The “other countries banned it” argument

Posts like these.. drive me just slightly crazy these days.

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I don’t blame anyone for getting affected by them.. but let me tell you a little story about banning “bad” stuff by other more enlightened countries who are apparently less evil and profit-driven than US (insert eyeroll).

This summer I interviewed participants in Ukraine as part of my project on food and health perceptions. Several of my respondents happened to be lawyers.. One of the topics under discussion was GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The non-GMO stickers have been put on foods in the country since at least 2013 Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 1.34.56 PMwhen I visited last. Anything from foods to chewing gum to water bottles boasted the round green NO GMO sticker. Most people I discussed it with actually acknowledged it was simple marketing and didn’t place much trust in the stickers anyway..

So when this July my interviewees mentioned that “well, you HAVE to have the non-GMO label in Ukraine”, I thought they meant that brands just needs to keep up with the competition in hopes of selling more of their product under the illusion of naturalness and purity (big deal for Ukrainians, who still live with the Chernobyl accident of 86, and still worry about environmental pollution in foods).

Well, No- i was told. Ukraine in fact passed an actual law somewhat recently forbidding the import, export, production, or sale of foods with any GMOs. So if you want to place a product on the shelves of Ukrainian stores, they simply have to be certified non-GMO.Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 12.38.56 PM

Oh! OK… what about reality? In actuality, if you’re placing that product on Ukrainian shelves.. you just pay to get the label put on. Ta-da, it’s non-GMO!

It is all so political, that discussions of population health are mostly for decoration..

Posts like that mentioned above are designed to get you thinking with indignation “I can’t believe my country is so interested in profits!.. they sacrifice our health while other countries actually care about their people’s well being..”. But why do you think Ukraine banned GMOs? It’s to make $ off the new certification and labeling procedures, it’s to look cool in front of Europe (we really want to be accepted to EU, mkay), it’s to keep our image as a serious exporter of quality agricultural products (hey, Ukraine wants to stay the famous breadbasket of Europe! And demand for “clean” or eco agriculture is big. You can’t afford to lose your place in that market)…

It is all so political, that discussions of population health are mostly for decoration (not like absolutely nobody cares, but that’s not the main reason for any of these policies). And of course this is not just Ukraine- I’m just telling you a short specific story. Either way, poor regulatory practices in the country mean that anyone can buy that non-GMO label: nobody’s testing anything and nobody is checking compliance, guys.

Freshman “-5”

I never heard of “Freshman 15” until my first year in graduate school studying public health… since I never had been a freshman in the United States. It seemed like a rather obvious fact- I knew very well the food environment on campus and how one can gain weight quite easily in it. Yet when I told my friends and family back in Ukraine, they were quite amused and surprised- how can you gain weight in college!?

When I moved to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, for my freshman year in 2003, I heard references to the “poor student” from all directions. Apparently, a new university student was poor, hungry, and rather slim. This idea is mostly based on the student image of the previous generation, however. The students in 2003 were not as pale and hungry as my parents remembered it- but they were definitely poor and slowly losing weight due to not having home-cooked meals made by moms as before. In 2003 students had more choices to eat out, but the prices prevented us from doing it often- you ended up cooking at home, snacking, or eating at the cafeteria. Indeed, many ended up losing weight, thus the freshman “-5” (about 2.5 kilograms; my term, arbitrarily chosen just like the “15”).

The following picture is of a cafeteria “full/wholesome lunch” at one of the biggest universities in Kiev taken several days ago. It costs $2.50 and includes: fresh broth-based warm soup, small cabbage salad, main course of a meat patty and mashed potatoes, piece of dark rye bread, and “kompot” (freshly boiled fruit drink) as well as a small pastry (dessert, I suppose). Approximately, a meal like this is roughly 700 calories. It would probably be the main meal for a student, who grabbed a quick breakfast and will attempt to make some food at home at the end of the day.


The main feature of this wholesome/full lunch is- while one might not necessarily consider the addition of pastry, potatoes and a piece of fried meat healthy- the portions are very conservative. The opportunities to overeat are indeed limited.

It would be unfair to compare this to an “American” lunch since a standard American lunch does not exist- the dining halls are using the buffet style so a student is free to choose as healthy or unhealthy as they want. Of course, based on the numerous freshmen focus groups last semester, the common sentiment is that choosing “healthy” is quite hard and annoying: the salads are tasteless, the fried and burgers are omnipresent and a dessert lurks around each food station corner. Plus there’s constant social snacking and eating out- taco bell at 2am, burger king for a cheap dinner… Gaining a freshmen 15 is no problem at all.

