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Life in Japan - Why Americans Are So Fat

Before moving to Japan from the US, I had been a vegetarian for 8 years (age 18-26).  I originally became one because I thought it healthier to cut meat out altogether as a source of calories.  Hopefully, not eating meat would reduce my caloric intake and unconsciously lead to healthier meal choices.  Seeing how many of my fellow Americans were or eventually became grossly overweight, I should make a lifestyle change now to avoid future health issues.  Unlike many vegetarians/vegans, I chose the vegetarian lifestyle solely for health reasons and not animal rights reasons.

I gave it up shortly after moving to Japan:
  • The vegetarian diet (esp. at restaurants) was not as easy to maintain because Japanese restaurants supplied few veggie-only dishes.  I was spoiled living in LA because California in general is quite vegetarian-friendly.  Ok, yeah, I know this is a lame reason.
  • My Japanese was rather limited at the time making accurate communication of my dietary needs to restaurant staff rather challenging.
  • Many meals in Japan are family-style.  I would go to dinner with a big group of students and a variety of dishes would be ordered for the whole table.  We shared everything much like a Thanksgiving dinner.  99.9% of the dishes had meat of some sort.  I was really going against the grain insisting on a separate veggie meal just for me.  Japan is big on harmony, and this vegetarian thing just wasn't working.
But the primary reason I quit being a vegetarian is that living in Japan opened my eyes to the real problem.  "Vegetarian" is barely in the Japanese vocabulary.  "Vegan?  What's that??"  I looked around and saw a significantly slimmer population with a longer lifespan--a population that had no problem devouring meat.  Why are they so slim and we so fat?  The blame shouldn't be placed on the meat.  Here are more tuned explanations of America's weight issues:

Lack of Natural Exercise
Natural exercise is exercise built into your daily routine--walking to work, cycling to the grocery store, etc.  It's the highest form of exercise because you don't have to think about it, plan your schedule around it, or even consider it exercise.

When I lived in LA, my natural exercise routine was usually walking to my car and unlocking it.  LA is such a die-hard car city that it's rare to meet a person who has successfully built significant amounts of natural exercise into their lifestyle.  I did so to a point.  I lived in Studio City and worked in downtown LA.  Instead of commuting on the infamous 101 freeway each morning, I opted for the Metro Red Line.  I insisted on using the stairs in the Red Line stations.  I was hoping to ride a bike to the station from home, but I dreaded the horrendously steep evening climb up the Hollywood Hills after a full day's work.  I met a happy compromise.  A friend's girlfriend hooked me up with a discount on an electric-assist bicycle.  When the going got tough climbing up the hills (oh, and they did), I clicked on the electric-assist.  It still gave me a decent work-out without drenching me in blood, sweat, and tears.

Now I live in Tokyo--a vivid metropolis of 12 million people.  Notice I said "vivid" and not "sprawling."  Tokyo doesn't suffer from urban sprawl as LA does.  Its public transportation system is peerless.  Yes, it's crowded and oozes people; however, it also oozes convenience.  I do not own a car, need one, nor desire one.  As such I get oodles of natural exercise in this town.

I walk 10 minutes from home to the station each weekday morning.  Then I enjoy a just-over-5-minute walk from the station to the office.  That's 15 minutes of walking one-way, 30 minutes round-trip.  30 minutes of walking a day times 5 days equals 150 minutes of walking per week (2.5 hours).  This is just my commute.  I'm not counting the walking or biking I do to/from the grocery store, bank, post office, convenience store, etc.

Do most Americans get this amount of natural exercise?  Probably not.

The Portions Are Too Damn Big - The Claimjumper Phenomenon
Not too long ago I took my Japanese girlfriend to LA, and we ate at some of my favorite restaurants (no, Claimjumper is not one of them).  Half of each and every meal we ate had to be taken home in a doggy bag.  Each dinner out resulted in a free lunch the next day.  That's not a bad deal for my pocketbook, but can be for my waistline.  When I lived in the USA, I used to finish those Cheesecake Factory pasta mountains and Grand Lux chicken caesar salads with their own zip code.  It was not until moving to Japan that I saw how horribly skewed the USA portioning was.

With such large portions I need self-control to stop halfway through the meal, admit that I'm indeed satiated at that point, and take the rest home in a doggie bag.  American portioning is so poorly measured that I think some sick conspiracy is at play.  USA restaurants are fattening up the citizens for some kind of demented "harvesting."  Eat!  Eat!  You are the guest of honor at tonight's dinner!  It may look like a good deal because you only paid six bucks for that Himalayan salad mountain, but I'd prefer a three-dollar salad that's properly portioned for a single human being.  That way I'm not paying the restaurant six bucks to fatten me up for tonight's luau.

Not only are Japan's restaurant portions more accurate, but many meals at restaurants are family style.  In other words, the dishes are ordered for the entire table, and you take what you want.  The primary advantage of family style dining is that you eat until you are naturally full.  This serves to prevent occurrence of the "I'm really full, but I gotta finish my plate" folly.

The problem extends beyond restaurants.  I love potato chips.  I know they're unhealthy, but they're little crispy bits of heaven.  An American bag of chips contains enough to feed a family of four for a week.  This is great in case of an earthquake or gozilla attack, but not great if I'm trying to show a little restraint.  The typical Japanese bag of chips is the size of an American “travel pack.”  I'll keep eating chip after chip after chip when I get started.  At least the Japanese size cuts me off before things get out of hand.

