Your average American eats more calories per day than people in any other country in the world. No surprise there! But once you start delving in the data, the picture does indeed get a little weird: We don’t eat that much more than Europeans. But their obesity rates stand at 15%, while ours are double that, at 34%. What the hell?
Food Service Warehouse created this nice interactive chart showing how many calories people around the world consume each day, and what portion of their income goes towards food. Obviously, the U.S. leads in calories consumed:
But the data is actually surprising once you get into the details. For starters, Americans only spend 6.9% of their income on food. Compare that to a country such as Italy, which has a far lower rate of obesity. Italians eat only 100 fewer calories per day than we do—but they spend more than twice their income on food:
Granted, Americans don’t walk as much as Europeans do. But the obvious thing you have to conclude is that we simply eat cheaper food that’s worse for us. Again, that’s no surprise given the amount of fast food and processed food that Americans eat. The real question is why we eat like that. I’d place the blame squarely on the 1950s, and our wholesale embrace of mechanized food after World War II. In those days, fast food, canned vegetables, and cheap chicken became a sign of America’s progressiveness: Cheap food, in the days after World War II, were a marker of the roaring economic progress we were making. Cheap food, in other words, was a source of national pride before it became a national habit. Europe, by contrast, had no such industrial miracle. Instead, they simply held onto the food traditions that they always had—of home cooking, for example.
To flip it forward a bit, I would argue that Europeans are willing to pay more for better food because what they eat is so wrapped up with national pride and cultural identity. Why wouldn’t you spend the time to buy great ingredients for something homemade if that’s how your beloved great-grandmother did it? Americans, by contrast, have far less of a cultural attachment to the food we eat. We don’t have national dishes and food traditions that bind us together in the way of Italy or Greece. Sure, we have hamburgers, but can anyone argue that those matter as much as sardines and pasta to Souther Italians? Or fish and dolmas to Greeks? It’s no surprise that we’re so susceptible to cheap food: In some ways, it’s because food simply means less to us. But we simply pay later down the line: Obesity costs America $147 billion in health care costs each year—roughly 10% of every dollar we spend on health care.