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Processed food vs. fresh food; U.S. vs. the world


This New York Times graphic breaking down the consumption of different types of packaged and non-packaged food in different countries is too big to reproduce here, but well worth taking a couple of minutes to stare at. But though the graph is focused on food categories, it also shows the quantity eaten by people in different countries. So I made a new graph out of that, which you can see atop this post. The surprise, to me, was that Americans aren't consuming much more food that residents of other developed nations. Indeed, we're neck-and-neck with the Spanish, but not belly-to-belly: According to OECD data (pdf), our obesity rate (34.3 percent) is more than twice theirs (14.9 percent).

By Ezra Klein  |  April 12, 2010; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Genetics, more active lifestyles, or foods (including prepared foods) with less refined sugar, flour and so on?

There aren't many things that can account for eating the exact same amount of food, yet one country having a significantly higher obesity problem?

Except maybe variances in collecting the statistical data, country from country.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 12, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

The foods that we eat a lot of probably have more calories per pound.

Posted by: vince432 | April 12, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting. Even in terms of processed food, the US doesn't dominate over other countries. Yeah, it's ahead, but not by a large margin.

But from what I saw, there is only one category that the US is heavily divergent from the other countries. Snacks and candy. US is at 47 while Spain is its closest competitor at 28, a 40% drop from US to Spain and they are the closest of the countries listed.

Posted by: DDAWD | April 12, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

i wonder too how much of it has to do with how many hours we work.

here's a link to another great writer!

I think lack of exercise has a lot to do with it too. If you add lack of exercise to DDAWD's snack intake its not good and shows in the obesity level.

I'd also question if the preservatives used in Spain are the same as the preservatives in the US. I don't know either way but I'd expect that could have an impact too and whatever it is what we're doing is bad and causing our health costs to be as high as they are.

Posted by: visionbrkr | April 12, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

That actually makes sense to me. When I'm trying to limit my calorie intake, I find that if I just stick to meals, I can stay under my limit pretty easily. I don't have to eat rabbit food either. Reasonable meals will keep me at my target. It's when I eat junk food that I tend not to be able to stay at my goals.

Posted by: DDAWD | April 12, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

You'll have to forgive me Ezra about doubting a graph that shows China eats, on average, virtually 15% more per capita meat and seafood than the US. On a gross basis, I would easily believe, but on a per capita basis this blows every concept about the protien-heave US diet v. China's rice/grain/veggie diet.

Posted by: Jaycal | April 12, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

It's the snacks and candy, in which we are about double the next closest country. And French wpomen are obviously thinner because they eat less food. The French eat way less food than us or the Spanish. Mexicans eat many fewer fruits and vegetables, but baked goods must be so high because it includes tortillas.

The Japanese eat way more processed/pre-prepared food than we do. Given that they eat lots of soy sauce and the propensity of prepared food to contain lots of salt, I wonder abiout that shift's effect on long-term health. And we need to remember that our high vegetable score is probably half made up of fries.

Posted by: Mimikatz | April 12, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Spaniards definitely walk more, and do more exercise throughout the day.

Spaniards also consume most of their food in the middle of the day, allowing greater time between the big meal and bed time. Most Americans eat dinner later at night (between 6pm and 8pm say?), much closer to bed time.

I'd also say less of them are dependent on air conditioning, which could affect how our metabolisms work?

It's interesting to see in Spain they consume more bread and dairy, two things you'd think would have a serious negative effect on their obesity rates.

Maybe it's all the high fructose corn syrup we eat here?

Posted by: cbaratta | April 12, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I bet hours of sleep might be related to it as well. We might sleep less in the US than in other nations. That leads to higher obesity.

Posted by: DDAWD | April 12, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

@Mimikatz: "And we need to remember that our high vegetable score is probably half made up of fries."

Really? Wouldn't, in this day and age, potatoes be evaluated as a starch or under some non-vegetable category? It's more comparable to rice than cucumbers, after all. If so, they need to break that out. French fries are not vegetables.

@cbaratta: "Maybe it's all the high fructose corn syrup we eat here?"

I think that's a good bet. I'd also like to see a comparison of artificial sweeteners. I bet we consume twice as much aspartame and malitol and whatnot than the next closest country. I have heard that there have been studies that link aspartame to obesity, though I have not confirmed this myself.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 12, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Re: sleeping more. While not scientific, I have attempted to lose weight while restricting calories and getting more rest, and have attempted to lose weight while not restricting calories so much, and not getting more rest, but instead exercising for an hour each day, and the hour of exercise has done more to help me control my weight than a full nights sleep.

So, if you have to pick between exercising an hour or sleeping an extra hour, pick exercise.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 12, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Look at China's vegetable consumption!

I guess my mother took my advice when I told her she could send my broccoli to the kids there. Who would have thunk it?

Posted by: theorajones1 | April 12, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

theorajones1: It looks like the chart counts unprocessed grains as a kind of vegetable (which after all they technically are) so the vegetable that most of them are eating is probably rice.

Posted by: usergoogol | April 12, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Elizabeth Kolbert did a good review of the obesity literature last year in The New Yorker, from books by evolutionists, health economists, dietician scientists, etc :

But there was a fascinating long New Yorker piece a number of years ago from an anthropological/genetic angle. If I can find it, I'll post.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | April 12, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Oh, here's that other New Yorker piece, though take it with a grain of salt. It was an "Annals of Medicine" article by Malcolm Gladwell from 1998. You can only get the abstract at the link. But if you have a subscription you can get the whole piece in the digital edition.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | April 12, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

What is probably not included in the number of "pounds of food" consumed is the number of ounces of sweetened beverages consumed. All of the following drinks have essentially the same amount of sugar per ounce (i.e., 1 tsp per ounce): Gatorade, Powerade, KoolAid, Lemonade, Capri Sun, Sunny Delight (Sunny D), Hawaiian Punch, Tampico, Ice Tea (if you don't make it yourself), and soda...and oh yeah, 100% all natural fruit juice! I wonder if the OECD Data addresses this scourge?

Posted by: noahkohn | April 12, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't look like this includes eating away from home.

Add a few supersized cheeseburger, fries, and cola 'meals' per week, plus what this chart shows.

Posted by: yoyoy | April 12, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I've got to believe it all boils down to daily activity. I walk 8 blocks every morning and afternoon on my way to and from metro/work. To friends and family in Florida sounds like I put myself through the Spanish Inquisition every day. They think parking 50 yards from their destination is a huge inconvenience. Suburban life seems inherently unhealthy.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | April 12, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

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