Pop Culture
I grew up on soda.  Actually, my parents called it "pop."  Pop is essentially carbonated water infused with massive amounts of empty calories in the form of high fructose corn syrup.  This is the stuff that flies and other sugar-seeking insects can't get enough of.  Any mommy will tell you that too much sugar will rot your teeth and make you fat.  If you watch the documentary "Supersize Me," you'd see this proverb in action.  If you want to stay thin, then you shouldn't drink soda.  But go to any Vons, Ralph's, or Walmart, and you'll see that the USA is a soda-loving culture.

Japan is hard-core tea culture, and I don't mean Lipton ultra-sweetened corn syrup passion fruit iced tea.  They've got green tea, and roasted wheat tea, and oolong tea, and jasmine tea, and blends of all sorts of exotic teas.   With a whopping zero calories, unsweetened tea is a far healthier choice.

Big Fridge, Big American
The refrigerator at my parents' house in LA is of typical American size—freakin' massive.  You could easily fit a dismembered corpse in there.  By contrast my fridge in Japan is less than half the size of an American fridge.  I have no issues with my smaller fridge because the grocery store is a 5-minute walk away.  Since I don't own a car, I can't lug home those 48-packs of Eggo waffles anyway.  I also enjoy a lower electricity bill and a bit more breathing space in my already compact kitchen.

The American approach to at-home dining is to head to Costco in the family gas-guzzling SUV, and  stock up the SUV-sized fridge with a 64-pack of Mama Celeste frozen pizzas and 96-pack of 2-liter Sierra Mist soda bottles.  Then you're good to go for the next month or so.  You have to trek out of the expansive suburban forest before arriving at the local consumerist hyper-mall, so setting out on such a shopping adventure is not something conveniently done more than once a month.  Hence America is adequately spiced with massive family cargo vans, massive storage locker fridges, massive parking lots, a massive carbon dioxide footprint, and the coveted title of number one energy-burning country.

Two errors exist here: Quantity is favored over quality, and the food is stored too damn long.  This in turn degrades the nutritional value of the American food supply.  Giant bags of hyper-salted and never-expiring potato chips, overly-sweetened and artificially-colored confections, and “bigger the size, bigger the discount”-focused supermarkets abound.  My girlfriend has recurrent digestive issues when we visit the US.  Her suitcase looks like a stomach medicine pharmacy.  I guess my body is just used to it.  I don't know exactly what's in it, but something is wrong.  Soylent Green is made of people!

Japan certainly favors quality over quantity.  The food is fresh, tasty, and uncomfortably expensive.  Everything is so-far-so-good with my body mass index, and that could have much to do with the sheer quality of the food here.  Or it could simply be that I can't afford to overeat.

I really wish my home country would stop going bigger and start going better.

I had a student that was planning to study English abroad in the US.  She asked me, “I heard people get fat in America.  I don't want to get fat.  What should I do?”  If I ever do move back to the States, I'd try to take what I've learned in Japan apply it there.  This could serve as advice to those that wish to fight the powerful American tendency to get chubby:
  • Drink tea and water.  Don't drink soda or other sweetened beverages, and don't raise kids on soda.
  • Buy a smaller fridge.  Don't store food for so long.  Buy fresh food more often.
  • Order 1 entree for 2 people and split it.  Order from the kids menu.  Establish a rule to stop eating any restaurant entree halfway and take the remainder home.  Now you have lunch for tomorrow.
  • Visit a foreign country that doesn't suffer from weight problems like the US.  Better yet, live in a foreign country for a while.  Experiencing a novel culture and lifestyle has enabled me to see my home country in a new light.  I can take what I consider the best of both worlds and weave it into my life.  Staying in one place your whole life is like shopping at the same store all the time.  It's not until shopping at other stores that you realize the variety that's out there.  Comparison-shop cultures.
  • Try eating with chopsticks.  I eat way too fast, and when I eat with a fork, I shovel the food in.  Chopsticks make it more challenging to speed-shovel my food.  They slow me down and allow my digestive system to work at a more moderate pace.  My stomach can accurately report when I'm getting full.
  • Try family-style meals.  I don't have that “must finish everything on my plate” issue when dining this way.  I eat, start getting full, then stop eating.  That's the way it should be.
  • Work natural exercise into your daily life.  This is a tough one because it depends on where you live, where you work, and where your grocery stores, etc. are located. Investigate alternative transportation methods.  Support local mom and pop stores over the hyper markets.  If it's too far to bike all the way to the office, consider an electric-assist bike or drive partway and cycle the rest.  Befriend other like-minded individuals.  I'm not the kind of person that can go to a gym on a regular basis. Instead, forcing exercise into my daily life is a superior method for me because I don't even have to think about it.  I do still workout on my Nintendo Wii Fit, though.  I want a 6-pack and 24-inch pythons—not a spare tie and man boobs.
One of my best friends in LA told me, “Dude, you're not American anymore.  You take off your shoes in the house and you drink green tea.”  Well, I think I'm still American, but I'm an American on the way to becoming a citizen of the world.  The best thing I ever did was decide to live abroad.  It opened my eyes, enlightened my life—and with any luck—will allow me to keep my girlish figure.

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  • Guest - Yukari Ono

    This is timely article. I moved to US for school when I was 20 and within a year I was 20 pounds heavier, and by the 3rd year my family didn't recognize me in photos because I had grown so large, my face got fat and my jeans went up to size 16. I started going to gym but still have fat belly and big in butt.

  • Your mom is a smart woman:)

  • Guest - Steffi

    Absolutely true about this...
    I went to US before and when i bought a meal, it was always double portion than it used to be in my country...
    Especially coke... and i hate cokes, because my mom doesn't allow me to consume it.
    It likes eating CO2 bubbles.
    I love u're article and your blog... really useful... thanks a lot