Letter from America

Letter from AmericaHaving just returned from a family holiday in Florida, I felt compelled to write about my experiences. Don’t worry it won’t be a boring slide show of everything we did (although I was very proud to have conquered my fear of rollercoasters!). The reason why I wanted to put this article together was because of FOOD….something the Americans do with the same gusto as their rollercoaster’s – the bigger the better!

As a nutritionist from the UK, visiting America is a bit like a health and safety officer visiting a poorly managed building site – you’re surrounded by people doing things that go against everything you’ve ever been taught or practised. From HUGE, and I mean HUGE portions, to small fizzy drinks served in vast, supersize cups with free refills. And then there are the people…..so I thought it was worth putting down into words what I saw, and how it made me take stock of my own health, that of my family, and the advice that I offer to others.

America ObesityAmerica – the land of the free

The United States of America has the highest obesity rate in the developed world. Levels of obesity now sit at over 35% of the population. With a total population of around 313 million, that’s nearly 110 million people who are obese…..scary statistics! That’s more than the total population of the UK! With obesity, unfortunately, tends to come health problems and so the USA are facing a massive public health crisis.

Spending time in the USA got me thinking about obesity, and what is causing this global epidemic and hitting the USA so hard. I also started to compare what we have here in the UK, and the possibility that we’re heading the same way. So here are my thoughts about what might be causing the problem:-

1) Portion Sizes

After a few days of over-ordering, and lots of waste, we soon realised that ordering a starter before our meal was a big no-no. Starters (often deep fried) turned up on huge plates – enough for a family of 6 to share, sold as a starter for 1. In the majority of ‘chain’ restaurants, portions were far bigger than we’d get back in the UK. Most foods were served with fries, and often with a complimentary salad too. One meal in particular, was a grilled steak, fries and said complimentary salad. Yum I thought – just right for what I fancied, and with a salad too to watch those calories. The meal turned up – a vast lump of steak, pile of fries and a separate pasta-sized dish full of salad, drowned in Caesar Dressing. Unnecessary portions, and a whole lot of waste. Looking around the restaurant I noticed the locals were polishing off their plates – or taking it home in a doggy bag!

At Nutracheck we know how portion sizes can affect calorie intake – weighing everything you eat really makes you think about what you’re eating, and cutting back.

2) Choices

America Fast FoodI was pleased to see ‘under 500 calories’ menus in a couple of places we visited but generally the menus were burgers, steaks, deep fried….and everything served with chips. But it was the kids menu’s that disappointed me the most – my kids love fast food once in a while (and I’m not adverse to them having it) but at every meal for 3 weeks? Perhaps a bit too much! Unless we were in a ‘higher end’ restaurant, the only kids’ options were burgers, chicken tenders, steak, pizza….all served with chips! Even in the theme parks where ‘healthy options’ were available, meals were almost always served with a fizzy drink and fries.

I was shocked at the lack of vegetables – none of the meals I ordered were served with vegetables as the norm. By week 2, I was craving a floret of broccoli or a nice pile of steamed carrots.

Salads in the US are amongst the best in the world and I was pleased to find a few restaurants with delicious salads on their menus. In one particular restaurant, I ordered a Cobb Salad as my main course but the waiter couldn’t understand that I just didn’t want anything else, and that was my meal! I was made to feel like I was asking for something really unusual – obviously their normal diner would have had that as a starter or a side?

3) Walking

Now I don’t know about you, but here in the UK I try and walk wherever I can, whether it’s taking the kids to school, or popping to the shops. I’m lucky to live in walking distance to most local amenities and make a point of using my legs when I can. In the USA, at least where we were staying, there was no opportunity to walk. In fact, you would be taking your life in your hands if you did. There are very few pedestrian crossings, and most roads are dual carriageways. A short trip to the supermarket couldn’t physically be done on foot, we had to take the car…no option. So if you live in the USA full time, do you just not walk anywhere? Unless you actively seek exercise, perhaps it’s just not part of Americans’ day to day activities?

4) Normal

I don’t like the word ‘normal’ – what does it really mean? But I found that we were the ‘abnormal’ ones….the majority of Americans that we came across either in the theme parks, in restaurants or in shops, were overweight or obese. Quite shocking to me, was that this is just accepted as the ‘norm’. There was even a special queue for some of the rides for people who didn’t fit in the normal seats.

PedometerThere’s a lot of walking to be done in the theme parks – one of my party had a pedometer and recorded a distance of almost 10 miles walked in one particular day (and it was over 100 degrees so calories must have been burned!). But there were a huge number of very overweight / obese people in mobility scooters. I obviously don’t know whether they had medical reasons for using the scooters, but surely their weight had a bearing on it? They couldn’t possibly have walked that far, especially in the heat.

