What’s Wrong with The United States?

Living out of a backpack is easier than you might think!

I’ve spent eight months out of the last twelve abroad. On two vastly different continents, I immersed myself in families, languages, and cultures to the point that I occasionally asked myself whether I’d gone too far native.

Everywhere I went, I talked to people about my country. Often, it wasn’t really a choice, being American means an inevitable amount of intense scrutiny abroad, whether we like it or not. Just opening my mouth and revealing my accent occasionally was enough to get me into a lengthy conversation about world politics and my nation’s place in them. My favorite awkward interaction was an hour-long lecture about how shitty the economic crash was on a ferry across the Straight of Magellan, practically held hostage in the bridge by the blustery captain. He’d lost his investments. So have I. Toward the end, I purposefully antagonized him in the hope that he might let me go back to my seat. In the end, feigned seasickness saved my ass.

Yeah, the captain made me put the hat on…couldn’t escape the awkward

I’m not a huge fan of UnitedStatesian culture (including the use of “American” to describe only a tiny fraction of those who live on the American continents). When I returned from South America in August, I was just so happy to be somewhere that I could drink tap water and not fear being robbed every two seconds that the US regained some of its shiny happy glimmer that I’d seen when I was younger. But this return from Europe revealed a few things about my own culture that cause me to take a step back, and analyze why they exist and how they might be affecting us and in turn the world that we so desperately hope to influence and guide.

I think that especially after the Congressional SuperFail today and the growth of polarization (Are you for the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party?), we are in dire need of some introspection. What happens in the larger world is played out in the details of everyday life (1), and our problems on a global and national scale can be traced to the problems within the decisions individual citizens make each day.

Many people asked what specifically needs to change in the States when I wrote about my first Occupy Denver protest. I agree. We need to put forth specific problems and try to raise specific awarenesses. Over the next few days I will explore my top cultural reasons why the USA is in serious trouble, and a few ideas of how to ameliorate the situations. Next up, the political reasons.

Obesity percentages broken down by county

Cultural Failing #1-Food/Health

My new part-time job at the local mall affords me plenty of people-watching. Four hours a day, I watch as a snapshot of the American people amble past the doors of the eyeglasses shop and mill about in the local temple to commercialism. Despite the fact that I live in the skinniest state, I’ve noticed an interesting contradiction. Americans are known the world over for wearing extremely white athletic shoes in totally inappropriate situations, but t’s the largest people who seem to wear them most.

Our clothing sizes are larger than anywhere else I’ve lived. We can’t seem to get enough of stretch clothing. We complain about having to walk up a stalled escalator. Some even have to use power-chairs to get around, because their joints simply can’t take the strain of a stroll around the mall under the immense weight.

No one can claim that the obesity epidemic in the US is a mystery. Excess of food+sedentary lifestyle=obesity. Not exactly a complex algorithm. One can see the breakneck speed at which the cultural roots of obesity are changing the face (and waist) of the United States by comparing the statistics from 1985 to those from 2008. 

The difference is staggering. And it’s not just obesity that’s on the rise. Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century, especially in the developed world. Cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal illness, and many other disorders are all linked to diet and exercise (2). Millions of Americans are living without health insurance, and these are those in the income tax bracket most likely to be unable to afford decent food as well. Plus, pizza is officially now a vegetable.

But wait! Isn’t obesity a global epidemic? Yes, but it comes from emulating the American diet. In China, the growing buying power of the middle class has led to a huge increase in demand for meat, and in many nations the consumption of sugary sodas and simple carbohydrates is rapidly increasing. Part of the spread of American cultural hegemony the world over is the food paradigm that shows up in movies and TV, but despite this the people I met around the world this year had no idea how bad the food culture in the States has gotten, nor how unhealthy we’ve become.

Except those who’ve been here. My French host mother called our food culture “collective suicide.” She’s absolutely right. We are already slowly killing ourselves. The United States already has a lower life expectancy than many other countries, ranked 50th in the world and below Bosnia-Herzegovina (3). Children born in this decade may be the first generation in several to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

How can we change the relationship with food and exercise that has crept up on us? It’s an overwhelming conundrum. I suggest that each of us start by changing one thing about the way we eat or exercise. Take five extra seconds to read the labels of your packaged food. Take a page out of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and only buy foods that your great-grandmother would recognize. Make a list every time you go to the grocery store, instead of guessing at what might be needed and buying far too much.

My favorite? Ride your bike or walk to the grocery. Ditch the oversized shopping cart for a small basket. You can’t grab things on impulse if you have to counter their weight with your own strength, and you get exercise when you can only buy as much as you can carry. No excuses!

Being counter-culture is sometimes as easy as taking a second to choose your food carefully. Power to the food revolution!

Next: American Cultural Failings #2 and #3, Quantity Over Quality and The Culture of Debt.


(1) Dark Ages America, The Final Phase of the Empire by Morris Burman

(2) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002934303006715

(3) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

11 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with The United States?

  1. Hey Colleen- a couple things:
    1. Although the difference in obesity rates between 1985 and 2008 is indeed staggering, the reason over half the map in 1985 is white is not because of low obesity rates, it’s because there’s no data. Although there certainly has been an increase, it’s very difficult to detect in those two images given that over half the US is n/a in the first image.
    2. I can say that in nearly every foreign country ive been to, I was very rarely given the opportunity to eat vegetables. In Colombia I went the whole week trip without being fed a single vegetable at any meal. In the month I spent in Japan I went out of my way and still, no veggies, let alone leafy greens.
    3. Foreign eaters are some of the least healthy eaters I have ever met. In Japan I watched two 12 year old girls eat breakfast meals including the double sausage mcmuffin with egg. We don’t even have this item. If we did we’d be called the evil US. It’s over 1000 calories on it’s own, but because Japanese are genetically more slim, they must be “healthy.” no. Yes, they walk a lot. But I have never seem worse eating habits.
    4. I hate Michael Pollan, but putting that aside, my great grandmother would recognize: lard, butter, ice cream, baked goods of all kinds, hush puppies, fried dough, fried meat, fried cheese, red meat, bacon, etc. she wouldn’t recognize kale, or okra, or blueberries, or oranges or any other produce that relies on transport. She also wouldn’t recognize vitamins.

