While riding on moving walkways and escalators in the subways of Hong Kong, I couldn't help but note the many posters featuring attractive female models in bikinis smiling cheerfully, rather than seductively, back at me (though I didn't snap any photos of them, modesty being one reason, and my disinterest in fishing my big camera out of my bag in the extreme humidity being the other; my way of combatting the humidity was to stand as still as possible in an effort to sweat as little as possible). I didn't recall such ads the last time I'd been in Hong Kong, I remarked to Esther.
"They're for slimming centers," she explained. She was right. I looked closer at the fine print on the ads and noted, in small print among all the Chinese text, the English words "Slimming Center".
This shocked me because of one important fact, and that was that I didn't recall seeing a single obese person in Hong Kong. I mean that literally. I did not see one person in my three and a half days in Hong Kong that appeared significantly overweight. In fact, most of the women I saw were thinner than even the models in the slimming center ads. In fact, my week of travel through Hong Kong and Tokyo convinced me, finally and unequivocally, that the United States is the fattest country on earth. When my sister Karen and I spotted our first obese person in our travels, a huge guy in Tokyo, we couldn't help but shoot each other a wide-eyed glance of acknowledgment and surprise. Of course, he could have been a sumo fighter in training in which case I'm not sure if he'd count as a naturally occurring specimen of obesity.
There are many possible reasons for the disparity between the U.S. and other countries, but a few seem most plausible to me:
- Having recently finished Michael Pollan's fantastic two book series, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, the high volume of processed food in the American diet is highly suspicious. The government subsidizes corn, and so a huge portion of the American diet is corn or corn products like high fructose corn syrup.
- Hand in hand with that is that in the rest of the world, more of the diet consists of what Pollan, in In Defense of Food, calls real food, that is, things your grandmother would have recognized as food, like vegetables, fruits, and meats. One of Pollan's healthy eating rules of thumb is "eat ethnic food." He notes that the citizens of almost any country other than the United States, subsisting on their country's base diets, remain slim. In the U.S. we've tried to reverse engineer Mediterranean cuisine or Japanese cuisine to try and find some magic health bullet, like olive oil or omega-3 oil from fish, but Pollan says the real solution is likely some complex interaction of many things which can't be pinpointed to one substance that can be reduced to some magic pill. Instead, he urges people to just eat more ethnic food to try and benefit from all that brings, from the lighter reliance on processed food to any magical interactions among the ingredients of that cuisine. I was glad to read that; it's one more justification for my love for eating my way through my travels, Hong Kong and Tokyo being two of my best cities in the world for indulging that weakness.
- Portion sizes in the rest of the world are not just a little bit smaller than those in the U.S., they're much tinier. This was especially noticeable in Tokyo where the plating itself is often so elaborate, each plate like some miniature assemblage by Joseph Cornell. Calories are cheap in the U.S., but eating cheaply is not the same as eating healthy.
Of course, I could be misreading the correlation and causation equation here, and it's possible that the slimming centers were the source of the successful nationwide weight management, but I doubt it.