Excess and the Culture of Obesity


Newsweek, September 2008

*Note: This article originally appared in the September 2008 issue of Newsweek. 

Just because many Americans have come to accept being overweight doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to.

By: Mireille Guiliano

*Note: This article originally appared in the September 2008 issue of Newsweek. 

Just because many Americans have come to accept being overweight doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to.

By: Mireille Guiliano

America gives the world many things—movies, pop culture, fast food, airplanes, military equipment—but the culture of obesity is turning out to be its leading export.  When I wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat, I thought I was writing a cross-cultural comparison of eating between America and France. Thirty-seven languages, thousands of articles, e-mails, and continuing interviews from all around the world, I have come to understand that the causes and effects of poor eating have no borders.

There is no country without fat people, even France with its still low obesity figures: 10 percent women, 11 percent men (and I believe the figures are skewed as France has turned into a melting pot). The figures in Germany, Russia, Brazil, England, and Australia are much worse though do not come close to the US.  Recent global projections are even more frightening: between 2005 and 2015 the number of obese people on the planet will go from 400 million to 1.6 billion.

America, though, continues to lead the parade. Thirty five percent of women are obese, defined as having over thirty percent body fat, as are twenty percent of men, with at least twenty five percent body fat.  The percentage of overweight men (those whose body fat measures between 18 and 24 percent) and women (between twenty five and thirty one percent) is nearly double those figures.  But don’t rely on statistics, just look around.   America, though, continues to lead the parade.  I recently went to Orlando, Florida to open the annual six-week wine and food festival at Epcot. The smiling guide who met me at the airport was in her 20s, tall and way overweight. During our car ride to the hotel, I learned she likes her job, likes to eat but not to cook, and–no surprise–she loves sweets. Three days later, I had met more than a half dozen similarly highly educated, well trained and passionate young employees and the picture was one and the same: delightful, dedicated people but all overweight.

What’s most shocking is that people, especially women in America, are accepting being overweight as the norm. Many are not the least bit self conscious. And while many governments and the international media have only recently awakened to the obesity crisis and its many costs, though the arrows have been pointing to this crisis for decades in America, yet things continue to get worse.

Americans are certainly more extreme about their food than I see in other countries.  Some live off pizza and fast and prepared foods.  Others eat, say, only organic or vegan.  I recently met a lovely woman who e-mailed me that she was coming to Paris and if I were there, perhaps we could share a meal.  Sure.  I arranged for us to go to a landmark restaurant. Well, it turned out she occasionally ate meat, but she did not want to taste the duck.  And could she have a simple salad for a starter?  She is allergic to shellfish and nuts (does anyone remember so many allergies thirty years ago?). And she does not drink wine.

Dieting shows off America’s extremism.  And, of course, if dieting worked, there would not be so many heavy and obese people.  Our diet gurus of the moment are the grand marshals of our endless parade of “scientifically” devised regimens based on the radical elimination of particular foods in favor of others.  When you consider the range of foods that have had their moment in the sun–cabbage soup, grapefruit, low fat, high protein, low carbs–it’s hard to believe that each magic-bullet was aimed at the same human metabolism.

In advocating regulated gastronomic pleasure instead of diets as the most powerful tool of weight control, I have made an unexpected observation:  Americans, while still committed to weight loss in principle, are answering diet fatigue in two ways.  The obvious one is surrender. The other, oddly, is to stay the course: diet indefinitely in an attempt to lose weight and keep it off.  Now that’s a grim thought; no pleasure, no fun. Americans are being pushed to the unthinkable: perpetual dieting to be perpetually overweight.

We didn’t get this way overnight.  When I first moved to New York in 1973, I could easily spot the products and trends—Haagen Daz, ATMS– that would appear in France five or ten years later.  Today everything seems to be happening faster.  In 10 years the number of brands of yogurt in France has gone from 100 to 1000–many produced by the industrial factories injecting “artificials,” and some even adding corn syrup, America’s signature additive.

To be fair, we are all facing the traps of the 21st century: too little time, too much stress. Too much work, too little sleep and exercise. Too much consumption–not only of food but of handbags, shoes, and electronic gadgets. Too many options.  But rather than succumb to the culture of convenience, we must be more vigilant than ever in standing up the agribusinesses and dietary industrial complex that control our menus and waistlines. 

Americans need nothing less than regime change in the way we relate to food. And regime changes take time—months, not weeks, as diets propose.  Developing a sense and appreciation of what is good and satisfying to eat, and of what is a proper portion, is a matter of practice and gradual conditioning. It’s entirely personal and self-regulatory. An individual’s best way to eat is found not by following a pyramid or menu chart, but by following one’s tastes. To distinguish true pleasures from idle calories, people must eat as diversely as possible and avoid too much of any one thing (contra diet-think). 

And they must pay a little more for unprocessed, high-quality food, as the French do despite lower income per capita than Americans.  People I meet are astonished to find that for most just entering this mindset leads to heightened sensory experience, contentment with less, and (drum roll, please) permanent weight control. Some have already figured it out: a good breakfast, three meals a day, lots of soups, fruits, veggies and water, sensible snacks like (real) yogurt, eating local and following the fresh ingredients of each season.

As someone who has observed America’s relationship to food changing―mainly for the worse―over the past 25 years, I thought a few years ago, we’d hit rock bottom.  Naively, I thought that through education and awareness, people would learn to change their relationship with food and lose weight and feel good. Wrong.  It hurts to see my adoptive homeland wasting a whole generation. Brillat Savarin, the great 18th-century French gastronome noted “The destiny of a nation depends on how it feeds itself.”  Where are we going? And why is everyone following?