American cultural norms could be making us fat.
A new study looked at the effects of societal traits on obesity rates — and it found that countries that value individualism have higher body mass indexes in males.
Published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the study examined data from 51 countries to find out why there is so much variation in global obesity rates.
While economic prosperity is an important factor — with wealthier nations having greater access to food and lower levels of physical activity — it doesn’t explain why some less-developed countries have high levels of obesity (Egypt, Jordan, Mexico) and more developed ones don’t (Japan, South Korea, Singapore).
The study found that those latter countries were more “flexible.” In other words, they prioritize thrift, discipline, self control and delaying gratification — all behaviors that can help with weight control. They were also slimmer across the board.
Meanwhile, countries that valued individualism — such as the United States and those in Northwestern Europe, as well as some in Latin America — are more headstrong about personal independence and choices. Men in these countries tended to be heftier, although it was surprisingly not a factor when it comes to women.
While the study acknowledged that genetics and diet — particularly the fatty, processed and sugary foods Americans love — contribute to obesity, it found that national culture also played an underdiscussed role.
The findings resonated with Dr. George Fielding, a bariatric surgeon and professor of surgery at New York University.
“I’m not trying to be crass, but fat is the new normal here,” Fielding told The Post.
“Culturally, it’s fine to be considered fat. Britain and Australia are the same. Most of the people making national health policies are aiming it at individuals to eat less and exercise more, rather than look at the [societal] cost of health care and early death.”
As of 2020, the prevalence of obesity among adults was 41.9% in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity — one of the leading causes of death globally — is linked to a myriad of life-shortening illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, many cancers and cardiovascular disease.
“On the flip side, in Asian countries, there’s a belief you should comply with restraint, which is not inherent in American culture,” said Fielding. “There are rules, and you are supposed to follow the rules.”
As for the difference between male and female obesity rates in “individualist” countries, the surgeon said he sees the dynamic play out in his own practice — where women outnumber men for bariatric surgery 3 to 1.
“Men in particular think, ‘I’m an individual, don’t tell me what to do. I’m going to eat what I want,’ ” said Fielding, who notes that surgery should be considered once a person’s BMI hits 40.
He said female patients seek interventions because they feel terrible, while his male patients are motivated to lose weight once they’ve become ill due to diabetes, high blood pressure or heart ailments.
Fielding, who called obesity a “national disaster,” added that other societal factors play into our collective weight issues.
“Fewer and fewer jobs require physical exertion, and you don’t have to work hard to get food anymore,” he said. “We have heaps of processed food, and we are bombarded with advertisements for it. It all plays a big part.”
As for reversing the trend, Fielding said it’s an uphill battle: “How do you institute a national policy in a country where you can’t tell anyone anything?”
But he said that acknowledging America’s obesity problem — now verboten in polite society — would help.
“It’s the new normal, and how dare you be mean to the new normal?” Fielding said. “The people out there who are fat, they think that’s how it is now.”
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