Food, Behavior, etc.

Doug Mataconis has a post over at OTB on behavior and diet:

I’ll take Kuang’s description of the European cultural attachment to food as true, but it’s also true that Europeans tend not to live the same kind of on-the-go lifestyle that Americans have taken upon themselves. Taking two hours out of the day to prepare a meal isn’t quite as big a deal under such circumstances, and the attraction of popping a frozen pizza in the oven not nearly as apparent. That, combined with the fact that Europeans don’t seem to be nearly as sedentary as Americans, is likely one of the main explanations for why they are able to equal our caloric intake yet not suffer as many health consequences.

The post that Doug quotes from compares us, unfavorably of course, with Europeans.

We are not Europeans. According to the Census Bureau more than a third of Americans are Hispanic (mostly of mixed Native American and Spanish descent), “black” (presumably, of sub-Saharan black African descent), native American, Asian.

Even “white” Americans are not Europeans in several important ways. First, “white” is inclusive not only of Americans of purely European descent but those of Semitic and other non-European descent as well.

Second, it’s estimated that between 30% and 50% of Americans who self-identify as “white” have some Native American, Hispanic, or sub-Saharan black ancestry. Indeed, it’s suggested that most “white” Americans who believe themselves to have Cherokee, Arapaho, Paiute, or other ancestry actually have sub-Saharan black ancestry but that’s a subject for another post.

Third, most importantly, and unlike Europeans, Americans are mutts. I, for example, am Swiss, Irish, French, German from the Rheinland-Pfalz, Bohemian, and Scots-Irish. Most Swedes are 100% Swedish. Danes are Danes, Tuscans are Tuscans, Scots are Scots. Sure, those are admixtures, too, but in the very distant past and much less so than is the case with most Americans. Anybody who’s walked down the street of a small town in Scotland, England, France, Germany, or Italy where if you see with the right eyes the people look like members of a very large extended family by comparison with what you see walking down the streets of any but the most isolated American towns. That’s less true than it was even 50 years ago and there are some cases, e.g. Sicilians in which the people are as much mutts as we are. Sicilians are a wild stew of Italian, Greek, Turkish, Albanian, sub-Saharan African, and Lord knows what.

We know that heredity influences metabolism, how you process food. Anyone of primarily European descent who’s been out drinking with a group of Japanese men (as I have innumerable times) has undoubtedly seen that with his or her own eyes in quite dramatic fashion. We know that heredity can influence the metabolism of animal protein, fat, milk, and sugars as well as alcohol. We have no idea of the totality of the ways in which heredity influences how what you eat affects you. I strongly suspect that most people haven’t come to the obvious conclusion: you and I can eat identical diets, down to the milligram, and do identical things and we won’t have the same experiences.

I strongly suspect that there is more junk science and pseudo-science in nutrition, diet, and weight loss than in any other area of human experience because the stakes are so high. So, for example, I am highly suspicious of the epidemiological studies of very low fat diets because they rely so heavily on Chinese data. Not just because the data may be suspect but because I doubt the applicability of the findings to people who aren’t Chinese.

Yes, Americans are fat. Our rate of obesity is the highest in the world. And we eat too much, what we eat is crappy, and doesn’t even taste good. The power of marketing! We’re a large country and a lot of what we eat is bred to ship and store well not to taste good or be particularly nourishing. We have the highest average per capita daily calorie intake of any country in the world (although I seem to recall the Basques have a higher average daily calorie intake but haven’t been able to find the reference).

However, the country with the second highest rate of obesity is Mexico and the average daily calorie intake there is 15% lower than here while the calorie intake in Portugal almost identical to what it is here whereas the obesity rate is half ours.

I think that there’s a complicated relationship among how much you eat, what you eat, exercise, stress, heredity, your intestinal flora (which is likely affected by your use of antibiotics), and who knows what else. The studies comparing Japanese people in Japan with Japanese Americans isn’t just comparing what they eat (Japanese Americans are fatter). Exercise, behavior, and for all I know intestinal flora are different in thousands of ways. Anybody who claims to have found a simple solution is kidding themselves. Or you.

