Looking at the "European Method"
I spent the last couple weeks in France and Italy on holiday pondering the bewildering question as to why Europeans do not get fat. Surely, the bread, cheese, and pasta I was eating would require some serious working off when I returned home. How was it that every local stayed so slim with this much tempting food?
Throwing away all of my usual methods of staying healthy on the road, I quickly decide that, “While in Rome”, I will mimic our European neighbors in hopes of discovering the answer to my question.
Obesity, after all, is a serious health issue. With 34% of Americans obese [the same rate as Bermudians], they nearly double the obesity rate in France at 12% [the lowest of all European cities]. Rather than studying the American population and why they are getting fat, what if we look at the European population and how they are staying thin to solve the obesity epidemic?
When I land in Paris, I make my way to the Airbnb apartment in the middle of the Latin Quarter. Eight flights of stairs later with an overweight bag and much sweat and tears leads me into a tiny loft with a kitchen the size of a broom closet. Clearly, kitchens are not meant for cooking and judging by the sidewalks teeming with locals sipping wine and enjoying their lunch, people do eat out. I scratch the theory that cooking in is the answer.
After the bag drop, I park the car 6 blocks from the apartment in what seems like the other side of the world, in our land of convenience. It takes over 20 minutes to walk back to the apartment and climb the stairs. I already have my workout completed for the day in less than an hour without stepping foot in a gym.
Lunchtime is nearing an end and it is time to grab what we call “a bite”. In Europe there is no such thing as this “quick bite”. Nope, mealtime is a ritual, meant for enjoying quality food with friends. The restaurant refuses me service, as it’s closing in 30 minutes and the chef needs to get back to their family before opening for dinner. This is difficult to ponder, coming from a world where I can eat whatever and whenever I want – quickly.
With no fast food to be found, I wait until dinner to eat. I walk around getting lost in all the beauty at every turn that is Paris, taking in sights and sounds, only to discover I’ve been walking for a few hours. Nice – more room for calories. The restaurants are opening and the atmosphere is buzzy. I try my luck with a random sidewalk bistro, satisfied that I found a place where the locals eat judging by the lack of English menus.
Annoyed at first by the slow service in my ‘hangriness’, I relax and take the time to appreciate the many fresh small dishes from the prix fixe menu. I didn’t fixate on food labels, trying to get more of this vitamin and less of that gluten. I eat a well-balanced meal without restraint and indulged in wine.
Making my way to the French countryside, I stay in the home of one of my dear friends who moved to France from Bermuda. We savored the fresh vegetables from her garden [no GMO there] and wine from her small vineyard. Again, mealtime was special in the company of good friends. She had the summer off, as most Europeans do, and the time to entertain. The French clearly know how to live.
Let’s see how the Italians do. Driving into Rome, I quickly remember, that cities are not designed with the car in mind. The price of gas coupled with lack of parking, narrow streets, and pedestrian only areas, strongly discourage car use. I drive through a sidewalk café, where patrons are forced to move their tables and grab onto their bottles of wine as I make my way to the hotel.
The rest of my trip is spent waking around taking in all the Roman architecture, squares, fountains and statues steeped in history and appreciating the culture and food. Despite all the prosciutto, carbonara, and tiramisu, I’m moving the entire day, getting twice the amount of recommended exercise. And despite all the carbs, I actually do not feel bloated or full after my meals.
As I look around, and see all the Italians lingering on terraces, it’s difficult to debate how they spend their time. As the saying goes, Europeans work to live and Americans live to work. With vacation coming to end, I believe I understand the European method to staying so thin. I will leave you with what I believe to be the four pillars supporting their method:
1. The world is your gym: Where we sit on our butts most of the day, Europeans are active throughout the day. Whether it’s walking or biking to work or picking up items from the various shops. These steps add up to good health. Part of this is not our fault. Our cities were designed for the car, unfortunately. However, there are ways you can work physical activity in throughout your day. For example, park your car far away from work and your errands in town.
2. Eat quality not quantity: For Europeans, it is all about high quality food such as hand made cheese and high quality meats. You will find minimum processed and refined foods. On top of that, the portions are smaller yet no one is going hungry. Why? Leptin, often dubbed the “obesity hormone” is the protein in your fat cells that tells your brain you have had enough to eat. Low quality food messes with our leptin levels and natural ability to regulate appetite. Europeans take their cue to stop eating when they are full, whereas we tend to take external cues like when our plate is empty or when our television show ends.
3. Savor your food: In Europe eating is for enjoyment and socializing – not just sustainment. Its unrushed, in the presence of family and good friends and done just three times a day. Eating slowly also makes meals more satisfying. It takes about 20 minutes for your food to be digested and send the message to your brain that you are full. Judging by how quickly we devour a Big Mac, we have no time to realize that we are full and move onto the fries. Try taking the time to eat away from your desk and actually enjoy your food.
4. Make it a lifestyle: It’s really just how we approach life. Life is much different from a lens of enjoyment, appreciation, and value for experiences. Take the time to slow down and relax. Whereas Americans value big houses, cars and money, emphasis in Europe is placed on time and experiences. Take your time and enjoy la dolce vita, the sweet life, wherever you are.