Something I found interesting when I spoke to Americans that have traveled abroad was their transition from eating in Europe to eating upon return to the U.S. They often described feeling like the food they were eating abroad made them feel less bloated and “icky,” and sometimes went so far as to say that they felt healthier overall while living in Europe. This experience doesn’t seem to just be a trend among those coming back from experiential learning trips. Studies have found that the U.S. has seen worse health outcomes for its people compared to other nations at the same wealth level, including many nations within the EU. While this is due to numerous factors, nutrition and the culture surrounding food are likely important aspects of this — aspects which, if understood, may help to better illuminate the discrepancies we see surrounding health in the U.S. compared to the EU.
We all know the image of the standard “American”—the comical image of an individual with a burger in hand—in the eyes of our European peers, but the unfortunate reality is that this view is not completely unfounded. Research has indeed found that intake of fast food has increased at a substantial rate in the U.S. over the past couple of years, a trend that mirrors the fact that fast food restaurants have become more accessible through the rapid expansion of fast food chains, mobile app ordering and drive thrus. This is alarming considering the difficulty of accessing healthier alternatives in the U.S. It is a concoction of circumstances that encourages the consumption of unhealthy food due to convenience and low cost. Even outside the realm of fast food, the diet of the common American often contains more meat and sugar than their European counterparts. Though the temptations of a society with well-placed fast food joints affects some groups, namely those of low socioeconomic status, more than others, it is overall evident that it affects all levels of society in one way or another.
Then there are the stark differences in the lifestyles of the citizens of these nations. European cities and towns are typically more walkable than the average American city and it has been concurrently observed that Europeans walk more, comparatively. It is clear that exercise is built into the structure of their days. Rather than having to find time to go to the gym, the very act of walking to work commonly adds some sort of physical activity into the daily routine.
In some places, the culture surrounding meals is also very different. Digestion is also a large part of nutrition. In many European countries, the time allotted for lunch and relaxation are much more generous than in the U.S. In Spain, many shops close in the afternoon to allow for rest. In France, lunch is commonly a one- to two-hour-long affair, even for individuals in school or at work. In my experience, I remember we would get twenty minutes in high school. In the working world, lunch is sometimes a quick scarfing down of food at one’s desk.
But what is there to do when it seems the very infrastructure of our society is geared towards more unhealthy tendencies? For those who can afford it, it may begin with changes in smaller parts of our lives by allowing ourselves the time to seek out the “healthier option.” Personally, this means making the slightly longer trek to the local Price Chopper and avoiding temptation by the numerous fast food joints I walk past on the way there. But for a society with many who do not have the time or monetary resources to afford themselves the less convenient option, more systemic changes need to be made.
In a discussion I had with an exchange student, they mentioned how amateur sports leagues were quite common where they lived. This is one example of a wider societal change that advances public health. Perhaps corporations can launch initiatives to have sports leagues within their company, which grants the opportunity to promote the well-being of their employees while also fostering a sense of community. The government could also lend a hand by launching initiatives that focus on accessibility to healthy foods. What will help the most, however, is understanding why these differences exist and attacking root problems as they persist within the framework of our society.