A recent article in Time titled “Why Are Southerners So Fat?" finally sums up very well what I have been saying for years regarding obesity. The article compares obesity rates and lifestyles between Northern and Southern States in America, which reveals some very interesting points regarding the reasons behind obesity.
First of all I would like to point out that rising obesity rates are not isolated to the USA. Australia has experienced alarming increases in recent years and is almost on par with US rates. In fact many Western nations like America and Australia are experiencing this trend and it largely appears to be caused by our lifestyles.
This was highlighted to me most starkly when I spent a year living and studying in Japan in 2006. Without any conscious effort on my part, I realized after living in Japan for less than 6 months that I had lost probably about 20 pounds(10kgs) and dropped a few sizes so that none of my clothes fitted me. I had not taken up any diet other than switching to Japanese food, certainly had not cut back on my beer and alcohol intake, and went to the gym even less than when I had lived in Australia. Of course, upon returning to Australia and also spending a 3 month holiday in America, I returned to my previous weight in about one year.
This troubled me and since then I have considered the dilemma many times. Really what it came down to was that I made a complete lifestyle change while living in Japan. I did not own a car and so rode a bike or walked every where I went. I started eating the local cuisine and while I never limited the amount I ate consciously, the servings were smaller and I found my body slowly adapted to the smaller portions. There was also a tendency to eat a variety of dishes with smaller portions each meal which made me feel fuller faster. Added to this was the fact that I ate with chopsticks all the time and so ate meals more slowly. Since living in America, I also realized that the Japanese diet consisted of far less sugar than we consume in many Western countries.
While I now am well aware of what it was that allowed me to lose weight so easily I am still overweight. However, as the Time article points out, I do not believe citizens are completely to blame for their rising obesity rates. First of all, our restaurants and grocery stores are not conducive to eating healthily. Portions in most restaurants are more than ample, contain much sugar and sodium, and generally encourage overeating. Secondly, while I would be interested in riding my bike or walking more to work, this proves almost impossible and for many downright dangerous. Public transport is dismal and sidewalks and bikepaths are grossly inadequate.
Some would say that it all comes down to a matter of willpower and choice. It is each person’s responsibility to take the necessary actions to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. However, my experience in Japan has taught me that it is not as simple and straightforward as this. As I previously stated, there was no conscious effort on my part to be healthy.
I strongly believe that there are actions Western societies can take to help their communities to live better lives. Increasing access to public transport and improving pedestrian and bike accessibility is high on that list. This has the added benefit of reducing air pollution and reducing consumption of fossil fuels and other valuable resources. There also needs to be community campaigns to educate people about better diets. As people become more aware of what and how they eat there will also be pressure placed on restaurants and grocery stores to fall in line with public needs.
This will be a long and slow process and to begin with will have high costs for federal and local governments. However, the significant savings in health costs from lowering obesity rates will far outweigh these initial increased costs. Unfortunately, as with many other issues in the US, prevention rather than cure is rarely the priority of any government policy. It is clear that while a lifestyle change is what is needed to lower obesity, a complete change in the way we think will be required before we can ever achieve healthy lifestyles in America.