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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Obese Russians Confront Shame, High Prices

Tatyana Sharapova is possibly one of the most overqualified janitors in Moscow: She can type 60 words a minute; speaks Russian, English and some German; and has a professional-sounding voice ideal for answering phones.

But Sharapova, 25, is stuck pushing a mop around a small shopping center in southern Moscow, she says, because she weighs too much.

At 118 kilograms, or 260 pounds, she is part of a growing problem of overweight Russians.

The causes of this weight gain in Russia are similar to those elsewhere, experts say: Too much high-fat food, not enough fruits and vegetables, not enough exercise.

According to figures from the state-funded Institute of Nutrition, men between the ages of 30 and 44 weigh 2.4 kilograms, roughly 6 pounds, more than they did 12 years ago -- coming in at 78.7 kilograms compared to 76.3 in 1994.

Women, too, are gaining mass, finds the institute, which falls under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Those aged 45 to 60 are now heavier than they were not so long ago.

Overall, the average weight has risen by 2 kilograms, between 4 and 5 pounds, in the past decade, the institute's figures show.

"In Russia," said the institute's director, Viktor Tutelyan, "more than 55 percent of the population over 30 years old carry excess weight. In total, almost one-quarter -- 23 percent -- suffer from obesity."

While Russia still lags behind the United States -- almost 65 percent of Americans over 20 are overweight, and 31 percent are downright obese, according to the American Obesity Association web site -- it is now on a par with Britain, where more than half of adults weigh more than they should, a British health official said.

But as the country has grown fatter, it appears not to have grown any more accepting of overweight people.

Sharapova noted that when she submits her resume for a job, she almost always gets a call to come in for an interview. She said that on the telephone "they ask why I didn't attach a photo to my resume." Then, when she arrives for the interview, she said: "I can see their attitude the moment I walk into the room. When I see their expression, I stop concentrating."

Those who are overweight seem well aware of how they are viewed. Numerous overweight people who were approached for this article declined to comment. One squat, middle-aged man in his mid-30s refused to say anything but "I'm ashamed," before rushing off.

Nor has the marketplace met a growing demand for oversized clothing.

The Tri Tolstyaka clothing-store chain, which specializes in overweight and tall people, charges its customers far more than they pay at ordinary clothing outfits.

At the Tri Tolstyaka store on Leninsky Prospekt, collared shirts run no less than $190, and blue track-suit jackets cost $265. The store carries some items -- ties and underwear, for instance -- that are comparable in price to those at Zara and Colins. But most garments are exclusively for the well off: A leather coat, imported from Europe, was being sold for $14,390.

Sharapova, the janitor, said she'd heard of Tri Tolstyaka but never shopped there.

"Have you seen their prices?" she said. "I go to the store with my mother, and we buy clothes that she can adjust. At home we have extra material."

Tatyana, the Leninsky Prospekt store manager, who declined to give her last name, said simply that Tri Tolstyaka relies on a small but loyal clientele for its regular business.

What's more, the government appears not to have yet clued in to the weight-gain trend.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sports said the agency did not deal with weight issues. She added that obesity was not a problem in Russia and that "of course" there are no federal initiatives for combating it -- President Vladimir Putin's personal focus on fitness notwithstanding.

The spokeswoman, who refused to give her name, then launched into a diatribe about all the fat people who live in the United States.

Worse yet, said Boris Kaganov, the deputy director of the Institute of Nutrition's clinic, the state-run station Channel One's health show Malakhov Plus routinely gives viewers bad advice.

"I wish they would consult at least one medical expert before telling people to drink 50 milliliters of paraffin every morning to boost your immune system," Kaganov said. "Do they have any idea how irresponsible they are being? We are facing difficulties providing good advice to the population, and people are listening to this rubbish."

Still, Kaganov is doubtful Russia is anywhere close to catching up to the United States when it comes to weight.

"Theoretically, of course, that is possible," Kaganov said. "But the difference is that in the States, child obesity is a huge problem, and that increases the likelihood that successive generations will be overweight."

That said, it's not clear how much most children in Russia weigh. The institute, for one, has not conducted any research on child obesity.

Also, authorities are taking steps, they say, to limit weight gain across the country. Alla Pogozheva, who works with Kaganov as the head of the clinic's cardiovascular pathology department, said the clinic had developed a monthlong program for helping people reduce their daily intake of calories.

Most patients enter the clinic consuming 4,000 calories every day, Pogozheva said. By the time they finish the program -- cutting out meat and bread along the way -- they're down to 1,200, she said.

Another institute official said that "powerful propaganda" promoting healthy living was on the horizon. "The problem is not about too many McDonalds in cities," the official said. "We have to educate the population -- motivate them -- so they can make their own informed choices."