If the title of this article caught your eye, it’s probably because, at some point in your life, you’ve looked down at the pudge around your stomach and thought “well that’s not good”. We’ve all been there, but we may not really know why.
Here’s a possible explanation for how that extra layer of fat got there without you even noticing, and why everyone in the country is in the same boat.
Around 30% of the American population is overweight, and an additional 40% suffers from obesity, which has been defined as a chronic progressive disease. Shortness of breath, perpetual high blood pressure, and difficulty getting around are some of the more immediate troubles of carrying too much body fat, but they’re not where the danger stops. Having a body mass index over 30 puts you at a higher risk of developing life-threatening conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
So what can you, as one person, do about it? Well, there’s the obvious answer that you should get regular exercise and eat a healthy diet. But if you’ve ever tried dieting before, you know that while it may sound simple, it can be far from easy. In fact, from the moment you decide to lead a healthy lifestyle, you feel like you’re being bombarded with commercials for the juiciest burger you’ve ever seen in your life or the frostiest-looking lemonade known to man. It’s like the world is trying to sabotage you.
But it isn’t… right?
A Brief History of American Fast Food
American fast-food as we know it began to take shape in the early 1920s with the opening of restaurants like A&W and White Castle. Their business model was straightforward: serve hot meals quickly and cheaply. This concept boomed with the automobile industry, and soon people were getting meals roller-skated out to them while they waited in their cars. Moms no longer had to cook and families no longer had to wait. It was the epitome of American ingenuity.
Flash-forward to today. Americans now have over a dozen high-profile fast-food chains vying for our attention. If you want to see why that’s maybe not such a great thing nutritionally, check out their menus. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a few naturally green items (and even they can have as many as 500 calories).
So is deep-fried, flash-frozen, heat-lamped food our only convenient option for a stop-and-go lunch? Is that what fast-food is meant to be? According to Japan, it doesn’t have to be.
What’s the Difference?
“Hey wait a minute, I’ve seen pictures of Tokyo and there are fast-food joints all over the place!” If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re absolutely right: chances are you’ll run into American fast-food places all the time in Japan. And while they can offer slightly different items, their menus have little to no nutritional variances from ours here in America.
And yet, less than 4% of the Japanese population is obese, and less than one-third is overweight. So what are they eating? Well, same as us, they’re eating fast-food– just not the same way we do here.
The difference between Japanese and American fast-food lies in their approaches to variance and availability. Japan offers a wider variety of convenient, nutritional food options at a higher frequency per square kilometer– more good food is found in more places. And what’s more important, the variety they offer is more nutritious than you’d initially think.
Imagine that for every burger joint you encounter out in the wild, you also find a place with fresh fish. Imagine that, instead of seeing buffalo wings, chicken fingers, and mozzarella sticks at your local gas station, there were delicious soups, salads, and rice dishes. Imagine having a vending machine on every other block that’s filled with fresh eggs, vegetables, and meat instead of candy and soda.
It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s convenient. And the whole country is better off for it.
Japan’s native fast-food joints offer a greater percentage of fish, rice, and vegetable dishes than America’s beef, wheat, and fruit-based ones. And while fish and rice have their own nutritional downsides, they are known to contain fewer grams of carbohydrates and saturated fat than their American fast-food counterparts. (Compare the 23g of carbs found in 100g of rice versus the 41g of carbs in 100g of french fries.)
Japan has been known to have some crazy items in their vending machines: batteries, stuffed animals, neckties, and even fresh flowers. But what’s even crazier is that you can also find produce. There are fruits, vegetables, eggs, and pre-prepped meals like stew and ramen available on street corners– all for a reasonable price (an entree and two sides cost about seven US dollars). Japan has redefined food accessibility by having the highest concentration of vending machines in the world, averaging about one vending machine per twenty-three people.
It’s not just what they eat, either– their drinking habits are healthier, too. Japan drinks about a fifth of the soda that America does annually– this is partially due to its smaller serving sizes, as well as its wider consumption of green tea. Green tea is rich in antioxidants and has been known to help promote blood flow, lower cholesterol, and stabilize blood sugar. It’s served for free in many establishments, and best of all, it can be found everywhere.
More fish, less beef. More rice, less bread. More plants, less sugar.
So is the obesity rate lower because everyone in Japan is stronger-willed? Not necessarily, no. It’s because they haven’t been told that they need to choose between nutrition and convenience. Japan’s food environment has allowed its citizens the freedom of choosing something better. If they want burgers and fries, they can have it. If they want soup and vegetables, they can have it. Better or worse– the option is always there.
Can we in America say the same?
So What’s the Point?
Some of this argument should probably be taken with a grain of salt: things like fish and rice still need to be eaten in moderation, and it’s important to watch your sodium and sugar levels. And let’s not forget that at the end of the day, it really is up to the individual whether or not they choose to take that extra step and acquire healthier food on their own.
But Japan has a food environment that, despite its shortcomings, has made a conscious effort to provide people with options. From their native fast-food chains’ menus to their innovative use of vending machines, they’ve made nutrition available to all– whatever you decide to eat, it’s just as easy either way. They’ve made them equally convenient.
In this way, and many others, America’s food environment has set us up to fail. Fast-food is constantly available, yes– in fact, it’s almost impossible to get away from. But they boast sprawling, mouth-watering menus while providing salads and apple slices as their only “healthy” meal options. (Could someone please explain why a plain side salad is only 15 calories but the regular-sized salads need to be 320 calories or more?) And when was the last time you saw a fast-food commercial that focused on their “healthy” options?
The answer is never, in case you were wondering.
And what’s even sadder is the fact that this unhealthy mentality is everywhere. On our phones, on TV, on billboards and street signs, on the big screen before movie previews– our culture is saturated with it. And so we have no choice when we have somewhere to be and our tummies start rumbling. We have to pull in to the nearest drive-thru and do the best we can.
But the point is, we shouldn’t have to “do the best we can”.
The point is, we need to change America’s food environment if we have a prayer of reversing the health crisis.
The point is, we need options.
There are several factors that contribute to a nation’s health, but food availability and distribution are the most telling ones. And America’s pursuit of convenience has neglected to cater to the public’s desire for nutritional variance.
So start a dialogue. Ask yourself and the people around you how you can help change the food narrative in America. Get informed about what it means to have good, balanced nutrition and then make the effort to prepare those meals yourself. Because unfortunately, it’s not convenient to make good nutritional choices in America today.
But could it be? Maybe someday.