Friday, April 6, 2012


Those who have been following this blog through several posts know that "home" means the United States. When I started losing weight, it was on a nearly 3-year countdown for this time. I knew that getting a job when I returned would be greatly more difficult if I didn't lose weight. There would also be other logistical problems (plane seat size, using sea belts in cars, etc.) and health issues that might make it hard for me when I returned. Now, I'm here. I'm "home".

"Home" doesn't feel like home anymore though. After over 20 years in a foreign culture, America feels like the "foreign" place, though I fit in a lot better here than I did where I was. In fact, part of the weirdness is that I'm not really "weird" here at all. People don't stare, point, or even notice me at all. They just treat me like any other person. This is because I don't look greatly different from others, and a part of that is that I'm not part of a tiny minority, and the other part is that I no longer weigh nearly 400 lbs. I'm sure that, in America or not, I'd be attracting unwanted attention at such a high weight.

It's strange being back for a plethora of reasons, many of which are not relevant to this particular blog. My husband remarked that, in our former home in Asia, we were "seen", but not "heard". In America, we are "heard", but not "seen". I see this as ironic as I used to be much more "seen", even in the United States. When I was younger, and much fatter, people were making rude comments, laughing at me, and generally treating me poorly based on my body size. It's odd to be unremarkable, even here.

The place where I am currently residing is not "typical" in many ways, so I'm not sure if I'll feel differently in a more mainstream area. I'm spending 6-8 weeks in an area in which the population is generally older and richer than average overall. This is a place that people come to during the warmer times and tend to stay away from during the colder times. It's safe to say that the population at present is at a low and skewed toward year-round residents who are less affluent.

I'm staying in the vacation home of my in-laws, who are significantly more affluent than me and absolutely more so than my family (who are still poor) on an island in the Pacific Northwest. What I've noticed so far may not apply to a more balanced population, but so far I've noticed that at least some people are taller and many somewhat to greatly heavier than me.

The main thing I've noticed, of course, is that the food here is quite different and, as is so often said of American food, the portions are larger. My husband and I bought some pastries at a bakery and they are so large that they need to be cut into thirds or quarters to suit our dietary wishes. That is, we don't want to eat too much, so we have to divide things. In our former place of residence, cutting things in half was about "right" for proper portion control. It's easy to see that larger sizes are "normalized" in all things. That doesn't mean we can't control portions, and honestly, we find it relatively easy to do so, but that I can see how people who never became acculturated to smaller sizes would not even think to cut things down to the extent that we do. Even half is a lot here, but perspective probably makes people believe half is "small".

 Another thing I've noticed is that the sections of the market which sell prepared, processed frozen food are vastly larger than what I experienced in my former residence in Asia. I can very clearly see how easy it is for people to just buy frozen food and pop it in the oven rather than prepare their own food. There are also many more mixes and canned foods. If I buy all of the ingredients to make my own soup, it's much more expensive than picking up a can of soup on sale. The place where I lived before not only had very little in the way of prepared soups, but it was more expensive to eat such convenience foods than to make it yourself.

So, the food culture and economics are reversed such that people are encouraged to eat more and to not cook. That doesn't change how I will eat, but it does go some way toward understanding the migration of the American diet to being over-sized and with a greater focus on processed food. I can't blame people for the choices they make when those choices are "natural" and economically encouraged, not that I blamed them before. Going from where I was to where I am now, it is shocking to see the difference as I didn't remember it being this way when I resided in the U.S. over two decades ago.

One thing which I can say is so, and this goes in line with all of the processed food that is available, is that it is much easier to eat reduced calorie "junk" in the U.S. There were very, very few sugar-free and reduced or no fat options in the Asian country in which I resided. The only way to have your cake was to actually eat real cake. If you wanted to lose weight and enjoy treats, portion control was the only way to do so. In America, these lower calorie options encourage bigger portions because you believe you can have more and "pay" less for it. This is another part of a culture which focuses on consuming more rather than on focusing on eating smaller amounts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying people should "eat clean" or toss out all processed food or food that is reduced in calories. I think there is a place for a lot of different foods in the average diet and that includes convenience foods and even chemically altered food to allow people with different focuses in their diet to eat in a manner which suits them. I'm mainly commenting on how the presence of such foods encourages larger portion consumption and a particular dietary path which does not include cooking from scratch. Though people are ultimately "responsible" for what they eat and the market responds to consumer demand for ease and certain tastes, I think it's important to see the dynamic that underlies the food culture in America, and I can see it far more clearly than ever before due to the contrast between it and my former country of residence.


The Paris Chronicles said...

Welcome home, SFG. I hope the reverse culture shock is easy on you and you acclimate smoothly to your birth culture.

I return to the States one time a year, and my mind explodes when faced with all the choice and the huge portion sizes. Going to an American grocery store is a dizzying and frustrating experience for me due to the plethora of choices. The variations of foods is incredible--I once took a photo of the potato chip aisle(s)---so many different kinds! I don't deal well with too much choice (even going to Starbucks bothers me) and I get very uneasy in the supermarket because of this. My kids, however, dream of Publix and Safeway and talk endlessly of how great they are!

