As a first-year Brit studying at an American University, the horrifying idea of gaining the ‘freshman fifteen’ follows me round like a dark cloud. On the walk over to the dining hall, I steadfastly resolve to resist the exploding drawers of cookies, the oozing jar of maple syrup and the specialty tortoise-shell cheesecake. I tell myself that I’ll swipe in and then put my head down as I make a break towards the salad or vegan bar. Truth is, it never quite works out like that. Instead, my good intentions crumble into a biscuity mess as I step foot into the mayhem of the “all-you-can-eat” and “got-to-get-my-money’s-worth” dining hall frenzy.

Sugar makes everything sweeter

american diet

Photo courtesy of Allison McGuire

In many ways, I should have been prepared for the challenge. The first question my friend from home asked me was, “How is the land of the burgers?!?” a classic example of what many Europeans associate with America. The thing is, she could have easily substituted the word “burger” with a plethora of other stereotypically American foods: doughnuts, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or any and all junk food.

While these stereotypes may be somewhat unrepresentative—when is a stereotype ever not?—there’s no denying that America does sweet, sugary food exceptionally well. If we put health issues aside, it’s important to appreciate how unusually good some food combinations are.

My British friends back home would be shocked to see me mixing marshmallows and sweet potatoes, layering bacon and syrup on top of pancakes and buying cheddar cheese and caramel popcorn. In the UK, you’re a little radical if you choose to buy half sweet, half salty popcorn at the movie theater. The food truth that is universally acknowledged here is that sugar makes everything sweeter, except perhaps your figure.

Southern stereotypes

Some stereotypes that came as a shock to me were the southern food traditions. The south seems to have its own version of quintessential American delicacies like grits, pulled pork BBQ and biscuits and gravy. There were definitely some language barriers that I had to overcome in order for me to understand some of these dishes.

In England, a BBQ is grilled sausages and burgers, not pulled pork and slaw (apparently I am getting confused between a BBQ and a cookout). Learning that biscuits in America were not cookies came as a relief because the concept of cookies and gravy sounded too far—even for American flavor standards.

While these stereotypes are fun and amusing, what do they suggest about how other nations fundamentally perceive the U.S.? Why is it that when I think of American policemen I imagine a fat cop in bulging navy blue uniform biting into a doughnut? Or when I think about typical American dishes I think of McDonald’s? Whatever the answer, these enduring stereotypes only further perpetuate a more visceral stereotype that is: Americans love their food!

american diet

Photo by Sara Tane

A country of food and exercise contradictions

However, it is difficult and even ignorant to completely accept the stereotypes that all American’s love to eat unhealthily. While it isn’t hard to find people who embody the American fast food-eating stereotype, I’ve probably met more health-conscious eaters and exercise enthusiasts than obese teenagers. I’ve met my fair share of health addicts who speak about their almost militarized diets with unintentional similarity to the main character in Wild Child who proudly states she is “a pescetarian Monday through Wednesday, fruitarian Thursday through Sunday and vegetarian ALWAYS!”

Such wildly conflicting observations between my preconceived ideas and my observed reality testify to the fact that just as America has every type of ice-cream topping, it also has every type of person.

The land of the free, the brave and the burger

american diet

Photo by Sara Tane

Therefore, my end goal as a foodie overwhelmed with deliciously unhealthy choices is to reach a stage in my eating where I consistently practice moderation. I want to reach a point where I can look the cookie jar straight on and then walk away. The freshman fifteen can continue to haunt me as long as it reminds me that eating healthy is possible, and that I don’t have to conform to the stereotypical American diet. I refuse to believe that I am completely doomed.

By simply looking around at my friends here who are all slender, fit and well balanced individuals, I feel confident that I can return home at Christmas and not have to ask Santa for new jeans. I’ve also come to realize that in true American style, even one’s eating behavior can live by the constitution: you are free to choose what you want, but you have to be brave to choose what you need, and in the end you decide what land it will become for you- laissez-faire style.