Fat is an Anglo-Saxon issue


It’s been two and a half weeks in Europe now, three countries, about dozen cities and towns ranging from 3.5 million to 1000 inhabitants in size, in the course of which peregrination I would have easily seen tens of thousands of people, and so far, I have noticed no more than about two dozen obese people and a statistically negligible number of the overweight. Maybe if I had spent more time around economically underprivileged outer suburbs, or small villages and depressed little towns, my observations would be slightly different but I doubt they would have radically changed my anecdotal conclusion: Europeans are skinny and fat is an Anglospheric problem. The World Health Organisation informs me that in 2014, 1.9 billion adults around the world were overweight and 600 million of them were obese. I can tell you none of them live in Europe.

It might or might or might not surprise you but the fattest region in the world is Oceania. Of the world’s ten most obese nations, the top 9 are in the Pacific, with American Samoa topping the chart (or the scales) with the astonishing three quarters of the population being obese (the only non-island country at the top, Kuwait at number 10, has 42 per cent of its citizens obese. It’s nice to sit on your ass the whole day while the oil keeps flowing). The introduction of Western-style foods throughout the Pacific region has been far more devastating than colonisation.

But anecdotal my conclusion is; if you look at the data it’s clear that even the pit-stops of my European journey – France, the Netherlands and Germany – have their share of overweight and obese people. Unlike in Australia, however, they must be all in hiding. Be that as it may, my comparative observation stands – if you look at this very useful pyramid graph of the OECD countries, you will note that the top ten of the most obese developed countries contains all the countries of the Anglosphere: the US at number 1, New Zealand at 3, Australia at 5, Canada at 6, the UK at 8 and Ireland at 9. By contrast, the fast-becoming one of my favourite countries in the world, Holland, has only one third as many obese people as the United States. France and Germany have about half as many as Australia.


I remember some 14 years ago when I stopped in Poland with my ex-wife on the way back from our English honeymoon. Walking the streets of Krakow, I would hear her half in jest muttering under her breath “Look at all these skinny Polish bitches” – even though she was a skinny Australian bitch herself (memo to the easily offended: I’m using the term as an endearment). A Eurotrip can be enough to give an average Anglo woman more complexes than there are varieties of Dutch cheese. Don’t give her the bestselling book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” unless you are a passive-aggressive bastard (that’s no endearment) who wants to spend the rest of the trip without eating or loving. If you are a man, by the way, and body-conscious (as you reasonably should be), you might likewise end up in a love-hate-envy relationship with Europe and her inhabitants.

So what is the Continentals’ secret? Most obviously, European cities being significantly more compact than their American or Australian counterparts, a lot more people walk and cycle instead of having to drive their asses around to get anywhere. The genius that I am, it actually took me a few days to realise why so many Dutch women have quite athletic legs without necessary having sporty upper bodies – the ubiquitous bicycles.

But movement and exercise, as science tells us, as important as they are, play only a small supporting role in keeping the weight off. Much more important is what we eat and how much we eat. And on this account it’s clear that Europeans eat better and healthier than their Anglo-Saxon cousins, and they eat less. No supersize American- (and increasingly Australian-)style portions for the Continentals. There are very few junk food options around, except for an occasional McDonalds. Not being a dietitian, I won’t indulge in discussion about the differences in processed and fresh food consumption, or about the respective fats, carbs and sugars in the Old versus the New Worlds. Europeans clearly celebrate food and love to eat, but they seem not to overeat.

There are of course many reasons why people become overweight, including medical conditions, genetic predispositions, and depression. It’s not always a matter of choice or preference. But the obesity epidemic and crisis we’re increasingly experiencing in major English-speaking countries goes way beyond the usual range of exculpatory factors. It’s not good and it’s not healthy, for our health and well-being, our self-image and self-confidence, and not least for the budgetary bottom line. The health and other social costs of extra kilos that all taxpayers have to bear are astronomical – in the United States the health care costs alone are somewhere between $150 and $210 billion a year. As we binge on food we also binge on government spending; both unhealthy developments for our society and our democracy.

We Anglos (and as a Slav residing in Australia I will adopt this self-description for the purpose of this argument) tend to laugh at the Europeans about quite many different things. But there is no doubt that there are some things that the Europeans do much better than us, eating being one of them. In the run-up to the Iraq War, Robert Kagan wrote a book arguing that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. Looking at the transoceanic differences one could also say that while Europeans are from the quicksilver Mercury, Americans (and their Anglo cousins) are increasingly from the bloated Jupiter. So for goodness’ sake, you don’t have to be like the Europeans, but at least eat like them and move like them.