Nation and Body Mass

Oct 26,2011

I'm veering from my prefab list of topics this week to explore one of the (for me) most interesting intercultural issues in our world: the health and size of the growing population.

While browsing the web for international trade statistics, I came across this tidbit on the Nationmaster web site, under a quick link to 'top stats':

Which countries have the most:
Oil Use
Fat people

Now, interesting to me about that last one is that anyone should be tempted to post such a question on the web as a serious research inquiry (particularly as this menu comes right across the page from a fitness ad featuring Mike Chang's buff, oil-polished bod). If anyone were to put out that question in a social setting, one could fairly guarantee that anyone in hearing range would chime in, "Well, duh--the United States of course!" But if you want exact numbers, take a look at the link.

Obesity statistics: countries compared

That's right, the United States of America sits proudly in the #1 position with 30.6% of the total population obese--not just overweight, but obese, a condition technically defined as a BMI of greater than 30 kg/m2. Predictably, Japan appeared at the very bottom of the list, with only 3.2% obesity in the total population (and I suspect that half of these either are sumo wrestlers, or want to be). The eyebrow raise came at the appearance of Mexico in the #2 position, while Canada is quite far down. I didn't think Americans and Canadians were that much different in build. But then, having been away from the United States for several years, I have been blissfully unaware of how great the disparity has become.

In this connection, it was actually watching one of Mike Chang's videos with a Japanese friend several days ago that inspired her to comment, 'He doesn't look human!' It was an odd comment, I thought, considering that Mike Chang has what a lot of people would consider the ideal male physique. Perhaps, I suggested, what she meant is that he doesn't look like anyone you would see in Japan.

Looking back on my days in the United States, which perhaps were spend disproportionately in fitness meccas like southern California, it occurs to me that there are two typical body types one is likely to encounter on an American street: either ripped and muscular, or obese. In Japan, by contrast, there is only one: thin. Obviously, there are exceptions and everyone occurs at some place along a spectrum, but a body that is considered normal in Japan would be considered dangerously thin in America, and a body considered normal in America would in Japan be considered pudgy.

A big part of the disparity is the portion sizes. I'm not sure exactly when the volume increase, made famous in the film Super-Size Me, started to spiral out of control, but each time I return to the United States this is the main point of culture shock I experience (in addition to the absurdly wide streets and buildings, apparently designed to accomodate the magnitudal expansion of human bodies). A small-size drink at a typical food vendor in the United States roughly equates to a large in Japan. The volume of a can of 'coffee' available from a vending machine for 120 yen rougly equates to the amount remaining in an American's plastic cup when he throws it away.

Perhaps I first noticed the difference on returning to California from the Philippines, where drink sizes are about the same as in Japan. A well-meaning comrade offered to buy me a lemonade, and I accepted, but he came back with a bucket. I said I just wanted to drink, not go swimming. This was the L size at the time, but apparently the subsequent sizes 'grande' and 'venti' have become insufficient for the average thirteen-sandwich-a-day-eating behemoth, and cups the size of your average fire hydrant have been introduced to the market. The next size has wheels.

It wasn't always this way, and several studies into the relative sizes of representative food items on the American menu over the past couple of decades can also be found on the good ol' iterweb:

American Portion Sizes vs. anywhere else (overview of the problem)

America's Ever-Growing Portion Sizes (with comparitive images)

Portion Size, Then vs. Now (with comparitive images)

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