As our collective girth steadily grows -- and with it, our risks for heart disease, stroke, and even some cancers -- experts say it's time to sit down at the international dinner table with something more than dessert on our minds.
"There is no real mystery as to why Americans are gaining weight. We have a body that needs roughly 2,200 calories a day to survive, and a food industry that insists on producing and pushing 3,700 calories a day. Do the math and you'll see what's going wrong," says Steven Jonas, MD, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine at State University of New York at Stonybrook, and author of 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines.
By Sari HarrarHow to get him to shape up - without nagging or driving yourself
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But what kind of food is the rest of the world eating that we're not? And, more importantly, what are we eating that's contributing to our problems? If you're about to jump up and shout, "Desserts, pasta, white bread, fast food!" -- not so fast, the experts say.
If you examine the global pantry item by item, you may be surprised to learn that diets all over the world contain pretty much the same foods. The choices, whether you're in Madrid, Spain or Minnesota, or Provencal or Pasadena, basically consist of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
The big "aha" comes when we learn that what matters is not so much what foods we eat, as how we eat them.
"It's not just the calories, or just the fat, or just the desserts," Jonas tells WebMD. "It's the whole mentality that swarms around our food culture that is making the biggest difference of all."
Nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, agrees.
"You have to look at the whole picture of how we, as a nation, advertise food, consume food, and use food in our culture before you can really begin to understand how we are different from other countries," says Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.
American Eating Habits
Among the worst of the typically American eating habits, say experts, is our unwillingness to celebrate each meal we eat. Ironically for a culture that uses food to celebrate so many things, dinnertime USA is less about the food and more about filling our bellies -- and doing so quickly.
"I think the one thing that strikes every American who travels abroad, to France, to Italy, to Spain, to Greece, is how each meal is a kind of celebratory event to be savored and enjoyed," says Jonas.