Immigration has made us fat

Continuing the theme of immigration… we can blame immigrants for making us the fattest country on the planet.

Personal observation:  Nearly every time I visit a foreign country for any length of time, I lose weight.  I lost 5 lbs. on a recent trip to Argentina, a country in which food is available almost any time of day for ridiculously low prices.

Why does one lose weight in a foreign country?  Most countries, especially in their smaller towns, only offer one type of food.  Argentine restaurants tend to offer grilled meat, steamed vegetables, potatoes of various sorts, and salad with oil and vinegar.  The menu will tend to list the ingredients by name and what you order is pretty much what you get with no extra sauces or spices.  You might have a delicious steak sandwich with cheese, lettuce, and tomato for lunch.  If you’re not really hungry at dinner time you don’t bother ordering a lot of food because the only choices are things that you had at lunch or maybe the day before.

Japan is a country with a high culinary reputation.  Yet after being there for a few days you can understand why McDonald’s and Italian restaurants are so popular.  The thought of “Japanese food yet again” is not very appealing and yet you’ll probably end up in a Japanese restaurant.  So you order a modest amount of food and devote your attention to the conversation rather than stuffing your face.

Contrast this with life in an American city.  You’re with friends and propose going to a Chinese restaurant.  They say “No, we had Chinese food last night.”  You eventually agree on Indian food, which nobody has had for awhile.  Delighted with the novelty of all the tastes you order one or two more dishes than your group would require merely to sustain life for another day or two.  The next day you have Mexican food for lunch and go to a Greek restaurant for dinner.  Because of immigration we always have the opportunity to open our mouths to alleviate boredom rather than hunger.

(This ties back to the August 25, 2003 posting “Lose weight by eating every meal at McDonald’s”.)

33 thoughts on “Immigration has made us fat

  1. Sometimes you really make no sense, Phillip. It’s always a programmer who comes up with this kind of logic, isn’t it?

    Possibly Japanese people aren’t fat not because they got bored with their food after a few days, but because they don’t stuff their children with sugar or eat every meal out at a restaurant like your example Americans.

  2. maybe you also loose weight while traveling because you’re doing something other than sitting around on your ass all day.

  3. I don’t buy it. The people I know who eat the most food, the most foreign food, and eat out the most, are not the fattest people I know. They get regular exercise, and are in the best shape of anybody I know.

    The really fat people you see on “ABC World News Tonight” while they do the voiceover about the obesity problem always seem to be holding a McDonald’s wrapper, not kappamaki and aloo saag.

    I eat as much as I can, as often as I want, and I’ve never been even remotely near overweight. The problem isn’t eating a lot. It’s eating a lot of fatty foods, combined with never exercising.

  4. Philip, the Japanese are thinner for many reasons:

    – the cost of food in Japan (% arable land/person much less than US; more imports = higher cost)
    – smaller portions (this makes a BIG difference and it is very noticable)
    – traditional cuisine has less processed food and less saturated fats (grilled fish, soybeans, rice, etc.)
    – genetics (relatively homogenous population, so genetics does make a difference, imo)

    The Japanese are getting fatter, and taller though, as they integrate more foreign cuisines into the national diet. There is a lot of fast food and McD is popular here because it is very cheap, much as it is in the US.

  5. I really wish this blog software had a preview feature. Or that it would make carriage returns into breaks like most blog software.

    Also, please note that an email address is mandatory to submit. I just lost a post because I didnt input one and it deleted my comment before telling me that email was mandatory. A little work on the UI would be appreciated.

  6. I’m guessing this post is a joke but, you raise a good point. Diets that limit you to foods that are either boring to begin with or get boring quickly work well. Atkins is like this. You get sick of eating cheese, meat, cheese, and meat all the time so you don’t think “eating something tasty will make me happy.” Same with the Subway diet, I’m guessing. After 10 days of turkey and baked Lays, you stop thinking “food = happiness.” Take the fun out of food and it’s no longer a big temptation.I think you raise a good point in a goofy way. Oh, and don’t they have different types of ethnic food in Buenos Aires??? Gen: Next time that happens, right click and hit “Back.” There’s your post.

