“Indeed, no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans. And no people suffer from as many diet-related problems. We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” — Michael Pollan
Though it requires a certain amount of blind optimism to make a New Year’s resolution you probably won’t keep, this relentless pursuit of self-improvement is hardly unique to Americans. And though America may have a unique relationship to dieting, weight loss and healthy eating, we’re not alone in our tendency to renew our commitment to health every January 1.
How similar are these health-related resolutions from country to country? Americans are frequently stereotyped for their unhealthy eating habits and oversized waistlines, and our roughly $72 billion weight loss market is quite the well-oiled behemoth. Could it be that our cultural emphasis on sticking to a diet in the new year is not something you encounter in quite the same way in other parts of the world?
To begin to understand what sets our healthy eating resolutions apart from everyone else’s, we’ll have to approach the topic from multiple angles.
What The Data Says
In 2012, Google’s annual Zeitgeist report asked people around the world to share their New Year’s resolutions.
Though it’s not readily apparent whether health-related resolutions were more popular in certain parts of the world (at a glance, the various categories appear to be evenly distributed), it is worth noting that “health” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.
As one hovers over the yellow dots, one sees resolutions such as “lose 15 pounds,” “drink less soda” and “healthier eating habits and better control of diabetes.” Some were more about becoming fit, positive thinking, sobriety, and ditching cigarettes. “Quitting Facebook” also certainly counts as a mental health improvement for many.
For some, “health” appears to be conceptualized slightly more as a general concept (and even a spiritual ideal) and less of a specific weight-loss or fitness goal. In countries where there is ongoing strife or political tensions (like Venezuela and Greece), “health” sometimes refers to the health of the entire nation, or merely a wish to “survive.” And in some places, people wished for their family and friends to be healthy, rather than for themselves.
Though this is hardly a complete or scientific analysis, it does appear that diet (and weight loss) is a New Year’s goal people make all around the world. Healthy eating goals do seem to appear with slightly more frequency in North America than in Europe, both of which hold the highest concentration of data points on the map.
What The Doctor Says
Though the United States continues to top the charts for obesity rates around the world, other countries appear to be catching up to Americans in terms of its poor diet-related health.
Though cardiovascular disease is a top cause of death in the United States, however, cardiovascular hospitalizations and deaths have actually dropped over the past decade. Perhaps all those healthy eating resolutions aren’t for nothing!
Though America still ranks far below other wealthy countries in terms of life expectancy, what’s also occurring simultaneously is that countries with burgeoning economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China are experiencing the fastest-growing rates of non-communicable diseases in the world, with heart disease accounting for about half of the associated deaths.
What this likely means for New Year’s resolutions is that though Americans have historically had more reasons to focus their efforts on healthy eating, other countries with developing economies might soon have about as many as we do. And when that happens, we might all have more in common on January 1 than we did in the past.
What The Culture Says
Of course, culture is a big part of why people in other parts of the world may not have as much of a reason to make healthy eating resolutions.
One big stumbling block for the United States is portion control. It’s a big part of the reason why French people thrive on bread, butter and cheese and are still some of the healthiest people in the world. And this could be more of a psychological thing than we think.
Japanese-American writer Marie Mutsuki Mockett grappled with questions of weight loss, observing: “At a certain point, how can any of us miss the Judeo-Christian thinking in the way we talk about and value food. Sinful desserts. Guilt-free brownies. Binge and purge. Comfort eating. Boring steamed fish. Don’t be tempted by empty calories. Indulge in richness. Reward yourself. Cleanse for the new year. Do I hear this kind of talk in Japan? Never. Do we have a psychological hang-up that they don’t? Or is it something else?”
None of this is to say that Americans are alone in our obsession with fad diets. On the other side of the globe, there’s Chinese Sun Eating, which dictates that you replace one meal per day with staring directly into the sun. In Australia, Kangatarianism limits meat consumption to ‘roo meat (which is leaner than cow meat and better for the environment, so this actually makes some sense).
But when you grow up in a culture that has “healthy eating” baked in by default, you’ll probably develop healthy habits naturally and witness other countries try to emulate your diet. Unfortunately for us, sugar, soda, greasy snacks and processed foods may be as American as apple pie, but they’re not helping our cause very much.
In short, there’s no reason not to believe that people are resolving to eat healthier all over the world right now. But there are probably much fewer of them in the Mediterranean region.