, but unfortunately they get swallowed up in the averages.

  19. Another thing that has changed is the reason we don’t get as much physical activity, and I’m not talking about planned exercise.

    Back in the day doing the wash meant at best a wringer washer then hanging the clothes on a line. Cleaning the rugs meant hauling them outside and beating on the. Having heat meant chopping wood or hauling coal around. Water meant multiple trips to an outside pump.

    Add modern conveniences to fast food and obesity can easily be the result.

    Larger houses, including the increasingly popular McMansions…don’t get me started 🙂

  20. Jobthingy – You haven’t been keeping your chauffer sweet

    Lesley – Yes, I’m very clever.

    Becky- I’ll never forget reading the whole Little House series to my daughter and the crap they went through. They all lived in a one room log house, spent winters living on stuff the could store from their fall harvest — some winters that meant they ate nothing but potatoes for 4 months, walked miles and miles to town, over the fields, etc.., overcame horrendous diseases and viruses with home rememdies and crossed fingers. And Laura Ingles Wilder lived to be over 100. Her husband (the famous Armando) was 98 when he died. I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything, but I think, as you imply, a lot of our modern conveniences are killing us.

  21. Meant to reply yesterday…. But of course I did not mean that Europe was blessed in comparison to the States! I meant the Western world in general, compared to the billions living in poverty and without water.

    Considering that we supposedly have a financial crisis on our hands, Xmas gifts were as lavish as always, billions were spent on fireworks, and Starbucks is still packed, selling 7$ coffee. At least in Germany.

  22. Hi XUP, first time reading your blog came via a link from Misssy’s fat post to here.

    I’ve not read all of the comments to this point but I just want to make a note about your original post.

    I think you might be the single most enlightened American I’ve read with regards to having an understanding of the world outside *insert state here*. I also think this post shows an understanding of ‘want’ over ‘need’ and I love to see others posting about keeping grounded.

    Now, I don’t particularly think the states have it so hard with gas prices etc, however bearing in mind that you only really know the world that you live in, you can understand when people complain about rising prices/quality of life etc when these things change. They may indeed still be superior to many other parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hit your own personal “world” any less.

    I once got a junkie’s needle stuck in my hand at work, this was a trying time for me and I even had ‘work supplied’ counselling over it. During one of these sessions I told the counsellor how I felt so guilty for feeling depressed/angry/whatever when there are so many people in the world with so much less, I have really so much to be thankful for, other people have far more important issues. She replied with, “but it’s important to YOU”

    In closing, I think that we shouldn’t be too hard on “the ignorant” American(or European for that matter) who moans or whatever, but we should definitely remember how well off we really are!


  23. Billy – Thank you and welcome to the blog. I’m Canadian, not American so that might explain a few things. I also have a European background and family over there, so I get a lot of first-hand accounts of life outside of our glamorous North American bubble. Not everyone is ignorant on this side; there are many grassroots groups trying to effect a change in our”consumptive” mindset, but it isn’t easy. We’ve got a geographically big countries, apparantly unlimited funds and resources so we conduct ourselves accordingly — like pigs at the proverbial trough. Every time I think we’ve had a wake-up call and things might change, I’m disappointed because while we wring our hands in despair for a few days, we’re soon back into our old ruts. Thanks for the very thoughtful comments and I hope you’ll visit again.

  24. Moving from Canada to the States this is what we have found;

    fastfood restaurants offer different sizes here – a medium in the US is a large in Canada; a small is a medium; and so on…

    I can buy a lb of chicken breasts in Canada and get four pieces, in the States I only get three…sometimes only two.

    We have also found that our tastes (as well as beliefs) seem to go more towards the UK than the US. Just because we are next door does not mean that we are so much a like.

    On the other hand, Canada too has a problem with obesity. But I will admit we couldn’t get over the people down here, still can’t. Though when you go to the grocery store and see what people are eating…it makes sense!

  25. Helen – Yes, Canada has a serious problem with obesity, especially among children. I wish we’d follow in the footsteps of our European roots instead of following the lead of the US. But we keep sucking up their McGoodies and Kentucky Fried delights. Thanks for the perspective

  26. I’m in North Carolina and in my experience, many locals are involved in a “less is more” lifestyle. Many are concerned about waste and over-consumption and intentionally live their lives in a manner of caring and awareness. They are concerned with the sustainability of their environments as citizens of their own households, their communities, their countries, and this world.

    Yet many are caught up on the train that is Walmart, fast food, and/or a lifestyle that says a bigger house means is safer and better.

    I and a good part of my countrymen fall somewhere in between these two. Baby steps, people. We’re coming along.

    I believe the internet and forums like this contribute to our communal fellowship. These opportunities to know each other only improve our chances for understanding, higher awareness, and change.

    I really enjoyed reading this post and its comments.

  27. Laura – Thanks very much for that perspective. I know there are some very progressive communities in the US — even more so than in Canada. The whole intentional community, organic farming thing is much bigger in the US than here. It’s too bad the overall statistics don’t reflect that because in the grand scheme of things, people trying to live a mindful existence are very much in the minority. It’s difficult with all the societal pressure to have lots of stuff and to have bigger and better and more stuff all the time. As you say…baby steps

  28. i am grateful that i’m not in the majority with the spend, spend, spend, and keeping up with the damned jones’s.

    growing up very poor, i learned the value in things and i am grateful for this. who’s to say if i’d grown up rich that i’d be any different? i dunno.

    excess anything tends to give me the creeps. i’m not sure it’s a regional thing as much as it’s almost a family value that gets handed down to each new generation. sad, i know.