Why are Americans so fat?


Only one week back in Japan and I have already had an argument with two other teachers! Still, the argument was quite civilised and I am still on friendly terms with both of them.

In the staff room on Friday the two American teachers, a white man and a black woman, were talking about how fat some Americans are. The lady opined that an NGO should be set up to give out fresh vegetables in poor areas. I asked if there weren’t any grocery shops in poor areas where people could buy fresh meat and vegetables. Both teachers swore that there weren’t. I said in that case there probably wasn’t much demand for fresh produce in those areas. More likely is that fat people simply prefer junk food and don’t have the self-control to eat healthily. If there were a genuine demand for fresh vegetables and meat where they live then some prospective grocer would already have opened a shop there.

The two teachers insisted that there was indeed a demand for fresh produce but that it was just too expensive for poor people. Also fresh vegetables go off quickly and thus sometimes have to be thrown away, a waste that poor people can’t afford. Besides all this, poor people are far too busy to cook a healthy meal. They have their hands full with working long hours, paying the rent, looking after their families and generally being busy in a way that middle-class people apparently aren’t.

I don’t know about America but I know that in England and Japan fresh meat and vegetables are no more expensive than junk food. In fact the opposite is probably true; ready meals tend to be more expensive. Apart from that you can always buy frozen vegetables which, in all but a few cases, are just as nutritious as fresh vegetables. I buy half a kilo of green beans, egg plant, mushrooms, and various other vegetables, each for 165 yen (£1.10 or $1.50) at my local supermarket. Apart from that, if you find that you are putting on weight but you can’t afford to eat healthily, then just eat less of what you are eating! After all, the main problem is that you are taking in more calories than you are burning off. So just eat two Big Macs instead of four and a small chocolate milkshake instead of a large. This way you lose weight and the $3 you save can be spent on those exorbitantly expensive vegetables you allegedly can’t afford. Win-win!

The male teacher claimed that education was also part of the problem and that some people simply don’t know what is healthy and what isn’t. I actually find this hard to believe. Are there really people in the First World who still don’t know that sweet and fatty foods make you put on weight? If there are then maybe they shouldn’t be walking around unsupervised. However, I think it more likely ‘food education’ is just one more of those patronising ideas that university-educated liberals use to excuse all kinds of bad behaviour. Next they will be claiming that if we don’t show people how to put one foot in front of another no one will know how to walk.

The man also claimed that because the corn syrup industry is so heavily subsidized by the American government corn syrup finds its way into all kinds of food where it doesn’t belong, including cheap meat and vegetables, thereby rendering them unhealthy. I’m not sure that I believe this: corn syrup in chicken and broccoli? However, he led the discussion off at a weird tangent before I could express my doubts.

The lady said that people naturally prefer to eat healthy food so something must be forcing them onto a bad diet. This is clearly not true. As a child I had to be made to eat vegetables and even now I only eat them because they are good for me, not because I like them. In truth many people are like me and like sweet and fatty foods. Evolution designed us this way because such high-calorie foods were an exception in the ancestral environment and had to be wolfed down at every rare opportunity. Fortunately or unfortunately, such food is no longer rare, there being a McDonald’s and a sweet shop on every corner. However, some people have never developed the self-control to resist what tastes good but is bad for them. This was the main thrust of my argument.

The lady main argument was that society had been intentionally designed to disadvantage certain sections of society. My heart sank at this. People never fail because of their own poor decisions, they always fail because of the maliciousness of others. While I would no doubt be considered heartless for having very little sympathy with obese people, this lady would probably be considered ‘caring’ precisely because she attributes the failure of some in our society to the evil motives of others. My guess is that these alleged victims of this allegedly rigged system are black Americans (she studied African-American studies at university).

Equally depressing was that the man deflected a simple discussion about why people get fat onto the evils of gerrymandering, the military-industrial complex and how vested interests work hand-in-hand with career politicians. I suddenly found myself cast in the role of defender of crooked politicians and subsidized industries, none of which I support, when all I wanted to say was that people should take responsibility for their own damned diet.