fast-food

Why are Croatians so Thin?

I’ve said it once and I’ll write it again: Croatians are obsessed with food. More importantly many Croatian moms and grandmas are obsessed with feeding… everyone. If you are asked: “Would you like more?” There is only one way that conversation ends, with more! And yet, for all the eating, feeding and obsession, Croatians as a whole, are far from fat. 

Why are Americans fat and Croatians aren’t? If you stroll through any Croatian town you will see tens of bakeries selling chocolate and vanilla pastries. Walk by a high school and you’ll see groups of kids stuffing pizza in their faces. Hang out at a park and you’ll see parents chasing their kids around trying to get them to eat. And the American fast-food chains are always crowded. Yet, you rarely see the epic proportions of obesity common in the US. How is this possible?

Obesity scale

According to the World Health Organization the US ranks 9th in a list of the world’s fattest countries, while Croatia stands at 71 (Number one is Nauru and since I’m American, I have no idea where or what that place is). So clearly, the stereotypes of fat Americans has some empirical support.

Ractopamine, Zeronal and oestradiol-17

One reason might be all the junk that is allowed in US food and not in EU food. Antibiotics and growth hormones are two of the most common elements present in US foods, but excluded in other parts of the world. Things with Science Fiction-like names such as Ractopamine, Zeronal, oestradiol-17 have not only been linked with increasing obesity, but also with cancer. Mmm… Tasty!

Fast-food capital

Aside from the influence of carcinogen growth hormones and numbered colors, like Yellow-5, US obesity also comes from the American lifestyle. According to some numbers I found on the internet (which must be true) there are around 50,000 fast-food chains in the US. Americans spent around 100 billion dollars on fast-food in 2014. Oklahoma City, my home state’s capital, won the crown for

fast-food capital

in 2007 because 55% of the public ate fast-food twelve times a month. In Croatia if you do eat a hamburger or čevapi its rare and you also, usually have to at least walk to the restaurant.

Life’s pace

I think the real differences exist in the pace of living. Life in the US is overwhelmed by urgency and exhaustion. We are racing to nowhere and in the rush we rely on the cheap, affordable ease of fast-food. My life in Croatia is more balanced than my life in the US was.

To the Greek philosopher Aristotle, moderation was the essence of living a moral, ethical and satisfying life. The American lifestyle pushes us to excess, it’s a race with no finish in which we frantically search for fuel. When I picture America, I see people hurrying, eating, drinking, gulping their way through traffic. When I think of Croatia, it’s a picture of people sitting, slowly drinking coffee without a hint of hurrying. Why these two worlds move at different tempos is beyond me. And while in Croatia someone is always offering you more and more food, you can bet it’s never fast.

Freebies?

Croatians are some of the most hospitable people that I’ve ever met. Being a guest is like being a prince, albeit a force fed prince, but a prince no less. And then there is of course the gift giving, the birthday treating, the coffee buying, the lunch, the hosting and being hosted, and usually some more gift giving for no real reason. Now, all of this is in stark contrast to the miserliness of Croatian public life. Yes, outside of the personal, private experience between friends and family, Croatian society seems incredibly cheap. Where’s the schwag? The freebies? The pro bono goods? The free stuff? 

In America you can find free stuff everywhere. Usually it’s little things, but it’s often the little things that count. Ketchup. Ketchup is free and plentiful. There are piles of it on the condiment bar. And you’re like condiment what? Yep. See, in the US we have so many free condiments that fast-food restaurants actually have a special place in the restaurant for said condiments. You can find free packets of ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, hot mustard, relish, duck sauce, soy sauce, and barbecue sauce (not to mention salt, pepper, and sugar) on the condiment bar. And, if they don’t have free packets then there is usually a whole jug or tub or something with a pump stuck in it, so you can douse your food with duck sauce until your heart’s content. 

Meanwhile in “Croatia” (those are sarcastic quotes by the way) the ketchup is kept behind the counter like it’s some kind of tomato-based methadone, and you have to not only ask for it, but pay for it too!    

Then there is the scarcity of paper products. Again in the US, walk into a public restroom and there is a strong certainty that it will have a) paper towels in the towel dispenser; b) toilet paper. In Croatia, this certainty is greatly diminished, especially if you are in a public facility. At the University of Zagreb paper towels are about as rare as Bigfoot. There have been sightings, but I have yet to confirm their existence. Toilet paper too. 

In the US you can always find an ample supply of napkins and tissues for free and open for the taking almost anywhere. Secretary’s desk at some firm: box of tissues. Classroom at school: box of tissues. Cafe: stack of napkins. Grocery store: stack of napkins. Fast-food place: napkins. In Croatia the napkins are delivered only on request and tissues only come in little handheld packets.

How many times have I had a sneeze attack on a sunny, spring day in Zagreb and not had a tissue? Well, three. With my hand over my face I walk into the nearest cafe or bakery, mumbling in Croatian for a napkin or something to wipe my nose. Sometimes I succeed. Other times, well you don’t really want to know. But each time I think: I miss America.

You might think people here would take advantage of it. Don’t worry, in the US we do. When I was a kid I used to go into Long John Silver’s (it's a fast-food seafood restaurant, mmm landlocked fast-food fish.) and ask for a water, which came with lemon, then I’d go to the condiment bar and poor enough sugar in to make my own free lemonade!


Maybe it has to do with how skeptical Croatians can be compared to Americans. Or perhaps it’s is just one of those inexplicable differences. It’s funny because it really is in such contrast to the generosity of personal and private life here. And it’s also one of the few things I miss from home. Then again, the sea is free (for now).