On the other side, a Ukrainian student increases his/her physical activity by simply going to and from the university (often a trip of about an hour each way), lack of pocket money for fast food, and rather appropriate (and I would argue “healthy”) home meals at the cafeteria.

It is simply the difference in environments– Ukrainian students do not possess a superior understanding of healthy eating necessarily or boast superhuman will-power capabilities.. they are constrained by resources and are exposed to the environment where overindulging opportunities are lower than, for example, at an American university.

P.S. I also believe more eating norms exist in Ukrainian culture that might prevent overeating and junk food consumption in general..but that’s hard to argue at this point.

Ukraine and US- Food&Health

Tea time at home 🙂

As my yearly trip to Ukraine came to an end, I sit on the porch drinking my green tea with saponins at 6am (still jet-lagged) and reflect. Something happened during this particular trip- probably due to the fact that I traveled with an “anthropologist” mindset this time around as I had an assignment.

What happened is that I lost my idealistic view of the Ukrainian diet- some morally superior way to eat and take care of one’s health. I realized this as I read yet another “alternative health” article on how Bolivians kicked out McDonald’s out of their country supposedly due to their preference for Real foods. That is very untrue- they simply could not afford to go to the place enough. They didn’t despise fast food in their fantastic and intuitive understanding of nutrition- they just didn’t have enough money to eat it frequently.

Sugary water machine

The same fact struck me in Ukraine. But first- our obesity rates are much lower than in the United States [2010: 48.5% females & 41.2% males- overweight or obese. For US: 76.7% females & 80.5% males*]; slimness is valued higher (especially among young girls) as being overweight is almost unacceptable and publicly so. And yet, you see plenty of people with excess weight- only they tend to be on the older side. As in the United States, being healthy, fit, and in charge of your health is also a fashionable thing, so folks try to read up on nutrition and go to the gym, etc…

In terms of lower obesity rates- I also suspect the USSR legacy is at work here, where overindulgence of any kind was not OK. In USSR era variety was low, portions were small, and getting much than someone else was quire unpopular. This is just a tiny theory though. My other theory is that eating norms are different than those in the US- smaller portions and less snacking is more the norm (can not prove this yet), a normal lunch/dinner is thought to include a warm soup, combining heavy foods (e.g. meat, potatoes, bread) is seen as less ideal, eating out is much less normal than cooking at home..

Is our overall lower weight due to the fact that we choose to eat healthier than Americans?

Well, let me tell you- Ukraine has plenty of “fast food” spots around the cities. Most often they’re some deep fried combinations of bread and either sausages or cabbage.

Street fast food

Of course we also have McDonald’s and you will never see it without a huge line. It is necessary to admit that vegetables are a much more natural addition to our diet in comparison to North Americans- many dishes feature vegetables (they are also the cheapest thing you can buy in a store) and many people know how to cook them in a tasty way. I believe there is less skill among US folks and that’s partially the reason they can’t get enough plants in their diet. Also, my observation has been that, even though Americans call really bad foods “junk food” they still eat plenty of it. The idea of snacking on junk in Ukraine seems to be less popular and a bit more unacceptable (not like I didn’t see folks on the streets with Coke or people buying chips at the store though..).

To summarize my thoughts in 1 sentence: I think Ukrainians are less heavy not because they eat healthier, but simply because they eat less for a number of reasons.

So.. what makes US obesity rates so much higher? Are people there simply more weak and ignorant about what and how much to eat!?  I don’t think so. I think the human animal is born with strong survival instincts- i think we are programmed to consume food, even in excess, since throughout the majority of our time on earth tomorrow was unpredictable in terms of nourishment. I believe it is natural to eat more than we need for this reason. United States simply created an environment that becomes unhealthy- opportunities to eat strong-tasting calorie-rich foods are too abundant, too varied, and too affordable.

Slimness&fashion-  crucial tool for social mobility in Ukr.

Lastly, my thoughts and theories do not even begin to cover the potential reasons Ukrainians are not as heavy as Americans. Moreover, they could be simply wrong.  But no despair! My trip home was also a research trip- I collected 42 surveys on food and health.

Once I collect enough responses from Americans, I hope the analysis will give me a glimpse at the differences in the two cultures. Hopefully it will add to my understanding of our lower obesity rates. Would be good to make my opinions slightly more scientific 😉



Buckwheat- a staple. Considered a superfood in US
Buckwheat- a staple. Considered a superfood in US
Sushi is a terribly popular lunch item
Sushi & Japanese food is a terribly popular lunch item. (this lunch is $3)
Weight loss teas, coffees, and so on 🙂
Lots of pastry items… Considered very fattening yet sell well.