Sugary, processed fast-food is a staple in the south. Unfortunately, the health impact is significant. PHOTO Pexels/Cottonbro Studio

By Chryssi Zorbas

My friend was so thrilled by the film “Elvis,” that he asked our group of friends to travel with him to Memphis to visit Graceland, Elvis’ home.

As a new resident of the United States, having grown up in Cyprus, I haven’t explored the country yet, so I started Googling “Tennessee” to see where on the map it was. South! I have heard so many things about the South: the culture there is different from New York City (where I live); “the real America” is there; the food is bad there; and more. The more I heard about this region, the more I wanted to visit.

My imagination could not span the gaps between life in the Northeast to what I heard about the South. I was curious to find out if what I heard was true. I wondered, Isn’t it the same country? Isn’t it very similar wherever you go with several fluctuations in the accent?

I safely landed in Memphis a few weeks later, thirsty to explore. Graceland was fantastic and inspiring. Did you know that Elvis bought his house when he was in his early 20s and created a meditation garden there?

Throughout the city I saw contrasts. Beautiful neighbourhoods and neglected neighbourhoods. High-end restaurants and fast-food restaurants. The people overall were a mix, also.

As a nutritionist, I like to get real a feeling of an area by visiting a local supermarket to see peoples’ food preferences. So, as we were walking on the main street one day, I spotted a shop and walked in. My intention was to observe and buy some water to carry back to our Airbnb home. It wasn’t the cleanest supermarket, and the beverage shelves were stacked with soda and sugary drinks. Water, water where are you? Finally, there it was on the very bottom shelf; just two bottles left.

Culture Shock: Sugary drinks and food were abundant in Tennessee, while fresh fruit and water were elusive. PHOTO Pexels/Nothing Ahead

In that moment, my thoughts about the area’s consumption trends started shaping. It seemed water wasn’t being restocked because nobody bought it, unlike the rest of the drinks. Do people here know that frequent drinking of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with Type 2 Diabetes?

Sugar is hidden in lots of processed food today. Consuming too much can lead to serious health conditions. PHOTO Pexels/Nataliya Vaitkevich

Data tells the story: Thirty percent (30%) of adults are diabetic in Tennessee, and more than 47,000 people are diagnosed with diabetes each year. This qualifies Tennessee as one of the Top 6 states with the highest diabetes prevalence in the USA. Out of all 50 states, Tennessee ranks 19th on the obesity chart with 35% of the population afflicted with the condition; that’s more than one third of its population.

After three full days touring vibrant Memphis, we made our way to the airport. There was no time for breakfast, so I decided to grab it at the airport. I usually have fruit, which is great when traveling because it’s light on the stomach and easily digested.

I walked up and down the terminal from this kiosk to that food station, hunting for fresh fruit in any form – packed or whole. There wasn’t any! I could find fruit yogurts and juices, but not whole fruit. I could not believe it and kept walking up and down the airport to every single store. The very last one had a fridge with salads and some healthier snacks, so I peered in hoping for some mango or pineapple.

In the nearly empty fridge, there it was – one last plastic container with some cut melon, kiwi and grapes. Just one pack, and it didn’t look fresh or appetizing. I decided to keep searching.

All food stands at the airport were very clean and tidy, and fully stocked with packaged goodies – jellybeans, chocolates, candy, chips, etc. — and they looked bright and vibrant on the shelves. I was shocked! The fridge with the fresh, healthy options was empty and dull, whereas the sections with all the processed foods were colourful and shining. Once again, the display showed me what is most popular around here.

The statistics demonstrate this preference for junk food: 44.8% of Tennessee’s adults report consuming fruit less than one time daily. As a result, colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality in this state. Colorectal cancer arises when one’s diet doesn’t include enough fiber from fruit and vegetables, is high in fats, or has excess consumption of red meat plus an excess use of tobacco, alcohol, obesity; and lack of movement. So, an unhealthy diet paired with no exercise and too much tobacco and alcohol can have serious effects.

My search continued to the other far end of the terminal and I spotted Starbucks. I felt reassured. Starbucks usually has a bowl next to the registers where they sell fresh bananas and apples. I stood at the end of the line and waited my turn to approach the registers and see this highly anticipated bowl.

Me: “Hi, I was looking for the bowl of fruit you usually have by the registers with bananas and apples. Where is it?”

The cashier: “Fruit? Aah, no. We don’t serve such things here. If you want fruit you will have to go next door.”

I thanked the young lady and went straight to the next store to find my fresh fruit. Where had she sent me for fresh fruit? Chick-Fil-A!

I scanned the menu, and the “fruit” options were strawberry milkshake, peach milkshake and frosted lemonade. All were listed in the TREATS category.

Shock silenced me. It took me some time to take this in. And after a couple of minutes, I came to the harsh realization: The relationship with fruit that young lady had was fruit-flavoured milkshakes and desserts.

I wondered:

  • Is Memphis a “food desert”? A food desert is an area where access to healthy food is difficult.
  • What is the level of food education here? It appears to be quite low based on the lack of availability of unprocessed food.
  • Is profit prioritised before health in this state? Shops are fully stocked with items of low nutritional value.
  • Is junk food all they eat here? It appears that way.
  • Is “food insecurity” a reality here? This is the disruption of food intake and eating patterns due to lacking basic resources, such as money.

My search for answers revealed that Tennessee is the No. 1 state for government-subsidized nutrition assistance. More than 172,000 individuals are registered for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that helps people with low or no income so they can maintain adequate nutrition and health through fruits, vegetables, cereals, seeds, dairy products, fish, meat, and poultry. [The No. 2 state for SNAP subscriptions lags by a huge gap: North Carolina has 67,000 people on the programme, which is nearly 40% lower than Tennessee.] In addition, more than 116,000 people are food insecure in the state of Tennessee (8); that’s 11.2% of households who are unsure of their next meal.

Daunted, devastated and saddened, I walked all the way back to that first fridge at the end of the airport and bought that last miserable container of fresh fruit. I felt defeated!

As a nutritionist born and raised in Cyprus, I grew up with the Mediterranean diet, which heavily relies on fresh fruit, veggies and healthy fats like Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). It is proven as one of the best diets in the world.

I’m left wondering, How we can be so far apart in our approach to health. Is it culture, education, preference, the societal system?

I’m grateful to have made this trip with my friend. It taught me a lot. After visiting Tennessee, I feel exactly aligned with my life mission: I’m here to educate and help people find their optimal health.

Chryssi Zorbas is a spiritual nutritionist on a mission to connect people with their higher selves through nourishing their bodies. She is pursuing her Master of Science in Nutrition from the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Public Health in Scotland. She is a native Cypriot who lives in New York City. Follow her posts on healthy food and living on Instagram @MediterraneanGoldC.

Which will you choose? PHOTO Pexels/Andres Ayrton


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