Americans eat less fat than ever - so why are they so obese?

IT IS RARE indeed to find an American recommending to his fellow countrymen that they should become more like the French. But Professor Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania came perilously close last week when he told an assembly of several hundred dieticians, nutritionists and others that the American attitude towards food as it had developed over the past 10 years gave serious cause for concern, and should be addressed urgently.

The French, he pointed out, had a lower rate of heart disease, a higher life expectancy and a far lower rate of obesity than Americans - and no complexes about fat-free this or salt-free that. What is more, they managed this without any government agencies compiling food "pyramids" telling them what they should eat more or less of (meat at the apex, grains at the broad base), and without the "five servings" rule. This is the US government's advice - widely ignored unless "fries" (chips) are counted as vegetables - that says every adult should consume at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

Nor was Prof Rozin alone in his concern. At a Washington symposium on dietary behaviour titled "Why we choose the foods we eat", sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture, one specialist after another lamented Americans' unhealthy eating habits, inveighing against everything from the sedentary lifestyle, fostered by the car, TV and the internet, to the culture of excess, as manifested in gargantuan restaurant portion sizes and supermarket packaging.

The composition of US meals also came in for criticism: the tendency to use processed food, the decline of the family meal, the increasing resort to fast food, and the gallons of "soda pop" with which it is all washed down. Repeatedly, the nutritionists noted the replacement of the dreaded fat by equally calorific sugar in supposedly healthy low-fat foods.

The potential harm of fat, they agreed, was one message that had been absorbed - so much so that in the past decade the whole diet had been skewed. Prof Rozin produced a survey of college students showing that 30 per cent believed that eating one teaspoonful of ice-cream was more harmful than consuming a pound of cottage cheese. He also showed slides demonstrating the difference between a typical American supermarket shelf, where there was scarcely a pot of plain yoghurt in sight, and a French one, where fat-free or low-fat varieties took up only a small part of the shelf. The question for the assembled experts was: what could, and should, be done?

That a solution had to be found was taken as read. Just days before, the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama) had published a series of studies tracking what one of the authors said was a veritable "epidemic" of obesity engulfing the US. In 1998, 37 states had an obesity rate of more than 15 per cent, compared with only four in 1991. Jama suggested that substantial changes in diet and lifestyle might be the only remedy.

Hard on the heels of that study came another rebuke from a quite different source. The doyenne of French cooking in the US, Julia Child, inaugurated a new 22-part TV series and an accompanying book by telling the New Yorker magazine that Americans had ruined their diet with their fanatical fear of fat. Now 87, and in robust health, Ms Child said their concern about getting fat had led them to conclude that "butter was dangerous, and eggs were dangerous and red meat was dangerous ... the press reported it and people believed it". The beef industry, she said, had been "ruined". "You can't get a marbled steak, even in top restaurants. The flavour and texture have gone out of the meat."

Ms Child probably has more chance of convincing fat-fearing Americans to change their habits through her forthcoming television series than do the experts. Their mood is grim, largely because they can see no solution acceptable to their compatriots short of a fail-safe stay-slim drug.

The diet specialists insist, probably correctly, that a majority of Americans know what they should be eating. The problem is that either they are too lazy to eat the right stuff or choose not to. "Is it possible," asked Prof Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington in a final, wistful, contribution, "that French food affects a different area of the brain?" He cannot be the only American to hope that were true.

Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?