As my yearly trip to Ukraine came to an end, I sit on the porch drinking my green tea with saponins at 6am (still jet-lagged) and reflect. Something happened during this particular trip- probably due to the fact that I traveled with an “anthropologist” mindset this time around as I had an assignment.
What happened is that I lost my idealistic view of the Ukrainian diet- some morally superior way to eat and take care of one’s health. I realized this as I read yet another “alternative health” article on how Bolivians kicked out McDonald’s out of their country supposedly due to their preference for Real foods. That is very untrue- they simply could not afford to go to the place enough. They didn’t despise fast food in their fantastic and intuitive understanding of nutrition- they just didn’t have enough money to eat it frequently.
The same fact struck me in Ukraine. But first- our obesity rates are much lower than in the United States [2010: 48.5% females & 41.2% males- overweight or obese. For US: 76.7% females & 80.5% males*]; slimness is valued higher (especially among young girls) as being overweight is almost unacceptable and publicly so. And yet, you see plenty of people with excess weight- only they tend to be on the older side. As in the United States, being healthy, fit, and in charge of your health is also a fashionable thing, so folks try to read up on nutrition and go to the gym, etc…
In terms of lower obesity rates- I also suspect the USSR legacy is at work here, where overindulgence of any kind was not OK. In USSR era variety was low, portions were small, and getting much than someone else was quire unpopular. This is just a tiny theory though. My other theory is that eating norms are different than those in the US- smaller portions and less snacking is more the norm (can not prove this yet), a normal lunch/dinner is thought to include a warm soup, combining heavy foods (e.g. meat, potatoes, bread) is seen as less ideal, eating out is much less normal than cooking at home..
Is our overall lower weight due to the fact that we choose to eat healthier than Americans?
Well, let me tell you- Ukraine has plenty of “fast food” spots around the cities. Most often they’re some deep fried combinations of bread and either sausages or cabbage.
Of course we also have McDonald’s and you will never see it without a huge line. It is necessary to admit that vegetables are a much more natural addition to our diet in comparison to North Americans- many dishes feature vegetables (they are also the cheapest thing you can buy in a store) and many people know how to cook them in a tasty way. I believe there is less skill among US folks and that’s partially the reason they can’t get enough plants in their diet. Also, my observation has been that, even though Americans call really bad foods “junk food” they still eat plenty of it. The idea of snacking on junk in Ukraine seems to be less popular and a bit more unacceptable (not like I didn’t see folks on the streets with Coke or people buying chips at the store though..).
To summarize my thoughts in 1 sentence: I think Ukrainians are less heavy not because they eat healthier, but simply because they eat less for a number of reasons.
So.. what makes US obesity rates so much higher? Are people there simply more weak and ignorant about what and how much to eat!? I don’t think so. I think the human animal is born with strong survival instincts- i think we are programmed to consume food, even in excess, since throughout the majority of our time on earth tomorrow was unpredictable in terms of nourishment. I believe it is natural to eat more than we need for this reason. United States simply created an environment that becomes unhealthy- opportunities to eat strong-tasting calorie-rich foods are too abundant, too varied, and too affordable.
Lastly, my thoughts and theories do not even begin to cover the potential reasons Ukrainians are not as heavy as Americans. Moreover, they could be simply wrong. But no despair! My trip home was also a research trip- I collected 42 surveys on food and health.
Once I collect enough responses from Americans, I hope the analysis will give me a glimpse at the differences in the two cultures. Hopefully it will add to my understanding of our lower obesity rates. Would be good to make my opinions slightly more scientific 😉