Harley Pasternak: Why the U.S. Is the Second-Most Obese Nation in the World
Let's follow the example of some healthier nations and raise our life expectancy, the trainer says
Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds hits shelves in March. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
We Americans are no longer the fattest major nation in the world: We were unseated from this dubious honor two years ago by our neighbor to the south, Mexico, but we’re still No. 2.
According to the 2014 Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases, produced by the World Health Organization (WHO), the rate of obesity continues to increase worldwide. No wonder, as other nations adopt our eating habits and sedentary lifestyle. According to the report, the incidence of obesity has more than doubled worldwide since 1980. By 2014, 11 percent of men and 15 percent of women — a significant gender difference — were obese. And almost 2 billion adults around the world are overweight.
The WHO report deals not just with obesity, but also with other health risks that impact longevity. In objectives set for the next five years, the authors call for an increase in activity and decrease in salt intake, tobacco use and hypertension.
The recommendations in the report are addressed to policy makers, public health officials and other professionals around the world. But as I scanned the report, I was fascinated at how its conclusions and recommendations mirrored those I made in my 2009 book, The 5-Factor World Diet. The 10 healthiest countries I focused on are Japan, Singapore, China, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Israel and Greece. So I was not surprised to see that the WHO report found that the prevalence of obesity was lowest in Southeast Asia, and only slightly more so in the Western Pacific. North and South America were the highest, followed by Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa.
So what are the people of the Pacific Rim doing that we could emulate? Let’s look at what Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea have in common that leads to their high life expectancy and low obesity rate. Residents of Macau, which is governed by China, live to be an average age of 84.48 years, about 5 years longer than Americans. Japan is right behind at 84.46 years, and Singapore at 84.38 years. South Koreans’ lifespan, currently 79.8 years, has risen in recent decades. In the vast nation of China, life expectancy varies by region ranging from Macau’s impressive number to 75.15 years on the mainland.
The WHO report makes it clear that residents of these countries have a much more physically active lifestyle than Americans do, but the differences in eating habits are the most significant. There are major similarities in the cuisines of these four countries, which also help their residents stay slim. Here are some of the big ones:
– Generally, meals center on a variety of vegetables
– Stir-frying, steaming, boiling and grilling are typical preparation methods
– Fish is often the primary source of protein, particularly species high in omega-3 fats, along with chicken and duck
– Knowing when to say when and waiting for second helpings. A popular regional proverb in Japan and Korea suggests “eating like a crane,” or eating slowly and carefully, rather than wolfing down your food
– Meat is usually treated as a garnish, rather than a stand-alone course. Beef is popular in South Korea, but Koreans consume only about one-quarter as much as Americans do
– Soy products such as tofu, natto and miso are culinary staples
– Antioxidant-rich green tea is the beverage of choice
– Baked goods are uncommon
– Garlic and ginger, known for their disease-fighting properties, appear in many meals
– Dairy products are rarely consumed
– Using chopsticks slows the pace of eating
Perhaps if we can do as the healthiest countries do, we can become healthier ourselves.