Why Hungarians Don’t Get Fat

Why Hungarians Don't Get Fat
Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary


I don’t have a car in Budapest, so I walk everywhere. I’ve been pounding the pavement here for a solid month now, with ample opportunity to ponder a perplexing point: why don’t I see more fat people?

During the preparations for my move to Budapest and the start of my new job I spoke to several foreigners who were already living here. We covered a lot of important ground in those discussions as seasoned expats and future colleagues attempted to boost my comfort and confidence levels about Making the Big Move. But as supportive and positive as most of them were, unfailingly
at some point each of them wove a somber warning into the conversation: “Get ready to gain 20 pounds.”

Hungarians don’t appear to be connoisseurs of what we in North America might call lighter fare. Granola-topped fruit and yogurt to kick-start your day? Nem. (That’s Hungarian for “out of my way tree-hugger, I’ve got a croissant to catch.”) Breakfast here is a hastily grabbed (and often still warm!) cinnamon danish at the Princess Pastry shop inside the metro (subway) station en route to catching the train; salami and cheese sandwiches on fresh-baked rolls rule the lunchtime hours, and dinnertime means meat. It could be fried, deep-fried, battered, cured, cubed, stewed, heavily salted or all of the above….but it’s almost always meat; maybe with a side of root vegetables here and there. It’s typical Eastern European food from what I gather, and it’s not for the
faint of heart.

Literally. Check out this info I lifted from a World Health Organization paper on the doomed citizens of Hungary that I found lying around the Interwebs:

“The high mortality rate among men aged 30-65 is of particular concern. Ischemic heart disease and cerebrovascular disease accounted for 37.8% of total deaths in 2005. High blood pressure affects more than 50% of those aged 25-64 years and type 2 diabetes affects approximately 10% of the population. Hungarians have the highest death rates for lip, colorectal, larynx, trachea, bronchus and lung cancers in Europe; cancer causes every fourth death in Hungary. Cancers of the respiratory tract, attributable to smoking, have increased in women since the 1980’s. Suicide rates are among the highest in Europe.”

Keeping in line with these really depressing facts, one might expect the country to be overrun with bloated, red-faced, rolly-polly citizens wheezing their way between the butcher and baker, loading up on their carbs, nitrates, sodium and fat for the day before refuelling their flabby forms at their favourite fast-food joint (McDonald’s far and away rules that category here) – and then apparently offing themselves in a final act of self-destruction.

But for some mystical reason, at least in Budapest proper there just doesn’t seem to be an excess of overweight Hungarians. Maybe they walk a lot or something, but I’ve got another theory.

When grumpy, many of us have at some point had a chipper person bestow us with the insight that “it takes more muscles to frown than to smile.” The truth is that it actually takes more muscles to smile – BUT, since we generally use our smile muscles more regularly, it takes more effort to frown.

And this, my friends, is where I believe the Secret of the Svelte Hungarians lies.

A 2012 IPSOS Survey reported Hungary to be the unhappiest country in the world, easily beating out places like South Korea, Sudan, Mexico and Greece. I’ve even asked some Hungarians about this, and they readily agree that they’re pretty damned miserable and pessimistic about most things. One only has to look around a crowded metro car, grocery store or sidewalk to see the ugly truth firsthand. Hungarians expend so much energy flexing their un-happy muscles that all those extra calories from pastries, cheeses, cured meats and McHappy Meals don’t stand a chance. They’re literally frowning themselves thin.

And as for those 20 pounds I was warned I would gain? I’ve actually lost 5 – and since I’ve been stacking the odds against myself, taking the easy route of smiling my way through the dark and dreary post-winter days amidst the seas of hard-working miserable mugs (just try singing along with an Adele tune at IKEA here and see what kind of looks you get) and falling in with local culture by eating a way-beyond-obscene amount of totally wrong foods, if I want to stay on this trajectory there’s only one way to go: I’ve got more walking to do.


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