America’s Obsession with Freedom Makes Men Fat: College

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America's Obsession with Freedom Makes Men Fat: College

American cultural norms could make us fat.

A new study examined the impact of societal characteristics on obesity rates – and found that countries that value individualism have higher body mass indices in men.

The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, looked at data from 51 countries to find out why there are so many disparities in global obesity rates.

While economic prosperity is an important factor – with wealthier nations having better access to food and less physical activity – it doesn’t explain why some less developed countries (Egypt, Jordan, Mexico) and more developed countries have high levels of obesity and don’t (Japan, South Korea, Singapore).

The study found that these latter countries were more “flexible”. In other words, they prioritize thrift, discipline, self-control, and putting off gratification — all behaviors that can help with weight management. They were also slimmer across the board.

Male obesity rates are higher in countries like the United States that value individualism
Male obesity rates are higher in countries like the United States that value individualism.
Getty Images

Meanwhile, countries that valued individualism—like the United States and those in Northwest Europe, and some in Latin America—are more stubborn when it comes to personal independence and choice. Men in these countries tended to be stronger, although surprisingly this was not a factor in 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 results found at Dr. George Fielding, a bariatric surgeon and professor of surgery at New York University, appealed.

“I’m not trying to be crass, but fat is the new normal here,” Fielding told the Post.

“Culturally, it’s okay to be considered fat. Great Britain and Australia are the same. Most people who make national health policies aim to eat less and exercise more instead of paying attention to that [societal] Healthcare costs and early death.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States was 41.9% in 2020. Obesity – one of the leading causes of death worldwide – is linked to a variety of life-limiting diseases, including type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Rows of donuts
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.
Getty Images/EyeEm

“On the other hand, there’s a belief in Asian countries that you should exercise restraint, which isn’t inherent in American culture,” Fielding said. “There are rules and you should follow the rules.”

As for the difference between male and female obesity rates in “individualistic” countries, the surgeon said he sees the dynamic in his own practice — where women outnumber men 3 to 1 in bariatric surgery.

“Even men think, ‘I’m an individual, don’t tell me what to do. I’ll eat whatever I want,'” said Fielding, who notes that once a person’s BMI reaches 40, surgery should be considered.

He said female patients seek intervention because they feel terrible, while his male patients are motivated to lose weight when they have diabetes, high blood pressure or a heart condition.

Fielding, who called obesity a “national disaster,” added that other societal factors feed into our collective weight problems.

“Fewer and fewer jobs require physical exertion, and you no longer have to work hard to get food,” he said. “We have a ton of processed food and we’re bombarded with advertisements for it. All of that plays a big role.”

As for turning the tide, Fielding said it’s an uphill battle: “How do you introduce a national policy in a country where you can’t tell anyone anything?”

But he said he recognizes America’s obesity problem — now forbidden in polite society – would help.

“It’s the new normal, and how dare you be mean to the new normal?” said Fielding. “People out there who are fat think that’s how it is now.”

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