15 comments… add one
  • sam Link

    You see this in the Times, Dave? The Fat Trap

    I had my ankle fused a month ago, and have not been able to exercise at all, save for heaving myself up on the crutches, etc. In the best of times, it’s been hard for me to keep my weight down. The only way I was ever really successful was to cut out almost all carbs and run 50+ miles a week. And the running is probably largely responsible for the ankle fusion all these years later. I’m only hoping I can get back to the gym in a week or two to try in however limited a fashion to keep my weight manageable — and hope I’ve not gained a ton in the crutch-time. My brother, on the other hand, seems to just glide along, never having to fight his weight. Life is unfair.

  • Life is unfair.

    That’s as good a three word summary of my views as is possible. Yeah, I saw the article.

    In all honesty I’m leaner, stronger, and have better teeth than either of my parents did at my age. When my dad was my age he’d been dead for a decade or more but I was healthier at every age past 30 than he was at that age.

    My dad was a great journal keeper. In one of his journals he tallied his wrist, neck, shoulder, and chest measurements at age 21. I had larger measurements on all of those when I was 14. As I’ve said before, I’m built on a different scale than most people including my own father. I’ve posted his picture (on the right) at around that age. I never had those long legs.

  • PD Shaw Link

    After that introduction, I have to wonder how you know Americans are the most obese. I believe there is some ongoing effort to revise BMI to be more stringent with respect to East Asians. Yes, as an American I’m angling for perhaps a D+ grade instead of a failing grade, but if you start making BMI in racial, if not ethnic, terms, who knows where that leads?

    I’d also add that I believe Americans are believed to have had the highest per capita caloric intake since colonial times. (Don’t know about the Basques) I wonder what that type of social expectation does to a society over time.

  • The way that they’re calculating obesity is based on the number of people with a BMI over 30.

    That people who are heavily muscled, e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, can have high BMIs despite having very low proportions of body fat is a complicating factor.

    To be honest I don’t think that most Americans have that problem. What I really think is suspect is the virtue argument. I think a lot of Americans are genetically predisposed towards obesity. I’m particularly suspect of comparisons of the the U. S. of 70 years ago with the U. S. of today (which I’ve seen but won’t bother to look up). To be valid I think you’d need to compare people with their parents and grandparents at the same age rather than to compare the two populations. A substantially higher proportion of Hispanics explains some of the change in the number of obese in the U. S.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I am happy to blame DNA for my ice cream consumption.

    Another complicating factor: Americans quit smoking. I don’t know about you, but I eat a good breakfast, a moderate lunch, a reasonable dinner, and then fall apart with ice cream bars and whiskey. If I could smoke a cigar at that point in the day — and whiskey and cigars go well together — I’d eat less. Plus I’d lose weight on chemo.

  • I don’t think I’ve had an ice cream bar in decades. I’m pretty sure that the last one I ate was a Dove ice cream bar. What do you eat? Do you have recommendations?


    I repeated your remarks to my wife. Her reaction: “My kinda man!”

  • michael reynolds Link

    Magnum Bars — newly-arrived in the US — are number one, especially the white chocolate (though I don’t normally approve of white chocolate.) But as I am down 20 pounds, and Magnum Bars are crack to me, I’m trying to stick to ice cream bars I like less that have lower calories, various Klondikes.

    I have a theory that we each have a vice quotient. Mine isn’t terribly high — I’ve never had a drug or drinking problem, I’m very moderate at gambling, never really smoked cigarettes — but any attempt to push back against that basic aggregate vice number will fail. You can eat less, but you’ll drink more. Smoke fewer cigars but exercise less. There’s no ultimate victory, just a constant repositioning of forces to shore up this or that weak point, only to leave some other vice front undefended.

  • Then you’ll like what Thornton Wilder wrote:

    Nurse one vice in your bosom. Give it the attention it deserves and let your virtues spring up modestly around it. Then you’ll have the miser who’s no liar; and the drunkard who’s the benefactor of a whole city.


    Never support two weaknesses at the same time. It’s your combination sinners — your lecherous liars and your miserly drunkards — who dishonor the vices and bring them into bad repute.

  • Mercer Link

    I have relatives in West Virginia. It is one of the fattest states and is 95% white. When I look at pictures of WV people from 1900 – 1950 and compare it with the current population the increase in obesity is enormous.

    The state has had little immigration since WWII so genetics can’t be the cause. One thing that has changed is less physically demanding work – I have seen a lot of old pictures of coal miners and none of them are fat.

