When you arrive in a new country one of the first things you are confronted with is the local eating habits. This affects the whole spectrum of places where food and drinks can be bought: from restaurants to grocery stores. Hence, it is time to take a brief look at the top characteristics of the American diet.
The size of a meal in the United States is on average two to three times larger compared to what you would get in Europe. Only high-end restaurants and some foreign restaurants are exceptions to this. I haven’t made any concrete calculations, but I am quite sure that the amount of calories in a single average dinner combined with a fountain drink approaches the recommended daily intake of calories. On top of that fountain drinks come with free refills: drinking over half a liter of a soft drink is bad enough by itself, let alone refilling that already oversized cup once or twice.
When I ordered a Cappuccino at Starbucks I was told that “Tall” (354ml) is the smallest option they have. The others are Grande (473ml) and Venti (591ml). Then there’s even the Tentra (916ml) option for some of their drinks, which taxes the capacity of the human stomach. I am not sure about you, but I have more or less come to expect coffee to come in servings of 200-250ml. In a similar vein: I ordered a medium Cherry Coke at a movie theater, what did I get? Over a liter of cola!
The large portion sizes extend to grocery stores: I’ve seen potato chips in bags about the size of my own torso. By default most packaged drink sizes are larger than in Europe: cans are 355ml (12 fl oz) instead of 330ml, small bottles 590ml (20 fl oz) instead of 500ml, and large bottles are 1890ml (64 fl oz) instead of 1500ml (and sometimes even 2000ml). Notice that the proportional difference gets larger each step we go up: 1.07x for a can, 1.18x for a small bottle, and 1.26x for a large bottle.
Restaurants and Eating Out
In the Netherlands it is common to eat at a restaurant perhaps once a week. Of course there are exceptions, but most cooking is done at home. In the US it is very common to eat out at least four to five times a week. Service at most restaurants is usually quite quick, and Pittsburgh is filled with quality restaurants. So, the preference for eating out is not surprising. Furthermore, the restaurants are diverse and true to the taste of their home country and region: chefs do not go overboard to cater to the local taste here. That means that Chinese food is really Chinese food, not the watered-down variant we’ve become used to in the Netherlands. The diversity of restaurants is high, which supports the conclusion that the American diet consists of a broad selection of local tastes that originate elsewhere in the world.
It has become clear to me: America is on a sugar high. Many foods are somehow sweetened. For example, the bread you can buy in the supermarket looks deceivingly like normal Dutch bread. However, once you actually taste it you will notice that it is really sweet: as if several bags of sugar have been added to the dough. The same goes for many other American foods, especially processed ones, in which sugar is commonly replaced with high-fructose corn syrup which is allegedly less healthy than normal sugar.
Soft drinks are also sugary of course, unless you go for the diet variants. I believe the maximum recommended intake of refined sugar is about 40 gram. In the United States the smallest can of coke you can buy is 355ml which contains 39 grams of sugar. Hence, it may not be surprising that the United States has the highest sugar consumption per capita in the world: about 70 grams per day. Which is nearly one-and-a-half times more than the average Dutch person consumes.
The love for sugar in the United States has historic roots. It is believed that Christopher Columbus brought sugar to the new world. There was a high demand for it, but: harvesting sugar was labour intensive. Since there were not enough European settlers to do all this work people were brought in from elsewhere: slaves.
Similar to many Dutch people, Americans prefer coffee over tea. Nevertheless, tea is easy to obtain in the US. Many herbal teas are inherently caffeinless, but black teas are usually not. However, in the United States it is very common to see bags with normal black tea alongside bags of ‘decaffeinated’ black tea. I’ve not seen this before, although it makes sense perhaps as decaffeinated coffee is a global phenomenon.
While both French and Dutch people may be accustomed to using cheese for its merit of having a strong taste, in the United States it appears to be viewed quite differently. Oddly enough, cheese appears to be a relatively tasteless slice, or sauce, of fat that you add to something to make it ‘fuller’. Comparable to adding whipped cream to chocolate milk to make it sweeter.
In many American fast food chains the food is literally drenched in fat, as if to mask the inferior taste of the low-quality ingredients. Sadly, America’s own food ‘trademark’ is taking something nice and then applying the fast food formula to it: burgers, pizza, chicken, you name it. If you want to eat out, the general advice is: skip the American restaurants. So, no McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead go to one of the many excellent foreign restaurants, like: Japanese, Chinese, Indian or Thai.
Generally: Unhealthy is Cheap
Several days ago, as I walked down the aisle of the local super market, I heard someone complaining about the prices of the healthier foods that were available. A shop employee responded: “It’s simple, ma’am, if ya wanna eat healthier ya gotta pay more”. In regular grocery stores the vegetables are often of poor quality and the fruit is expensive. Better quality food can be bought in more expensive supermarkets (look for shops that sell ‘organic’ food such as the Whole Foods supermarkets). The fact thus remains: eating healthy is costly: a perverse incentive.
It is no wonder that America is getting ever more obese …