03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

America Wasn't Born Fat, We Just Eat More Than We Burn

Right about now, a whole bunch of Americans are quitting their New Year's resolutions to lose weight -- if they haven't quit already. What a shame. Americans can't really afford to pack on any more pounds. With more than 225 million overweight people, the Unites States is the most obese country in the world, at a cost of $117 billion a year. It's an understatement to say we're facing a pandemic.

Yet, dare I boldly say the solution isn't all that complicated? The alarming obesity rate in the U.S. can be distilled to one basic truth: Americans consume more calories than they burn. It's a fact. And, I hate to be so blunt, but America wasn't born fat. The birth weight of the average American infant is 8.13 lbs. In fact, the standard deviation for birth weight is relatively small. Therefore, it's safe to say, we all come into this world approximately the same size. So, where do we start to morph into chubby kids, fat teens and obese adults?

We often hear of "the fat gene." Many overweight Americans plead their innocence by claiming their parents were fat and they inherited the same genetics. To some extent, there is a genetic component to metabolism (we all have that friend who can eat anything in any amount and never gain a pound). However, with the exception of some rare metabolic diseases, there is no excuse for being overweight.

Let me personalize the reasons for my frustration with obesity. Both of my brothers were born with Type 1 diabetes, a metabolic disease that requires them to inject themselves with five needles a day, multiple daily blood sugar tests, and dietary modifications. Diabetes is the number one cause of heart disease, blindness and amputation. Short of a scientific miracle, my brothers will have diabetes for the rest of their lives. Unlike Type 1, Type 2 diabetics are not "born" with their disease. The number one risk factor for Type 2 diabetes is obesity.

So why is America the fattest country in the world (with, subsequently, the highest number of diabetics, heart attacks, and kidney failures)? Could the soil in America contain too much of a rare enzyme that inhibits our livers' ability to metabolize fat? Maybe the air we breathe in America destroys our thyroid gland dramatically slowing down our caloric expenditure. Perhaps the United States proximity to the North Pole causes a magnetic field over the country that causes us to store more fat. Obviously, it's none of the above.

Through my work as a nutritionist and trainer to celebrity clients, I've had amazing opportunities to travel the world. In my experience, I made what seemed to be a remarkable discovery: the farther I travel from the U.S., the easier it is to find foods that are both nourishing and slimming. And, people outside the U.S. appear to be healthier and leaner.

I've gleaned a unique perspective on the nutrition, diet and lifestyle habits that many foreign countries have followed for centuries and it's inspired me to want to educate people on just how easy it is to live healthier. And, it is easy. Creating an overall healthy lifestyle for yourself doesn't require a radical diet or significant life change. In fact, it can be attained through common sense decisions about the way we eat, move and live. This is the foundation of The 5-Factor World Diet.

The world's 10 leanest and longest-living nations are Japan, Singapore, China, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Greece and Israel. Why? They consume, prepare and burn their food in a manner that enables them to stay healthy and lean. Let me share examples from a few countries:


  • They eat mainly rice, fish and vegetables -- naturally high in carbs and fiber, low in calories and fat -- and their primary protein source is fish, high in Omega-3 fatty acids; they rarely eat the red meat Americans consume in such heart-stopping portions. Rather than sugary beverages, they drink antioxidant-rich green tea.
  • The Japanese prepare their food by boiling, grilling, steaming and serving it raw.
  • They burn what they consume through much more active lives than Americans. For the business of everyday life, they travel by foot.

Oh, and the Japanese follow hara hachi bunme -- the practice of eating until 80 percent full, then waiting 20-30 minutes to determine if you're still hungry.


Sweden's year-round diet consists of dairy, dark fibrous breads and fish, fish, fish. The calcium in dairy can help the body convert from fat-storing to fat-burning mode. Dark bread like rye or pumpernickel is much healthier than the refined white bread favored by many Americans.
The Swedes prepare their food through curing, smoking, pickling and boiling. Pickling food contains digestive-system-friendly probiotics and, while boiling may not be the tastiest, it's effective without adding fat!
Year-round fitness is a key component of Swedish slimness. Nordic walking (walking with long poles) burns 20 percent more calories than walking without poles. And, people in Sweden primarily walk and bike to work.

Oh, and Scandinavians make their sandwiches open-face, emphasizing the healthy fillers and not the bread.


  • Israeli's cuisine is a delicious hybrid of Middle Eastern styles. They consume grilled meats (mostly chicken), protein-rich legumes, and meals made with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lemon and olive oil. Sesame seeds -- consumed by Israeli's nearly every day -- are not only a nutritional powerhouse, they can help lower cholesterol and prevent high blood pressure. Pita bread -- the country's preference -- being thin and hallow, has a fraction of the calories of other breads.
  • Israel favors grilling and baking their food. Meat dishes are prepared simply -- often grilled with a mixture of spices and no fatty sauces.
  • Because Israeli's are required to join the army at age 18, they are instilled with a strong foundation of fitness at an early age. Burning what they eat is a lifelong habit.
Oh, and many Israeli families prefer to eat at home over a restaurant. It's a wise practice, as they have more control over the content and size of their meals.

If Americans want to get healthier in 2010, they need to resolve to take lessons from beyond our borders. The good news is, the extraordinary journey of living a healthy life doesn't require a passport.

Harley Pasternak is one of America's most renowned nutrition and fitness experts and author of the new book: The 5-Factor World Diet