So are the American’s sitting back and accepting that obesity is the new normal? It’s OK to have to use a mobility scooter to get around? How would we feel about this in the UK?

Back home – a time to reflect…

So what does this all mean? Here in the UK I can walk where I want, when I want, and although I encounter people of all shapes and sizes, I don’t get an overwhelming feeling that it’s the norm. Obesity rates in the UK are at an all-time high – in fact 61% of adults and 30% of children aged 2-15 are overweight or obese, and 1 in 4 (around 25%) are classed as obese, so we definitely do have a public health problem. On the flip side, food choices and portion sizes are certainly better than in the USA at the moment, but we have the potential to go the same way.

I’m always pleased to see new initiatives to help people reach a healthy weight, and many UK restaurants now offer healthy options, or smaller portions sizes – and you’re not made to feel awkward or unusual if you choose them. We are getting much better at understanding health and how it is directly linked to how we treat our bodies – maintaining a healthy weight, being as active as possible and enjoying life are all key steps in taking control and not letting the UK head down the same road as the USA.

I thoroughly enjoyed my holiday in America, but I was very glad to come back to home cooking, ‘normal’ portions, eating vegetables and keeping my feet firmly on the ground! Surprisingly I lost 4lbs in weight during my time in America – although most of that was probably down to the 10 mile walk every day, and perspiration!

2 Comments

  • Deborah Edwards says:

    Why is it that all Brits thinks that they are superior to everyone else especially Americans. As an American living in London I find your opinion naive. I suspect that while you were holidaying in my beautiful country you sayed in hotels and ate all of your meals at resturants. Personally I find it fairly difficult to make all the right healthy choices when all my meals are eaten out even in London where I love living.

    My husband just finished 10 days with his visiting American boss. They entertained at all meals over this period and his description of the food options was not dissimilar to yours. When his boss left we resumed our healthy eating programme and he lost the weight he had gained. My point is that sensationalising the US diet is the wrong thing to do. The UK HAS ITS OWN OBESITY ISSUES and pretending it is a far more giganic problem in the US will not help the UK address their own issues.

    As it happens the majority of Americans in the US are not obese. Those that you came across were on holiday like you and the choices available on the run and in theme parks is fast food. Guess what. It is the same at Thrope Park! Actually the majority of Americans cook at home and most of the time, cook their own meals and eat as healthly as you do at home I suspect!

    The US OBESITY RATE IN THE US IS 35.7%. just 10% more than the UK. Let’s stop pointing at those poor Americans and address our own obesity issue here. Apologies if I sound harsh but this sort of stereotyping makes me see red.

    • Janet Aylott says:

      Thanks for your comments – I can assure that I wasn’t trying to stereotype all Americans through writing this blog and I’m sorry if that’s the way it came over. It was purely my personal observations of my time in one area of the US, and my experiences of the food that was on offer. I completely agree that this isn’t a true reflection of Americans in their normal day to day lives, and yes, we were on holiday so eating out and enjoying everything that your country has to offer. I also agree that America is a beautiful country, and one that I enjoy visiting immensely. Hope I’ve set the record straight there!

      My comments were based on what I saw in my time there – which was larger portions, less activity and noticeably more overweight people, than I do in my everyday life in the UK. I wasn’t saying we don’t have a problem in the UK – far from it – I have worked as a nutritionist in the UK for over 15 years and am very aware of the daily struggles we have. The UK is far from perfect, but I can see us heading exactly the same way with obesity levels increasing to the same level as the US unless we take control of things now.

      Restaurants in the UK, on the whole, do offer smaller portion sizes and in recent years have many more healthy choices. Maybe it was the restaurants I went to in the US, but this didn’t seem to be the case there. The case of your husband eating out for several days in London and returning to his normal diet makes complete sense – eating out all the time whether in London or Orlando may lead to weight gain. Eating out every night is not normal life for most of us, and I completely agree that my time in the US isn’t a reflection of what most Americans encounter everyday – that’s wasn’t what I was trying to say.

      I am, in fact, a New Zealand born Brit, where obesity rates are worryingly high too – so obesity isn’t just an American and UK problem, but it’s something that we need to tackle globally to try and find a solution. My point was really that we should learn from situations that are not helping to reverse the trend.

      I can only apologise if you felt that I had stereotyped all Americans in my blog post – this wasn’t at all intentional.

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