A friend of mine is hosting a Japanese exchange student this school year and she recently shared how part of their “getting to know you” conversation included the question What is your stereotype of Americans?

“They’re obese,” the student replied.

Whoa! What a shocking, sad statement. Have we Americans really reached the point where being decidedly overweight is the norm—how we are generally perceived by other cultures?

We have so much medical information at our fingertips. Research shows all kinds of serious health risks from obesity—from high blood pressure to heart disease to certain types of cancer. We know it’s dangerous to be overweight. But the reality is that in today’s society, it’s hard not to!

Easy accessibility of unhealthy food plays a major role in this challenge. We have continual access to a wide array of highly processed foods that look good, smell good, taste good, and don’t cost very much.

Advertising/media pressure is another part of the problem. How many captivating commercials have you seen lately for fruits or vegetables? Our society has fixated on “comfort foods.” Everything from pizza to pasta to chocolate cheesecake is touted as the path to happiness. We celebrate our holidays with sugar, fat and salt.

The  break-neck speed of our daily lives is yet another factor in this deadly equation. We are incredibly busy. Who has time to prepare food? We buy everything “ready to eat” and wolf it down between rushing to appointments or activities.

And of course, there’s the issue of lack of physical exertion. “Progress” in our society has automated everything, so we barely have to lift a finger.

Yes, I’m exaggerating…and generalizing.

But maybe not too much. As we consider the comment of our Japanese guest we must admit that we have a major problem in the United States. In fact, controlling the onslaught of obesity may currently be our greatest health challenge.

Why is it so hard not to gain weight? (If it was easy to stay slim we wouldn’t be in this crisis situation.) We’ve all heard that losing weight is a simple formula of calories in vs. calories out. But I’m beginning to think it’s more complicated. I believe weight management also has to do with how a person’s metabolism functions, with hormones, with how stress is handled, what “kind” of calories are frequently consumed (and the effect of the chemicals mixed in with them), and when they are eaten.

Even our sleep habits seem to have an influence on our weight. Researchers at Columbia University found that people actually eat more calories when they are sleep deprived vs. well rested. And most of the calories came from high-fat foods (like ice-cream and fries).

So, is there any hope for Americans?

Not until we’re willing to educate ourselves and then make lifestyle changes that fly in the face of advertising gurus and food marketers. If we quit buying grocery store junk food (and unhealthy fast food) and spend our money on fruits, vegetable and whole grains, I believe they will eventually offer us more nutritious foods at better prices.

I don’t think we can wait for the government to mandate health reform. Even if regulatory legislation is passed, it will take too long and not be effective enough. If every American consumer would commit to replacing consumption of empty calories with eating fruits and vegetables  we could see a major difference in just one year.

Anyone up for the challenge?