  7. Well, at least it was a fun read and I’m glad you lost weight while enjoying delicious steak sandwiches but it doesn’t ring true. If this were true, you would expect rural areas where there is little variation in restaurants to be populated with rather thin folks. But after temporarily moving to a very rural area from Chicago I have noticed the opposite.

    The countries obesity problem seems obviously linked to corporate food producers infatuation with hyper-processed food, loaded with sugar (and shelf life). Try living for a week without eating corn syrup. It turns up in the least expected places and government subsidies encourage it’s use by making it dirt cheap. Unless you are willing (and can afford) to eat fresh produce and fish for every meal it is very difficult to maintain healthy eating habits even if you never eat out. Combined this with our culture which rarely affords the time to prepare food and you don’t need to go to Argentina to figure out why America is growing around the middle.

  8. There was an interesting research going on last year, where British researchers found out that in the United States, portions of food where generally larger (up to 25% more) than in Europe. The results suggested that people’s tendency to try to eat up what’s on the table makes you consume more.

  9. I think you get all sorts of food in Mumbai (Bombay), India, and yes, the people *are* fat 🙂

  10. What about the obesity virus?

    In all seriousness, Philip has a point. Maybe variety isn’t the best thing, if not for eating the same all the time putting you off your food, then for the body not being able to switch between processing all these different substances.

  11. As a Westerner who’s lived in Japan for over 6 years, I must take issue with you. I think you’ve only eaten expensive Japanese food, not working man fare like gyudon, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, etc. Very cheap, very tasty, and will turn you into a lard-arse just as fast as a Bic Mac and fries. The difference in Japan is that gratuitous gluttony is viewed as nauseating rather than as a wealth indicator. Biggest problem is not being able to get a decent salad! :o(

  12. Australia is a counterexample.

    Sydney and Melbourne have a huge range of cheap quality food available – probably exceeding in variety any one US city – but Australia doesn’t (yet) have anything like the US’ obesity problem.

  13. Sydney and Melbourne have a range of foods exceeding any one US city? NYC is the food capital of the world. Boston, LA, Chicago — all these places have nearly every type of food available, certainly at least and almost certainly MORE variety than any place in Australia. Studies also show that urbanites are less fat than suburban / rural folk. We walk more and drive less, that’s probably why.

  14. ugh ???? Americans are fat because they eat too much fatty food and don’t exercise ! We get funny looks on holiday because we are WALKING !!!
    Try cutting down the portion sizes and get out of the car.

  15. Danny, technicaly, Oz is one of the most obese countries in the world. Why it doesn’t show as much as in the US is that there are roughly two types of people there: lean and fat cow, with not much in between. Australia, however has many people that are slightly obese. Although it is still only 21% of adults, as oposed to 31% in the US.

    Science is ruthless and while most people think of obese as those who need walls taken out of their house by Jerry Springer to get them to Fat Camp, you would be surprised as to how many people are judged to be obese by that icon of generalized stupidity that is the Body Mass Index.

  16. As french, i _must_ comment on this even is the most important was already said by others.

    France has the most diverse cuisine of the world, you can eat a main course, cheese and wine each day of the year without taking twice the same (yes, 365 different cheeses). This is not counting with ethnic cuisine wich we have a lot. We even have McDonalds as ethnic cuisine… And yet, you can come to France, you’ll go back in much better health 😉

  17. Productivity and the loss of tens of millions of manual labor jobs has made us fat. I can’t remember ever seeing a fat mailman who has a walking route (although these are disappearing.)

  18. Francois, a friend of mine just came back from visiting relatives in France. He commented how severely his tolerance for spicy foods we have here in Berkeley — Indian, Thai, Cajun, Korean — had been diminished by just a few months eating in France, where the food tended toward the rich and mild.

