The European Food Enigma

As an American expat in Europe, I think I have a unique perspective on the differences in peoples waistlines on both sides of the pond. It is not news that Americans struggle with their weight and that nearly 2/3 now are considered 'overweight'--(umm, me included but working on it!!). Europeans seem to be able to eat foods like pasta and fatty foods like eclairs and loads of white bread and cheese (France) and still be skinnier than most Americans. Doctors have studied the French diet and particularly the Mediterranean diet (encompasses most of Europe--considered one of the healthiest out there) for answers. I've studied diet a lot in my weight loss efforts and I hear this constantly:

- No white breads
- No pasta
- No whole eggs
- Avoid deserts
- No cheese
- Avoid alcohol
- Don't eat after 6 p.m.

None of the above makes sense to me, because you constantly see it happening here. So why are Europeans skinnier? This is what I reckon:

- Portion Sizes: I think people forget what a true portion size is, the size of your fist. How many times have you gone to a restaurant in the US and seen this? Some portion sizes offer almost an entire day's allowance for calories. Although in Europe you are seeing plate sizes on the increase, they are very very little in comparison to what you get across the pond. When I have visited the US, I have cut my servings in half then half again---eating only 1/4 of what comes out. Taking the rest home is better than eating too much.

-Stress: The average holiday/vacation time in Europe is 28 days which doesn't include sick leave or public holidays (Bank holidays). We have our health care covered and in most places there is a real laid back feel to life. Stress/cortisol puts on weight particularly in your stomach area and stress also contributes to eating more (emotional eating!).

-Built for walking/moving: Petrol/gas prices at least in England are around $12 (£6) a gallon and its similiar on mainland Europe. In London, we are charged during the week to drive in the heart of the city--(the congestion charge) at $16 (£8) a day. This doesn't include car taxes/m.o.t. or insurance. People can't generally afford to drive and public transport (although exceptional in comparison to the US) can be a bit annoying. Everywhere you go you see people walking, having to climb stairs (the tube) or riding bikes. In Paris they recently implemented a rent-a-bike scheme where you pop in a coin and you can rent a bike for an hour or so. So in Europe they move because they have to. In the US, it can be quite rare for people to walk a lot (unless you live in like New York city) and people generally drive their cars everywhere.

-Time eating: Meals last a lot longer here. Its not unheard of having a dinner last more than 2 hours. I remember when I first moved here how long I thought restaurants took to bring the food out. Now it doesn't bother me if I'm at a restaurant for more than an hour. Food is meant to be enjoyed slowly and savoured. You see meals here as a chance to sit with families and take your time! Bringing awareness/quiet to your eating (truly tasting everything) makes a huge difference too.

-How food is cooked: traditional French or Italian food you get in the states is WAY different than the food you get in both these countries. For example--American pizza is layered with mozarella cheese. True Italian pizza--the cheese is an accessory not the main act, everything complements each other so you can taste all of the ingredients. Food is cooked fresh w/fresh ingredients---none of the processed stuff. Food is also not overcooked so that all the essential nutrients are maintained (i.e. pasta cooked al dente).

-Whats on the plate: You seriously see more vegetables eaten here particularly on the mainland. Eating according to the seasons happens as well as trying to have healthy fats like loads of olive oil, avacadoes, etc. Fish--is a huge part of the diet too--at least twice a week. In Venice for example, most of the pasta dishes have some sort of fish in them. Again---avoiding the processed foods as well. Its important to remember that nearly every quick meal (Mac & cheese for example) has a healthier or freshly made alternative.

There are exceptions to the above and there are overweight people here too, but this is generally what I personally have noticed as far as differences in the whole eating experience between countries. I find it fascinating the cultural gaps out there in something as simple as 'eating'. Anyway, all this talk on food is making me hungry!!


Jess said...

I totally agree with what you are saying. I think it is very easy to comprehend. I wish the US would adapt some of those concepts rather than revert to a life of yo-yo dieting. Plus there is so many foods that have so many additives and preservatives...which is a huge problem. I think about many of our parents that grew up on farms and they consumed and cooked with a lot of dairy and things they raised on the farm. It was all in moderation and little preservatives (if any). Great Post!

P.S. Thanks for the link to martawrites. It is right up my ally and I adore it!


Our difference is that american nutricion is based on junk food and tons of coke.
Plus too much "Opra" and no excercise
But Europe adopts (as Japan did), little by little, those habits too.

sherrie said...

interesting ideas, they make sense. i may not follow healthy eating by the book, but i sure to make an effort. i am amazed at how accustomed people i know are to drinking soda like it's the fountain of youth and then when i choose to have water they look at me like i'm from another planet. it's crazy.

education on these things here has been on the rise, but how many people are willing to change their life styles to be healthy? there are some out there, but i find them few and far between.

sherrie said...

p.s. did you make it to rome?


...blame it on all this commerciallized food, media propaganda...plus small kids behave like parrots and after some years you have an army of sickly adults.

christine said...

Sherrie---Rome is coming up this Friday!!

Carly said...

So jealous about your upcoming trip on Friday!

Also, I noticed the same thing while in Europe a few years back and I definately notice it here in Ecuador. The people of the Andes are VERY trim, and yet all they eat is rice, potatoes, and white bread. I think this is because of how much they walk and how difficult (how much work) it is to live here.

This is interesting. Thanks for sharing.