Istanbul is full of places to grab a quick bite to eat. Photo: Jennifer Hattam.
In my early months in Istanbul, I had a Turkish teacher who could not get over the fact that I -- an American -- was not fat. "But I went to America and everyone was so big!" she would say. "You must exercise every day!" When it came time to learn the conditional tense, the shy young Lebanese boy in our class would get questions like "If you brought home a Turkish girl, what would your mother say?" I would inevitably have to answer things like "If you got fat, would you have plastic surgery?" Increasingly, though, it seems Turks won't have to look outside their own country to find plentiful examples of obesity.Over the past 13 years, the average weight of a woman in Turkey has increased by 6 kilograms while the average weight of a man increased by 7 kilograms, according to a report released earlier this month at a conference on endocrinology and metabolic diseases. Waist and hip sizes also grew, as did diabetes rates.
While average life expectancy in Turkey increased over the same period, obesity rates jumped from 22.3 percent to 31.2 percent, a change attributed to a lack of physical activity. (Around one-third of people in the United States are considered obese.)
Lack of Public Transportation, Biking, Walking
A similar trend has been observed in Iran, where 60 percent of the population is overweight and obesity rates have risen to 35 percent among women and 15 percent among men. In its piece on the issue, Green Prophet attributes the problem to a lack of participation in sports and other types of exercise, as well as poor public transportation and little support for pedestrians and cyclists.
I can't speak for Iran, but despite pretty good public transportation, Turkey is certainly not an easy place to stay trim and fit. Ironically, considering my teacher's stereotypes, I've had a far hard time staying in shape and maintaining my weight than I ever had in the United States. Eating is a huge part of the culture -- even the tiniest, dustiest town will have at least one restaurant and büfe (snack shop) -- and things like running, biking, and going to the gym are not.
A Changing Food Culture
Meals at home have always been a big deal in Turkish culture, but in an increasingly urbanized and hectic society, fast food (from both international chains and local kebab stands) and packaged foods have become more and more common, and Turkey may be suffering from the detachment between food and the social rituals traditionally surrounding it, something that feeds obesity rates. A cuisine famed for using fresh local ingredients is also changing as it becomes more commercialized; I've heard, for example, that lesser-quality baklava is now often made with syrupy sugar rather than honey.
The exercise situation is yavaş yavaş (slowly, slowly) changing, however, as both running advocates and city officials told me Sunday following the extremely well-attended Istanbul marathon, 15k race, and 8k "fun run." The city now has 32 fitness centers and 13 pools, all free for residents, and while the sight of people puffing away on exercise machines in their street clothes may seem a little funny to those of us from more gym-centric cultures, they are getting used.
"You see a lot more people running along the Bosphorus, more people taking running more seriously," said Itır Erhart, a founding member of the local running and charity group Adım Adım. That trend will have to continue for Americans -- and not their own countrymen -- to remain the butt of local fat jokes.
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