    There is nothing wrong with rich food, or subtle food, or complex food, as was gfavored under the haute cuisine — food of the court — that came to dominate French cooking, which became and has remained so thoroughly centralized in terms of taste that only a year ago an acclaimed French chef, Bernard Loiseau, committed suicide over losing a single Michelin star.

    France remains also downright hostile to immigrants (le pen is but one example), and so while their food may exist here and there it has not flourished or gained wide acceptance or been cross polinated nearly as widely as in America. Further, your people smoke like chimneys and take lots more vacation, keeping them slim.

    Anyway, the variety of wine and cheeses in France is truly glorious, and American FDA restrictions on unpastuerized cheese is a fascist assault on the culinary freedom of 250 million Americans, but counting vin and fromage and calling that diversity truly speaks volumes about some of the shortcomings of French food.

    Also, Philip has a point. I just this past month returned from a two-week, five-pound-shedding trip to Japan. I love Japanese food and appreciate its diversity — Japanese food in America is no example — but it is true you cannot focus on the food as much. Classic example was taking some Japanese friends to brunch in America. Breakfast in Japan looks like a small version of lunch, which looks like dinner. Rice, vegetables, small helping of meat, some tea. In America, meanwhile, we’re not content to have a diverse spectrum of breakfast foods, we have to invent a whole new meal, brunch, and invent a bunch of foods to fill that niche.

    The one way the Japanese were more diverse, however, was in vending machine liquids. I’m surprised there is not more weight gain from liquid calories.

  19. Isn’t this entry a bit glib? You seem to assume, Philip, that you can’t have foreign food anywhere else but in the USA. Let me assure you that non-american cities have plenty of “foreign” restaurants too.

  20. I don’t know whose point I’m supporting here, but you’re going to have some trouble consuming the lipid content of a McMeal in most japanese eateries. Certainly, if your tastes run towards the 1) fast or 2) cheap, you’ll be eating pretty healthy in Japan (well, if you stay out of KFC). The polar opposite is true in the US.

  21. After being in Japan for about 6 months I have to take issue with a careless statement as ‘All you can find is Japanese food’. If you live in Tokyo or I bet any metropolitan city in Japan you can find lots of ethnic cuisine in the area. Of course just like any country the native food is the most populace but making it sound like you can’t get different ethnic varieties of food in a Japanese city is very uninformed. Please choose another country where this might be more true.

  22. The list of assumptions to support your conclusion is quite long and thin! But, if you want to elicit creative responses, I’ll play on the theme while I eat my Cinnamon Bun.

    Let’s start with:
    1) Most countries, especially in their smaller towns, only offer one type of food.
    ** Ouch! No restaurants except in the US? Ok – I’ll accept your position that Americans are far more cultured (but I’ll disagree). 🙂
    2) Japan is a country with a high culinary reputation.
    ** More than other countries? and if so… why would the American fast food places be chosen over “Japanese Food” as you suggest?
    3) Because of immigration we always have the opportunity to open our mouths to alleviate boredom rather than hunger.
    ** The logic being: we have immigrants, therefore they must restauranteurs, which leads to restaurant diversity, which leads to boredom, which leads to eating for relief. And: Only in America… 🙂

    Yes, I was stretching on the last one, but I’m at the end of my Bun and my fingers are sticking to the keyboard.

    Bah – I said more than I wanted, but it was a fun diversion from something weighty like war and politics, or even software architectures for that matter. 🙂

  23. I can’t agree more. After immegrating to america I gained 25 kg in just a couple of years. My American lifstyle includes sedintary work 8-10 hours a day and a big fat sallary so I can eat whatever I want as much as I want (but can’t afford much else). What they need to do is skyrocket food prices so that people woun’t be able to afford to stuff themselves three time a day.

  24. Hmmmm…
    Phillip, I think that you may be trying to identify a single (and possibley irrelevant) cause for weight loss on vacation.

    While it is probably true that you ate a different diet while on vacation, I think that there were probably other differences in your behavior while abroad.