  2. This was really interstesting to read, and I agree with a lot of your points.

    When I went to France a box of Lucky Charms was almost ten euro. In other countries, unhealthier processed foods are more expensive in order to encourage citizens to make healthier choices.

    In the United States its just the opposite. It costs more to eat healthier.

    And then Congress just voted that pizza=a vegetable for public school lunch menus?

    Not cool.

    Great post, though.

  3. Hey Ashley!

    I’ve added the graph from 1990 from the CDC’s website to give a more complete picture of the data. Only four states are missing their data, and the increase in obesity is underscored by the shorter time period.
    In Chile I rarely ate vegetables, but I was able to find them at my local store (with the exception of a few weeks after the biggest snowstorm in recorded Chilean history, that blocked off all access to and from the country for ground transport of foodstuffs). It was not expensive, even by Chilean standards. I believe that the veggie-less food culture in Chile is a cultural by-product of years of food shortages. Mentality hasn’t caught up with actual supply. What are Chileans’ favorite foods? French Fries, Pizza, and Hamburgers. Few traditional foods survive, having been replaced by cultural imports.
    It’s not just about being slim. Many Japanese women suffer from eating disorders, which ravage the body just as badly as obesity. In the States, unhealthy eating habits are the norm, not the exception. In other parts of the world, portion size can be restricted by cultural or pragmatic concerns (i.e. it’s unacceptable for a woman to eat a whole dinner every day in some parts of Italy because she must maintain her figure).
    The point about the great-grandmothers is not meant to be taken literally. Is it a food that you could’ve eaten a hundred years ago, or has it been manufactured? Is it a whole food, a real food, and not just something that a big company says you should eat? I often base my food choices off what my Italian host mother would consider food, because she was raised in a tiny village with ancient traditions. She eats a wide variety of gathered greens, cheap beans, slow-grown and slow-cooked foods, and organic.

    Please note: Co-one “L”-een (Thanks!)

  4. IT’s not just the food itself but the amount we eat. How much is a serving?
    We expect a lot and as a result we get it. This combined with the sedintary lifestyle we have adopted …
    Kids do not go out to play any more. If they play, sports in particular, the only rime they practice is when it is organized which meavs only a couple of times a week. Other than that we and they sit on our butts with electronics on.
    24 hour entertainment is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
    Love the idea of no shopping carts. I grew up with shoppping bags and going to the green grocers, butchers and bakers to buy and then carrying everything home on foot!
    Not so easy in this spread out metropolis!
    Love the blog! Keep it up and it won’t be long before you are published.
    Write a travel journal of how to become a native while traveling1

    1. Sports are a whole other problem. There is a culture of extreme pressure that teaches kids that if you aren’t the best, you might as well not play. Kids are injured by tearing ligaments and tendons at younger ages than ever. Once they realize that they can’t be an Olympian, they stop participating at all.

  5. I have lived half my life in Bosnia. most young people in the cities live healthful lives. it is rare to see really fat people unless they are old.

    Processed food is actually still more expensive there than going to the local butcher or vegetable market. having been many times to the Sates I am every time chocked by the prices of fresh vegetables in the stores there.

  6. 1) ‘Just opening my mouth and revealing my accent occasionally was enough to get me into a lengthy conversation about world politics and my nation’s place in them.’

    I experienced this many times in Europe and can completely relate. No matter the place or time (when I wanted to chill and just have a beer) Europeans loved telling me things about the U.S. and wanted to discuss American stereotypes ad nauseam.

    2) A great analysis (Parts 1 and 2) on what is currently plaguing America. I had reverse culture shock when I returned (I lived in Slovenia for 6 months) and found myself angry all the time at things like food (or lack thereof) and the inability to walk/bike everywhere when I wanted (or take public transport. impossible in suburbia usa). It takes going abroad and living healthier to recognize the glaringly obvious problems we face sometimes.

    3) Regarding food, I believe the problems of obesity and horrible eating habits in other countries is a result (although maybe not entirely our fault) of American cultural influence and our norms taking over. I lived in South Korea for a little while, and while there were obese Koreans it was rare (compared to the U.S.) and socially much more unacceptable (don’t even get me started on plastic surgery in Korea). The public transportation system is also great there and in general I walked more both in Asia and Europe.

    Fast food chains exist abroad, but McDonald’s is sometimes the only one in a city. How many does the U.S. have? 15? 20? There were maybe 5 chains total throughout Korea, some of which were Asian chains, and this might even be a result of so many foreigners moving there to teach English (Itaewon, the foreigner section of Seoul, has an Outback Steakhouse…)

    There is also a great non-profit group called the Weston A Price Foundation, which discusses the issue of ‘real food’ and the diets of primitive societies (and how it directly correlates to a healthier group of people). Read the journals for more information. Check it out! http://www.westonaprice.org

    Great articles Coleen!

    1. Thanks! Reverse culture shock is tough, though it gets easier each time. I’ve come up with a whole set of ways to offset the return to the States, and I will be writing it up soon. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    2. I love that I finally got to talk about world politics and our place in them! It’s one of my favorite subjects, and in the States it’s too taboo to bring up. And we also have a fairly large part of the population that doesn’t follow world politics (or know geography very well), much less want to discuss them over a beer. I take pride in shattering American stereotypes while acknowledging the truth in them.

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