Letter from America

Emma Brown | 21 Oct, 2013

Having just returned from a family holiday in Florida, I felt compelled to write about my experiences. Don't worry it won't be a boring slide show of everything we did (although I was very proud to have conquered my fear of rollercoasters!). The reason why I wanted to put this article together was because of FOOD... something the Americans do with the same gusto as their rollercoaster's - the bigger the better!

As a nutritionist from the UK, visiting America is a bit like a health and safety officer visiting a poorly managed building site - you're surrounded by people doing things that go against everything you've ever been taught or practised. From HUGE, and I mean HUGE portions, to small fizzy drinks served in vast, supersize cups with free refills. And then there are the people... so I thought it was worth putting down into words what I saw, and how it made me take stock of my own health, that of my family, and the advice that I offer to others.

America - the land of the free

The United States of America has the highest obesity rate in the developed world. Levels of obesity now sit at over 35% of the population. With a total population of around 313 million, that's nearly 110 million people who are obese... scary statistics! That's more than the total population of the UK! With obesity, unfortunately, tends to come health problems and so the USA are facing a massive public health crisis.

Spending time in the USA got me thinking about obesity, and what is causing this global epidemic and hitting the USA so hard. I also started to compare what we have here in the UK, and the possibility that we're heading the same way. So here are my thoughts about what might be causing the problem:-

1) Portion Sizes

After a few days of over-ordering, and lots of waste, we soon realised that ordering a starter before our meal was a big no-no. Starters (often deep fried) turned up on huge plates - enough for a family of 6 to share, sold as a starter for 1. In the majority of 'chain' restaurants, portions were far bigger than we'd get back in the UK. Most foods were served with fries, and often with a complimentary salad too. One meal in particular, was a grilled steak, fries and said complimentary salad. Yum I thought - just right for what I fancied, and with a salad too to watch those calories. The meal turned up - a vast lump of steak, pile of fries and a separate pasta-sized dish full of salad, drowned in Caesar Dressing. Unnecessary portions, and a whole lot of waste. Looking around the restaurant I noticed the locals were polishing off their plates - or taking it home in a doggy bag!

At Nutracheck we know how portion sizes can affect calorie intake - weighing everything you eat really makes you think about what you're eating, and cutting back.

2) Choices

America Fast Food

I was pleased to see 'under 500 calories' menus in a couple of places we visited but generally the menus were burgers, steaks, deep fried... and everything served with chips. But it was the kids menu's that disappointed me the most - my kids love fast food once in a while (and I'm not adverse to them having it) but at every meal for 3 weeks? Perhaps a bit too much! Unless we were in a 'higher end' restaurant, the only kids' options were burgers, chicken tenders, steak, pizza... all served with chips! Even in the theme parks where 'healthy options' were available, meals were almost always served with a fizzy drink and fries.

I was shocked at the lack of vegetables - none of the meals I ordered were served with vegetables as the norm. By week 2, I was craving a floret of broccoli or a nice pile of steamed carrots.

Salads in the US are amongst the best in the world and I was pleased to find a few restaurants with delicious salads on their menus. In one particular restaurant, I ordered a Cobb Salad as my main course but the waiter couldn't understand that I just didn't want anything else, and that was my meal! I was made to feel like I was asking for something really unusual - obviously their normal diner would have had that as a starter or a side?

3) Walking

Now I don't know about you, but here in the UK I try and walk wherever I can, whether it's taking the kids to school, or popping to the shops. I'm lucky to live in walking distance to most local amenities and make a point of using my legs when I can. In the USA, at least where we were staying, there was no opportunity to walk. In fact, you would be taking your life in your hands if you did. There are very few pedestrian crossings, and most roads are dual carriageways. A short trip to the supermarket couldn't physically be done on foot, we had to take the car... no option. So if you live in the USA full time, do you just not walk anywhere? Unless you actively seek exercise, perhaps it's just not part of Americans' day to day activities?

4) Normal

I don't like the word 'normal' - what does it really mean? But I found that we were the 'abnormal' ones...the majority of Americans that we came across either in the theme parks, in restaurants or in shops, were overweight or obese. Quite shocking to me, was that this is just accepted as the 'norm'. There was even a special queue for some of the rides for people who didn't fit in the normal seats.


There's a lot of walking to be done in the theme parks - one of my party had a pedometer and recorded a distance of almost 10 miles walked in one particular day (and it was over 100 degrees so calories must have been burned!). But there were a huge number of very overweight / obese people in mobility scooters. I obviously don't know whether they had medical reasons for using the scooters, but surely their weight had a bearing on it? They couldn't possibly have walked that far, especially in the heat.

So are the American's sitting back and accepting that obesity is the new normal? It's OK to have to use a mobility scooter to get around? How would we feel about this in the UK?

Back home - a time to reflect...

So what does this all mean? Here in the UK I can walk where I want, when I want, and although I encounter people of all shapes and sizes, I don't get an overwhelming feeling that it's the norm. Obesity rates in the UK are at an all-time high - in fact 61% of adults and 30% of children aged 2-15 are overweight or obese, and 1 in 4 (around 25%) are classed as obese, so we definitely do have a public health problem. On the flip side, food choices and portion sizes are certainly better than in the USA at the moment, but we have the potential to go the same way.

I'm always pleased to see new initiatives to help people reach a healthy weight, and many UK restaurants now offer healthy options, or smaller portions sizes - and you're not made to feel awkward or unusual if you choose them. We are getting much better at understanding health and how it is directly linked to how we treat our bodies - maintaining a healthy weight, being as active as possible and enjoying life are all key steps in taking control and not letting the UK head down the same road as the USA.

I thoroughly enjoyed my holiday in America, but I was very glad to come back to home cooking, 'normal' portions, eating vegetables and keeping my feet firmly on the ground! Surprisingly I lost 4lbs in weight during my time in America - although most of that was probably down to the 10 mile walk every day, and perspiration!

Nutritionist Emma Brown, MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.