The Russian Diet

(TW: Diets, ED)

I have been here for almost exactly a week, so n=whatever here, but one of the most interesting differences I’ve noticed coming from the US to Russia is an almost complete lack of a visible diet and fitness culture. I’m sure there are teenage models starving themselves somewhere. And you can find health clubs and yoga studios on just about every block, but I have yet to see anyone walking around the city in gym clothes, much less jogging (an activity that is probably only feasible a few months a year anyway). There is no health food section in the grocery store, and I have yet to see a Power Bar. Heck, you are lucky if you get nutrition facts on food labels.

And as someone who finds American diet culture exhausting, demoralizing, exploitative, and most likely counter-productive, this is pretty refreshing. I came here from Dallas, where every other billboard is advertising a weight loss clinic or bariatric surgery and the phenomenal barbecue and Tex-Mex comes with a heaping side of “you are horrible and disgusting.” Here, people–fat and skinny people–order desert whenever they want without so much as an “oh, I skipped lunch” attempt at justification. It probably says a lot about where I am coming from that I was surprised–shocked even–to see one of my lunch companions order ice cream after the meal and then have an afternoon coffee buddy do the exact same thing that same day. People just seem to eat whatever sounds good, and food and body shame don’t permeate the very atmosphere quite like they do in the US.

I went hunting, and a 2005 article in Pravda suggests that this actually a thing. As in most of the world, obesity rates (and obesity alarmism) are on the rise in Russia, though it is behind most Western countries and (interestingly) appears to be more prevalent in rural areas than in cities where fast food is widely available. This article attributes the rising obesity rates to the adoption of the more modern, sedentary lifestyle. Though, the author notes:

Russians have not adopted another aspect, though – a critical attitude towards themselves. June Stevens and his colleagues from University of North Carolina found out that Russian teenagers suffer from obesity as much as American kids do. Unlike Americans, Russian people do not acknowledge that they are fat.

The article obliquely suggests that this is a problem, and I’ve found others that argue that this push toward modernization must include more education about nutrition and changes to traditional Russian diets that tend to be high in sugar and animal fat. But as someone who comes straight from the heart of Diet and Fitness Nation, who grew up less than a mile from Cooper Clinic and has been indoctrinated since birth into Health Culture, who knows how to count calories and carbs and does vigorous exercise 4-5 times a week and is still technically “overweight,” I think the Russians calling for this sort of thing had better be careful what they wish for. Because educating people about the benefits of eating well and moving around is fine. And I have to say that the availability of fresh produce and amenability of this city to outdoor activity during warm weather is phenomenal and probably unmatched by anything I’ve seen in any large American city. I mean it, there is a fruit and veg stand on like every corner. There are even dudes selling it in the metro (though I probably wouldn’t buy from them). More of that, please.

But if, as it does in the US, “awareness” about healthy living has to come with a helping of shame-based “motivation,” I think Russia could do without. For me and most other Americans, waking up every morning feeling like shit about ourselves hasn’t made us any thinner. Today, while I was eating lunch, I saw a group of very well-dressed, put together middle aged women order a three-course meal with vodka shots. And I’d like to be them when I’m 60 rather than still feeling like a monster for eating so much bread. 

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4 thoughts on “The Russian Diet

  1. It’s interesting that you end the story with older women.

    In my experience I’ve found that in Russia, just like America there’s an enormous pressure on young women to be rail thin. I agree that there isn’t a culture of fitness — my female Russian friends smoke a lot and strictly monitor their food.

    The big difference is that the US continues to force this ideal on older women wherea Russian women after 30 (ie. married) the pressure’s off and women are able to relax.

    To end this monster comment, I sincerely hope that the people you’re surrounding yourself with are more progressive than the rest of us!

    1. That’s interesting. Most of the people I’ve been interacting with are my age (31) or older, so that makes sense. But it is still somewhat remarkable to me that whatever pressures there are on young people, there doesn’t seem to be a visible segment of consumer culture designed to enforce them. Diet and fitness are multi-billion dollar industries in the US, but it doesn’t seem to be as big here.

      1. Yes, the same diet industry simply isn’t here… yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the industry gets going in several years as the Russian markets continue to develop. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts!

      2. Yes, there’s sooo much money to be made there that I’m sure you’re correct. Hopefully, the ubiquitous ice cream will stick around.

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