Amsterdam, where travel by bike is easy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be American. Now, I don’t want to get too deep into it. I don’t want to talk about patriotism and freedom and democracy and all that. Basically, I’m considering how being an American relates to living a healthy life. This particular train of thought was inspired by several insightful blog posts I’ve read lately, as well as discussions with family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. We have two close friends from Spain who have lived here for the past year. In a recent conversation we asked them to tell us some stereotypes of America that they’d heard before they moved here. I should note that, after answering, they pointed out that stereotypes are often inaccurate (as an example, they informed us that everyone in Spain doesn’t fight bulls and wear red).

After “don’t know anything about other countries,” they said another stereotype is that Americans are fat and eat unhealthy diets. How sad, I thought! Besides ignorance, we are known around the world as being the unhealthy country. Indeed, the obesity rate is pushing 33% of all Americans. One in three people are overweight or dangerously overweight. Indeed, we subsidize the growing of corn and soy instead of healthier fruits and vegetables. And indeed, we eat a lot of fast food.

But, I said to myself, I eat healthy. My friends and family eat healthy. I don’t have any close friends that are particularly overweight. But I realize that this fact is largely based on where I live and my income level. Where you live and how much money you have really makes a difference in your health in this country. For example, in this insightful article from Feministing’s community blog, the author describes where she lives:

As for me, I live in Washington, DC, where wealth and means converge. Exercise is trendy, as is eating healthily. Grocery stores, co-ops, and farmer’s market, all devoted to providing high quality food products are everywhere. An affluent population is willing and able to pay more for the privilege.

Although I don’t live in DC, the same set of circumstances was true in Chicago, Madison, and various other places I’ve lived. It was easy for me eat healthy. I was lucky enough to be taught how to cook by my family and friends. The importance of exercise has been instilled in me, and I could walk or take the bus almost everywhere. Additionally, the city was full of people who ran, biked, and played sports. You couldn’t drive through the north side of Chicago without seeing dozens of runners and several yoga studios. But that’s not the case in other places. As the author goes on to say,

Are these same options present in Alabama, especially in the rural areas or the inner city? Not so much. Does a tradition and corresponding cultural expectation of these sorts of beneficial practices exist? Not really. Cities are concentrations of wealth and the highly educated. There is no financial incentive for either of them to leave and spread elsewhere. Quality food is rarely found in areas of poverty. Most often, only cheaper, lower quality food is affordable and available.

In addition to quality food, there are other aspects of health that are only accessible to the wealthy: health insurance, gym memberships, time to cook meals from scratch, reduced exposure to fast food ads, the privilege of living in a safe neighborhood.

I don’t have a solution for this issue that our country faces, in which where you live and how much money you have has a disproportionate effect on your health. I wish that healthy food was cheaper and available everywhere. I wish there were bike lanes and bus routes in all areas, including surburban and rural towns. I wish we were taught in school how to cook, maintain a healthy diet, and build exercise into our schedules. I wish minimum wage was higher, so people could work less and spend more time cooking. I wish kids were given more time for recess and had greener cities.

I wish that health was an expectation our country, just part of our general culture, instead of a privilege. I don’t think that individuals can be blamed for their obesity or heart disease or poor eating habits, at least not entirely. Right now, living in our country makes it harder to be a healthy person, instead of easier. I hope someday that will change. I hope, however naively, that someday when people think of Americans, they will think of healthy people.

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