Pass the Vitamins, Please: An Expat’s Guide to Staying Healthy U.S.-Style


With so many choices, how do you know which vitamin is right for you? (HD)

America has suffered from an obesity epidemic, so an extreme counterculture has grown up of people trying to stay healthy and trim. I happen to live in the heart of a particularly wealthy, health-obsessed metropolis, New York City, where everyone exercises and eats well, or says they do. The middle-class women here look like they’re built from sinew inlaid with fat-eating bacteria.

How they achieve this look in part comes down to the manipulation — emotional rather than physical — they receive in the gym. When I joined my local health club, I booked a personal trainer for one free “assessment.” “Why not?” I thought, if they’re offering. After five minutes spent pinching the flappy parts of my limbs with a set of metal jaws, my trainer person furrowed her brow and told me I was fat. She didn’t even bother to disguise it in friendly terms. Needless to say, I went home, ate seven brownies and cried.

This is a land where gym staff aren’t afraid to humiliate paying customers into good health. Even the people whose job it is to replace the dirty towels look at you with eyes that scream, “Those abs are a disgrace!” At the same time, they dart around the free weights trying to avoid getting clunked in the face by twig-like ladies furiously benching 900 lbs with no regard for the skulls of hovering underlings.

In London, gymming tends to be more laissez-faire, mostly through apathy. Mrs. Fat pumps the bike next to Ms. Thin, and they ignore each other. And the staff ignore both of them. In New York, judgment is rampant. I expect some fitness centers offer plans where you can pay extra to be insulted and intimidated into dropping those last few inches. And if you’re not getting enough grief in the gym, chances are your good pals will make up the shortfall. I’ve witnessed groups of friends competing over exercise regimes. Someone will boast about a new type of pilates they’ve just taken up that’s a steal at 50 bucks a session, and that’ll set someone else off on a monologue about Tibetan yoga and spinning.

Outside the gym, Americans who want to stay trim have a job on their hands. Restaurant portions are vast and supermarket food that’s labeled to look healthy often isn’t really. You need to study the ingredients like an obsessive. “Low fat” can mean “high sugar,” and the meat and dairy ooze hormones and antibiotics unless otherwise specified. The dried fruit, bread and cereal are laced liberally with sugar, often disguised as “evaporated cane juice.”  True health foods — especially snacks — are hard to find in the U.S., and they’re often excessively expensive.

Supplements, on the other hand, are sold everywhere. The choice will make your brain ache. Americans grow up taking vitamins and the practice is viewed as a shortcut to good health. When I moved here, one friend revealed to me to her favored hangover cure: Wholefoods prenatal vitamins. Now, as an actual pregnant person, I’ve fallen into the habit of taking these costly little pills for their designated purpose, but I find this just gives me an excuse to eat badly. Back home, I don’t know any women who bothered to take “prenatals” (apart from the obligatory folic acid) when they were pregnant. But they mostly ate well and didn’t have any health problems during or after their pregnancies. The vitamin business is what my aging dad (who’s never knowingly exercised or eaten a health food) would call “a racket,” and he’s not wrong.

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • expatmum

    The fact that every year there seems to be a new report debunking one vitamin-related theory or another makes me avoid popping them and just eating a healthy diet.

  • $21404289

    Thank you, America, for prophylactically pumping your livestock full of antibiotics thus rendering them increasingly ineffective for humans.

    It’s the biggest health risk to the planet.

  • dp

    “High-fructose corn syrup”, “natural flavoring” and words ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, maltose, etc.) are all also ways sugar is hidden in labeling here. One thing you can do is find a farmer’s market and shop there- they’re becoming more popular, and the food generally tastes better, is fresher and better for you, and puts less strain on the environment in terms of shipping, etc.

    • Salsify

      Watch out for sucralose, a deliberately confusing name for Splenda, an artificial sweetener made from chlorine and sugar.

  • Salsify

    The soil has been depleted of minerals. The magnesium level is low, which increases the chances of asthma, migraine, strokes, high blood pressure, depression,sleep problems, what used to be called toxemia, and heart attacks. Also the body needs Mg to make vitamin D from sunlight. D and Mg make for a strong immune system. Iodine and selenium also should be taken. Mg does not absorb well orally. Epsom salts baths or Mg chloride solution rubbed on the skin are the best ways to take it.