Are Asian Americans immune to becoming overweight?

By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly

Asians don’t get fat…right?

“Most Asians I encounter are smaller and thinner,” said Rebecca Kelley, a Korean American who is half white. She is the creator of MediocreAthlete.com. “I imagine it’s partly due to genetics and partly their upbringing.”

Genetically blessed with smaller frames and growing up eating low-fat cultural foods, in the past, Asian Americans didn’t normally worry about gaining weight.

That is changing.

According to the Center of Disease Control, in 2009, 33.4 percent of Asians living in the United States were overweight. This is compared to the 34.7 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the same study. The percentage of overweight Asian Americans was not much lower.

“Ten percent of [my clients] are Asian and 8 percent [of my Asian clients] were overweight,” said Domingo Rodriguez, an independent contract personal trainer and fitness ambassador for Lulu Lemon Athletics. “I believe that [being overweight] doesn’t matter in regards to race whatsoever … if you eat terribly, your body will be terrible.”

“Obesity knows no race,” agreed Tony Moses of Tony Moses Fitness. “If you don’t live a healthy lifestyle, your risk of being overweight and obese increase substantially.”

The hefty amount of overweight Asians in the United States proves that despite inheriting the “skinny” gene, Asian Americans are not immune to becoming overweight and obese. Instead, it’s a matter of food choices and lifestyle.

How is weight-class determined, and what are the risks?

The Body Mass Index (BMI), a simple index comparing weight to height, calculates the weight-class of people, whether they are normal, overweight, or obese.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “[BMI] is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).”

“A BMI greater than or equal to 25 is overweight. A BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obesity.”

According to the Centers of Obesity and Health Control, common health problems and risks from obesity include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and some cancers.

“A lot of my clients [who] were overweight [had] medical issues, [including] diabetes and [thyroid-related issues],” informed Rodriguez.

A worldwide problem, but America leads the way

Obesity and overweight problems have been spreading all over the world in recent decades.

Take China, for example, a country that had a low percentage of overweight individuals 10 years ago that is now battling obesity.

“You can Google more than 3,000 fast food places in Shanghai,” said Yi Zhang, who grew up in China and now studies in Canada. “Approximately 13.3 percent of the 11,839 Chinese children surveyed in Shanghai fall within the classification of overweight. Particularly troubling is the 6.5 percent obesity rate, which has increased 24.4 percent over the past decade.”

According to the WHO, “Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980” and “65 percent of the world’s population live in countries where being overweight or obese kills more people than being underweight.”

It seems that the entire world is battling the bulge. However, America is still the fattest country of all.

According to the Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD), the United States has the highest percentage of overweight individuals of all economically advantaged countries.

“Obviously, there’s a weight problem in the United States. I’m sure it’s a problem in other developed countries to some extent, but it’s definitely an issue in the U.S.,” said Kelley.

Asians in America versus Asians in Asia

Compared to Asians in Asia, Asian Americans appear heavier.

When asked which group is more overweight — Asian Americans or Asians in Asia, Rodriguez immediately replied, “America!”

Gahee Bae, a Korean-born fashion student, agrees. “People who came from Korea are usually skinnier than the Asian Americans who are born here. They are tinier. I don’t think [Korea] has plus-size clothing.”

Indonesia-born Maria Hermawan also noticed that Asians in Indonesia “appear to be” smaller than Asians in the United States.

Why? Food and nutrition seem to be the leading contributor to Asian Americans becoming overweight.

“[In Indonesia, people eat] various meats, seafood, rice, vegetables, and soy products,” said Hermawan. “[There are] few [fast food places in Indonesia] compared to here.”

“It’s cheaper to eat like crap, plus public school lunch programs aren’t terribly healthy, so if you’re a lower or middle class family who’s trying to make ends meet, it’s more convenient and it’s inexpensive to give your kids a couple bucks for lunch and then pick up burgers or pizza for dinner on the way home from work,” said Kelley. “Eating healthier may not cost too much more, but it does take a lot of effort, knowledge, and time that people may not be willing to invest, or they don’t even know how to get started and figure it’s easier for things to stay the same.”

“American foods are based on bread and fast food,” said Bae. “I used to work at a grocery store during my high school years … I remember some people would buy two full carts of boxed foods — usually mac and cheese — snacks, canned goods, frozen meals, and only a few bags of fruits and vegetables.”

