Why America is fat (and why Canada isn’t fatter)

As you can see from the title of this post, I have single-handedly unlocked the secret to the obesity crisis.

Just kidding. It’s more that “An idea about one potential factor affecting obesity rates in North America, founded on science (yay, science!) and unpacked in a mildly humourous way” was a bit wordy for a post title. So I summarized.

We all know that North America is under the crush of an obesity crisis. The obesity rate in the US is 35% – in Canada, it is 25%. Now, 25% is nothing to be proud of. But it’s a curiosity that Canada is lagging behind in the race for the biggest behinds. Culturally, our attitudes toward food and eating are very similar to our American counterparts. So why are we a full 10 percentage points lower on the obesity index?

As mentioned in my last post, I am currently nibbling in the U.S.A. And the thing that strikes me most when I’m here is the sheer variety of packaged foods. I’ve been wondering lately if this might partly account for why America is fatter than Canada.

gluten-free doughnuts

Here’s why.

Studies have found that we eat more if we have more varieties of a food to choose from. Which makes sense. How many times have you opened a bag of mixed jelly beans and thought “Huzzah! Jelly beans! I must taste one of EVERY kind!” Repeat. But when you get one flavour of jelly beans, even if you love it, at some point after a few your tongue gets bored and you stop eating. The drive to keep sampling doesn’t apply.

Point two: Studies have also found that people who are obese tend to be novelty seekers – they get a thrill out of experiencing something new. Think about what that means in the context of a grocery store. There is a constant stream of new salty, sweet, fatty packaged goods hitting the shelves, tempting us to try them. And we do, because…well, I’ve never put THAT in my mouth before, and what if it is awesome and I miss it!?! (Related point: new foods are almost never good for you. When was the last time bananas came out with a hot new flavour? Exactly.)

Point three: With so many choices, there is something for everyone. In Canada, there might be three varieties of a brand of cereal, or cookie, or other processed food thing. And if none appeals to you, you go home without it. And on some level, yes, that sucks. Because who doesn’t want to sample endless varieties of snacky goodness? I would be lying if I said we don’t throw a Canada-wide sulk every time Oreo doesn’t bestow its latest holiday edition upon our great nation. But maybe it helps us in the end. Because in the US, there are so many flavours, varieties and product line extensions, it’s almost guaranteed that at least ONE will tempt you and you’ll take it home.

Look, obesity is an incredibly complex issue – it’s affected by genetics, food environment, cultural factors, and a host of biological drivers. Variety may not be the lynchpin in the machine that makes us fat. But maybe we should look into it (get on it, science!) – it could be one little piece of the puzzle.

And if we can be a bit more mindful of how we respond to the never-ending conveyor belt of new foods, we might have a better chance of saying “No! No, foul doughnut! For though your shiny pumpkin-white-chocolate-glazed shell glistens like the light of a thousand suns, and your salted caramel center flows with the sweetness of baby angels riding flying dwarf goats, I SHALL NOT EAT YOU.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find some maple bacon pretzel bites.

Note: Pic adapted from this delicious photo by MÃ¥rten Persson. Creative Commons License here.

Eating in America: Is that Blue Cheese Salted Caramel Chipotle Popcorn?

I am currently visiting the lovely United States of America. Actually, I am in Washington DC, so *technically* not a state. Also it’s cold and damp and hideous out, so ‘lovely’ may be an overstatement.

…where was I? Oh! America. Right.

Every time I visit, I am wonderstruck by the crushing, massive variety of packaged foods. For example: in Canada, you can get like 4 kinds of Oreos, And the occasional special edition. Here, there are about 16. And that’s just Oreos.

As a girl with poor impulse control, a sweet tooth, and an irresistible drive toward novelty, this leads to an interesting phenomenon every time I visit: I turn from a hunter into a gatherer.

At home I don’t buy much junk food, because I know I have “no off switch” (as my dad says). When I crave something sweet – like sour keys, or that awesome Dairy Milk chocolate with the salted peanuts – I go out specifically to get it. I hunt that thing down. And then I eat it.

But when I’m here, I’m so overwhelmed by the deluge of choice, the glorious rush of snacking in the land of the free, that I throw things into my cart with frenzied abandon. Pizza-flavoured corn chips stuffed with string cheese? Yeahhh! Watermelon-peach fizzing candy corn? Throw it on the pile!

Never mind that I don’t like pizza flavoured things. Or corn chips. Or artificial watermelon flavour (which basically tastes like leprechaun bile. I’m guessing.) These sprees are ungoverned by logic. All I know is there are 32 kinds of frozen greek yogourt in front of me and I MUST TRY EVERY ONE OF THEM.

Gather them, if you will.

And this staggering variety of heart-stopping options, I suspect, is one of the reasons America is fatter than Canada, even though by most measures of cultural habits we should be equally portly. I have some good reasons for thinking this, which I will share in tomorrow’s post (because this one is already too long and my attention span is short).

Sriracha baon oreo jackals

*Image adapted from this excellent pic by Arno Meintjes. (Creative Commons license here.)