    Here are a few that I experience when travelling:
    I am doing different things, breaking out of my normal routines. Rather than sitting in front of a computer working or vegging out in front of a tv I am visting interesting sites, trying out new activities and pretty much exerting myself way beyond the normal. This may actually be raising my metabolism, at the very least it is burning more calories through hours of movement.

    Non-standard transportation.
    When I am away from home, I do not have my handy dandy car waiting for me in the drive way. In order to see the sites, I must use light rail, visit other people that have cars, stand around waiting for buses, drag around luggage and _even_ WALK!!!

    Unusual microbes,
    I don’t know about you, but when I am travelling my digestive tract is put under the strain of unusual microbes. Even if this does not result in illness (resulting dehydration and weight loss) it may make my fat collecting systems slightly less efficient than normal.

    Catching planes, trains, etc makes for added stress. This by itself can raise metabolism and eat up lotsa extra calories.

    Just some thoughts, check out your own memories and see if they fit into the equation.


  25. What has made us fat is not immigration but Dunkin Donuts and SUVs. The reason why we probably lose weight when traveling is because we are more likely to *walk around* instead of careening around mall hopping in our SUVs, as we are likely to do when in the U.S. When I lived near Dallas several years ago, I discovered that some cities no longer even provide side walks. Welcome to Dunkin Donuts+SUV nation.

  26. I get the opposite effect to Philip. Every time I go to the US I put on several pounds, so

    Why are Americans fat?

    (1) They eat too much ( obvious huh? ).
    (2) They never walk if they can help it.
    (3) Other Americans are fat too so it becomes socially acceptable.
    (4) The portion sizes in restaurants are too big.
    (5) They believe in stupid diets, like Atkins. Just eat less!!

    ps. Philip, you must have missed Chinatown in Buenos Aires; and you can get every other sort of restaurant here too. Maybe a bit thin on the ground for Indian, only 3 I know of.

  27. It used to be the no-fat crazyness here in the US and now it’s being replaced with the no-carb nonsense. Slowly but surely we will discover the eat-less excersize-more secret, but we have to try all these “magic” diets first.

  28. Not wishing to inject too much science into the matter, I think you may find it has much more to do with relatively bad effects of highly processed food on the bodies sugar (and correspondingly, insulin) levels.

    You may like to consider the arguments put forward in ‘Eat Yourself Slim’ by Michel Montignac.

    But there’s no getting away from it. The naivety inherent in the American culture is directly responsible for its growing waistline.

    It took the French, the Japanese… the rest of the world virtually, many hundreds of years to evolve their cultures (and food is at the very heart of culture).

    It is not then surprising to see the folly of adopting eating patterns (and production) from a culture that was (in relative terms) born yesterday.

  29. Funny that you should mention Argentine food. I happened to run across somebody else’s opinions on their cuisine:

    “[Bobby Fischer] ate with the oral drive of a barracuda and talked incessantly about how wonderful the food was. ‘Look at that juice! Fresh, not frozen! And where else can you get a glass that big for less than ten cents? Look at that steak! It’s almost two inches thick. And YOU can really taste it! Not like that lousy American meat, all full of chemicals. This is natural meat! I tell you, Argentine food is the finest in the world!'”

    And later:

    “We ate at a Chinese restaurant. Fischer ordered two main dishes, one made with duck and the other with pork, as I remember, and then swizzled them around with his fork till he had a sort of soupy slush. ‘Terrific food here!’ he mumbled, eyes shining.”

    And after escaping from some crazed reporters:

    “Wow, am I hungry! Soon as they’re gone, let’s sneak out and get something to eat!”


    Bobby Fischer isn’t what I’d call “fat”. Maybe that’s because he managed to fit an 8-mile hike in there. It’s certainly not because he thought the food was bad!

  30. I absolutely agree with Simon. I never met anyone from Europe who visited USA for 6 months or so and not gaining a few kilograms, even the very skiny types – they all gained just fat.

    American food that can be bought in stores is highly processed that includes everything from milk, meat, bread, you name it – that is also why it appears “plain” in taste to those who are used to non-processed food.

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