U.S. vs. Russia: Make America Fat Again


Americans have been anxious about Russians for a few years now, with stories that they’re fixing our elections, attacking our power grids, ruining social media, and taking Don Jr. seriously.  But Russia Beyond recently published a story that made my blood run cold: “Are Russians more obese than Americans?

Peppered with photos of fat Russians cavorting around like they invented obesity, the Russia Beyond article presents a challenge to the core of America’s identity:  we are fat.   Very, very fat.  We may not beat the world when it comes to manufacturing, to our social safety net, or to the maintenance of a functioning democracy, but we could still hold our delightfully round heads up high.  What we lack in GDP we make up for in BMI.

Can Russia really take this away from us? True, their cuisine makes copious use of sour cream, butter, and oil, and they argue with Ukraine over which country is actually responsible for turning salo (fatback) into a delicacy, but they never were able to match our quarter-pounders and pizza supremes, nor had they discovered the power of high fructose corn syrup as a way to pack the calories into any given product. The Soviets suffered from gigantomania (the biggest hotel, the biggest factories, the biggest miniaturization), but no one ever made a documentary about them called SuperSize Me. The arms race comes and goes, but can we afford to lost the belly race?

As an intermittently fat American, I have always been able to sleep soundly at night (well, with a CPAP machine), knowing that our lipid reserves our vast and deep. I was complacent about Russia’s ability to match us in a great power Sumo contest.   I believe I internalized the traditional Russian pessimism about health and life expectancy, thinking that nothing would every change, whether for better or for worse.  Imagine my surprise when fitness centers opened up in the Russian Federation, and my shock when they didn’t immediately close.

I should have seen the writing on the wall, when our cheesburger-loving President Bill Clinton was outclassed by the drunken, corpulent Boris Yeltsin.  But look at our leaders now:  we know how fit Putin is, because he can’t seem to keep his shirt on.  Trump, by contrast, is a model American,  gobbling fast food and getting doctors to lie about his weight.

Now Russia Beyond tells me that Russia has “three times more overweight teenagers and youth than five to six years ago.”  And what did we have during the same period? A First Lady who emphasized healthy eating and exercise.  Thanks, (Michelle) Obama!

It turns out, however, that if you read the article to the end, Russia Beyond admits that, in 2016, Russia ranked 70th worldwide in adult obesity, while the U.S, ranked twelfth. In other words, I was tricked by clickbait.  It was not long ago that Russia Beyond was called Russia Beyond the Headlines; given the contrast between this particular headline and the story’s content, I can see why they dropped the last two words.

And that, dear readers, is the real lesson of the Russia Beyond obesity story:  once Russia and America share a headline, you can almost guarantee that all sense of proportion will be lost. Whether or not Russian waistlines are inflating, English-language coverage of Russia has a decided preference for increasingly expansive claims.

I think I need to change my media diet.