  • Drew Link

    Have you ever considered frozen whiskey “popsicles,” or ice cream Michael? I know this is the engineer in me coming out, but it could satisfy two vices at once.

  • michael reynolds Link


    Okay, drop the rest of your businesses and get to work on this. I’m serious. Also you may want to get a piece of supplying liquor stores with freezers. It feels wrong to freeze good Scotch, but I can see Bourbon working pretty well. Jack Freeze! Knob Pops! And I’m sorry, but Dickel Lickers.

  • Drew Link

    I’m on it. After all. Mc Ribb? Really?

  • Drew Link

    Oh, and by the way. I am a pure believer in intellectual property. So I’ve registered Dickel Lickers in your name. What do you want me to do with Yukon Jack…..other than use it in the gas tank?

    I need a check for registration…….

  • Lynnmarie Link

    I can’t say much about obesity from Massachusetts in particular, where I’ve resided my entire life, but my observations of obesity vs genetics go way back. I did wonder why I was so thin without effort, while others worked so hard and were overweight. This is what I’ve gotten.

    1. After moving out of my Mom’s house, and I had to buy my own groceries, I realized the amount of time one could actually go without food. Not because I wanted to stay thin, but because I could barely afford it. My meals were early breakfast and a late dinner, not the recommended amount of calories at all. Guess what? At all of my doctor’s appointments I was deemed healthy because I just ate what counted.

    2. In college, a girl I was close with ate the same amount of calorie intake as I had. She would lose significant amounts of weight, but never could be called skinny. Her doctor had told her she couldn’t go past a certain weight; this all made sense, looking at her family background, everyone was overweight and ate healthily. I’m not sure about exercise, though.

    3. At the moment, I’m 24 weeks pregnant and on a message board with other pregnant ladies. Yes, I’ve started to eat more food, but I still pick healthy choices and have gained weight gradually (“the correct way”). So far, I’ve put on eleven pounds, which is really good. Women use their baby as an excuse to engorge themselves on anything and everything. Some girls will post that they’ve only gained ten pounds in so many weeks and others will answer that they’ve gained fifty pounds in eighteen weeks. The entire pregnancy is supposed to be twenty-five to thirty-five pound gain. After week fourteen you’re supposed to put on a pound a week, after only gaining two-four pounds in the first trimester. There are so many pregnancy support websites that say, “If you’re craving sweets, eat a piece of fruit”, but because we have so much access to whatever we want, these women don’t even care what they put in their bodies. They’re gaining weight and it’s the only thing that matters. One magazine wrote that women who aren’t pregnant actually eat healthier than woman who are, which made a lot of sense to me, after joining these sites. I’m not saying every pregnant woman does this, but it’s an observation of real life.

    I’m going to apologize for this post being so long, and I don’t judge anyone on their weight or choices. Sometimes people’s actions and justifications really make me wonder.

  • stuhlmann Link

    “I’ll take Kuang’s description of the European cultural attachment to food as true, but it’s also true that Europeans tend not to live the same kind of on-the-go lifestyle that Americans have taken upon themselves. Taking two hours out of the day to prepare a meal isn’t quite as big a deal under such circumstances, and the attraction of popping a frozen pizza in the oven not nearly as apparent. ”

    I am an American who has lived in Germany for much of the last 25 years, I am in the process of raising two boys here – ages 20 and 13. I think the description of European eating habits quoted above is a bit outdated. I work in the telecommunications industry, and my wife has her own business. We do not have time to cook fresh foods every day, nor do most of our neighbors. My boys routinely eat frozen pizzas from the local supermarket, and food producers are continually offering new products to meet a very American seeming life style. Just recently something called a “Toasty” came on the market. It is like an Eggo frozen waffle, but in this case it is a frozen schnitzel (breaded pork cutlet) designed to be heated in a toaster or microwave. Supermarkets offer a wide variety of fresh and frozen foods that can be eaten with little or no preparation.

    I do think that Europeans exercise more than Americans, especially walking and riding bikes. Towns and cities are still designed more for pedestrians, and even large cities are surrounded by farmlands and woods. The dirt roads through the farmlands and woods are open to the public, so there are countless opportunities for cycling and evening/weekend strolls, and often you can begin these from your own front door.

Leave a Comment