The Scottish Highlands, Junk Food and Structuralism

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Couple weekends ago I was in the Scottish Highlands.
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Scotland is known, at least among me, for its unexplainably high rates of obesity and alcoholism. One of the reasons I wanted to go there was to see if the liquids and solids environment was really so extreme.
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This is basically vacation as confirmation bias. In the last 10 years I’ve become a weirdly dogmatic structuralist.
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When I moved to Europe I weighed 1.5 times as much as I do now. I lost 60 pounds my first year here and never put it back on again.
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It’s not that I magically had the willpower to eat better and exercise more. It’s that a Mountain Dew in Denmark costs four dollars, a Big Mac Extra Value Meal costs fifteen, a monthly bus pass costs — well, I never even checked. More than biking.
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Not drinking pop, learning how to cook, cycling everywhere, they weren’t signs of some new Euro-fortitude. They were just my habits adjusting to my circumstances.
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I went to a lot of grocery stores when I was in Scotland. Here’s a mini-mart in a working-class (or at least working class-looking?) neighborhood of Inverness.
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It’s what you’d expect. Shelf after shelf of worryingly cheap alcohol and snacks.
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Flanking a meagre little corner with actual groceries.
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‘Does anyone ever buy the bananas?’ I asked the manager.
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‘Nah,’ she said. ‘We usually just throw them out.’
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It wasn’t just the prices in Denmark that made me change my habits. All of my friends cooked their meals most nights, ate out reluctantly, biked everywhere. And looked amazing. Being surrounded by beautiful skyscraper Teutons, it turns out, is powerful motivation to skip seconds.
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Sometimes I wonder if constantly looking for structural explanations means I don’t believe in personal responsibility. A skinny Dane isn’t more virtuous or hardworking or sophisticated than an overweight Scot, goes my brain. He’s just choosing among the options available.
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‘If you’re fat it’s because you eat too much,’ my Danish friends would say when I brought this up. ‘Just stop eating so much. It’s that simple.’
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And it is. And it also isn’t.
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Sometimes I feel like some sort of left-wing caricature for thinking this way: it’s not your fault you’re fat, it’s your country’s fault.
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And shit, I probably am, in more ways than just this.
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But there’s being right and there’s being nice. Sometimes choosing between the available options means paying attention to one, and completely ignoring the other.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Scottish Highlands, Junk Food and Structuralism

  1. Beautiful photos. Poor neglected bananas…

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  3. Living in the UK (of which Scotland is still part of, at least until Sept. 18th) I can only wholeheartedly agree with you. Supermarkets, be them large or small, are occupied by at least 1/4 of their floor space by booze and snacks, sometimes stacked together, in sequence. I recently did a poll amongst my group of peers at work; the question was “how many of you drank Vodka Mars?” (Take a plastic bottle, fill it with vodka, pop in a Mars bar, close it, throw it in a washing machine and send it spinning). All of them did, but two: one Polish, one Israeli.

    This country’s got a problem and my opinion is that American influence plays a part, unfortunately.

  4. Molly

    Thank you for the beautiful photographs. I suppose what you meant by “it’s as simple as eating less, and also it isn’t,” is that your environment, fortunately or unfortunately, affects your choices. As someone who’s lived in 3 different cities in two continents over the last 3 years, and who’s vacillated between slightly underweight and slightly overweight in that time span, I can say that my changing eating and exercise habits seem to have had little to do with my personal willpower to eat less or eat more, and much more to do with my work schedule, my relationship status, and the terrain of my neighbourhood.

    When I was single and lived in a city with a flat terrain and unreliable public transit, I walked or biked everywhere and lost a lot of weight. When I moved to a neighbourhood with a very steep terrain and few bike lanes or safe spaces on which to bike or walk, this made biking and walking a hassle, and I started taking the bus everywhere and gained weight. I also gained a lot of weight when I moved in with my partner and started cooking for two on a regular basis, which also made me cook and eat more without realizing it. What people around you eat affects you too, of course. If your partner hates vegetables and you cook for two, it can make your own healthy eating mission a struggle.

    If only it were as simple as “just don’t eat so much.” I’d love to see these svelte Danes living where I live now, in my terrain and environment, with my work schedule, and not gaining a pound.

  5. You are mixing up cause and effect.

    People dont buy what a shopkeeper wants to sell but the other way around: shopkeepers sell what people want to buy.

    As your example with the bananas clearly shows.

  6. Heh I’ve long thought about overweight & obesity rates this way. Guess I’m a left-wing caricature right along with you. Poor Scots.

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  8. what a charming blog! cheers!

  9. As a Swedish blogger I am clearly making a serious mistake by commenting on my natural-born foe’s blogg. Nonetheless both Danes and Swedes may be able to put our former animosity aside by laughing at the Scottish.

    Thank god.

    Which brings me to my point: Check out this video 😀

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