“Americans have jobs that don’t allow them to eat well and be active enough to keep healthy and not be overweight,” said Vietnamese-born Ana Le. “[Growing up in Vietnam], I ate lots of home-cooked Vietnamese and Asian meals. In general, I think that Asian foods have less fat and are mostly eaten family-style, which allows us to enjoy our meal and watch what we eat. Lots of times, Americans don’t have the time to enjoy — eating on the run — and eat whatever is easy access. [They eat] sweets, fast-food ….”

“In my opinion, if Asians [in Asia] have the same lifestyle as Americans, they would, over time, become obese,” said Moses. “Keep in mind, calories in versus calories out is a major part of the equation.”

Zhang also made an observation of how China has changed the way people make food due to the United States’ influence, which helps explain why China now faces weight problems, just like the United States.

“We [now] have hundreds of Eastern-like fast food, such as fried noodle, BBQ lamb, or buns places … people have learned from KFC, how to cook and sell [food items] as fast food.”

Culture’s key role

“If [Asians in Asia] are [smaller than Asians in America], it’s probably more due to culture than anything else,” suggested Kelley. “Maybe Asians just know how to be more sensible with their meals than we do in the United States.”

“We are all about excess. Big houses, expensive cars, 15 pairs of shoes in the closet, and a double bacon triple cheese burger for dinner,” said Moses. “Culture dictates our eating habits and patterns. … Culture dictates how we interact with our environment. Do we walk or ride our bikes versus drive or take taxis?”

Rodriguez also attributed America’s overweight problem to an increased usage of technology, which contributes to a sedentary lifestyle that has become a part of American culture.

“Parents promote sedentary lifestyles in their kids with the purchase of high-end video consoles,” Moses said. “If Asian kids begin to sit in the house for hours and play video games and mom and dad purchase soda pop and pizza for them, at some point, the child will no longer be healthy or fit.”

In addition to obvious reasons, overweight problems and obesity arise from deeper places.

“[People] eat their emotions. If they are not feeling confident, they get depressed and eat, and food is so available. They don’t know how to [exercise]. They are shy. They’ll make 20 excuses before they buy a membership [to the gym], and they are not self-disciplined [enough to go],” said Rodriguez.

“Personal motivation requires a lot of dedication and mental toughness. You don’t have to be a track star or an amazing athlete to be healthy; you just need the mental drive to stick with a program that works for you,” said Kelley.

“Losing weight isn’t easy, and people get fed up with the process and walk away from it,” said Moses.

War against weight

How can overweight individuals win the war against their weight?

“[People] don’t pay attention to it,” said Rodriguez, who suggested raising awareness first. “Just in the last three years — and because of politicians trying to [create] an image [of a healthy lifestyle] — they are finally changing kids’ menus at schools [and getting rid of] soda machines and [providing] vending machines [that] have healthy foods.”

“I think most people are self-conscious to a degree,” said Kelley, who used her mom, who is full Korean, as an example. “My mom is totally obsessed with weight. … The last time I saw her, she complained that she had gained weight and was now a whopping 105 pounds.”

Kelley’s mother also put the “skinny” pressure on her children. “I think that culturally [for Asians,] there may be more pressure from parents — or at least the moms — to be smaller.”

Bae said that because Asians in Asia are more weight-conscious, they pay more attention to body sizes and are less likely to gain weight.

“Asian people care more about their weight than Americans.”

For those who wish to lose weight, motivation is the number one factor all experts agreed on.

“I think everybody’s human and everybody has the will,” said Rodriguez, who has been a part of many weight loss success stories since he became a personal trainer. “Everybody has [something] they live for. They want to see their kids grow up.”

In fact, a client of Rodriguez’s recently lost 70 pounds in one year.

“She had a child. She wanted something different.” Rodriguez recalled, “She told me she never ran before. Now, she runs half-marathons.”

“I think a lot of Americans don’t believe in themselves enough to get motivated,” said Kelley. “It’s a shame — the human body is much stronger than people think. Their only roadblock is their own doubt getting in the way.” (end)

Nan Nan Liu can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

2 Responses to “Are Asian Americans immune to becoming overweight?”

  1. s says:

    Let me tell you from experience-no.

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