Each year I notice a new food trend. Low carb, no transfats, oatmeal, pomogranate, flaxseed, omega's not just "low fat" that sells stuff anymore. I stand in the aisle and just scratch my head and marvel and the stuff marketers have come up with to make big bucks.

Norma said...

I've never lived abroad and have not even left the Boston area all that much, so I'm wondering (at SFG and Paris, you way-too-well-traveled expatriate types!) if, in other countries, food is as big an industry as it is in the US? i.e., are there giant conglomerates or corporations like Monsanto or Nestle that influence and lobby the government and retailers as there are here? Are there corporate-funded "studies" that then publicize the things the companies want to promote (for example, the corn industry is currently running ads that proclaim HFCS is "no different" to your body than sugar and there's nothing to worry about as far as its being added to every processed food under the sun; that it has NOTHING to do with the ridiculous rising rates of diabetes, obesity and metabolic disorders and that it should be "enjoyed in moderation!" just like sugar -- ugh). Is the influence of industry on public consumption so prevalent?

screaming fatgirl said...

Paris: Thank you. The reverse culture shock is really harder than expected, but I think a chunk of it is the transition from metropolis to serious rural life as much as anything else.

You are absolutely right about having too many choices. While I had choices where I was, they didn't all tend to be available year-round. Usually, there would be a few variations that were seasonal that would vanish and return.

Norma: There are definitely the same forces at work in the country I was in as there are in the U.S. I'd be shocked if it weren't the same in every country. For example, there were studies paid for by a major maker of vinegar that touted the health benefits (including weight loss and fatigue relief) of drinking vinegar (something which is done in that country, but not in the U.S.). The government also subsidizes the staple grain (rice) and there are more rice-based products as a result.

I tend not to embrace the notion that we are victims of corporate manipulation so much as corporations respond to our desires and give us what we want. My feeling is that we can't be sold that which we do not want and rather than them dictating what we want, we dictate what they sell. In the end, I think we speak with our purchases and the high fructose corn syrup issue is one in which I think people have the power to "talk" by just paying attention to the labels.

That being said, I know how easy it is to fall for the allure of a product as presented and only discover after the fact that it has something objectionable. One of the first things I bought when I went to a market was Yoplait yogurt (which I used to love before I left America so long ago). I got it home and tasted it and it was so disgustingly sweet that I couldn't believe it. Only then did I look at the label and see that it was made with HFCS. Initially, I just looked at brand, price, and flavor. However, there are two ways for the experience to go from here. I can say I enjoyed it and will eat it regardless (but I didn't enjoy it, so I won't) or I can learn and never buy it again because it contains an ingredient I find objectionable.

I don't know if HFCS is different than sugar in terms of its metabolic influence. I only know that a food I ate that contained it was horrible and turned me off of other foods that may be made with it. Personally, I think that a little processed food is okay, but that people in general need to eat sparingly from that end of the spectrum and cook more from basic ingredients. The problem isn't that such things are sold. The problem is that we buy them in great quantity.

The country I was in (and I'm sorry that I'm still too paranoid to mention the name) has consumers who will not eat too much processed or prepared food. The market just doesn't support the same volume and variety of them that Americans do because there is a food culture which says you eat what is good, not what is easy. This doesn't make them superior to Americans, but it does reflect a culture which has not yet crossed over into requiring two incomes to get by and one in which women still perform traditional household chores in a labor intensive fashion. In other words, they have the time to cook from scratch and the culture expects better quality food than you get by tossing a package in the microwave to get a meal. Their tastes haven't changed as American's have, and acclimation is a big part of what people find tasty.

Sorry for the long-winded answer. ;-)

Norma said...

I appreciate your long-windedness; it's something I've been curious about as my obsession with Big Food, marketing and the misinformation about nutrition that I find most people mired in has grown. Thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

I personally witness the trend of processed food getting bigger sections over the last decade also in my country, Slovenia (Central Europe). It is for convenience reasons mostly, because young people don't want to lose time or simply work to long hours to cook from the scratch, although often a family do save money not buying the ingredients but ready meals, depending on the category. On the other hand, organically grown food is becoming a more and more important segment and the general awareness about GMO and other issues related to meat drive people to look for ingredients at the source - at the farms, at organic open-markets and supermarket section with "organic/eco" signs.

I consider myself very lucky and happy to be part of a culture where home-made meals are preferred - for health reasons and also for retaining the genuine flavor - although most of us women work, so we need to be super organized sometimes and keep it simple during the week and go a little wild on the weekends to be able to deep-freeze left-overs of freshly cooked for a near future hectic day. I don't own a microwave and none of my friends do. We tend to look for ingredients locally when possible, and I would never serve processed dishes or deep-frozen pastry to a visitor.

I can therefore to relate to comments above about how frustrating it can be to go to grocery stores with so many variations if the person is more used to fewer choices. This was my experience exactly when I had to go grocery shopping in Canada not long ago - and I was instantly reminded of my 5-week stay there 25years earlier when my large portions' and junk-food eating resulted in gaining over 10 pounds at most critical age, my teens.