Diet Secrets from Countries with Low Rates of Obesity
Monday, September 13, 2004
Do you ever wonder why North Americans struggle with their weight while people in other countries, such as France, Italy and Greece seem to stay slimmer and healthier?
Dietitian Leslie Beck visited with Balance Television host Dr. Marla Shapiro to share diet secrets from countries with some of the lowest rates of obesity and chronic disease in the world.
The French Diet
"We're envious of those French women, they're slimmer and not only that, it's called the French paradox: here we have the French who are eating Brie and butter and cream and pastries and they have one of the highest intakes of saturated fat that we know, and yet their rates of heart disease are lower and theyre slim."
So what's going on?
According to Beck, there are lots of little components that could make up the answer.
"We always talk about the red wine," Beck said. "The fact that red wine is high in antioxidants that can keep the heart healthy, but the fact of the matter is the French drink wine in moderation and they drink it with meals. So that's probably partly do do with it."
They also use olive oil, Beck noted, which is high in monounsaturated fat. It probably doesn't offset the saturated fat in the butter and the Brie but they do include that fat in their diet.
Other researchers have said it must be the onions and the garlic, foods that are rich in health-promoting sulfur compounds that may help ward off cancer.
But in the end, Beck thinks that it is how the French eat that makes the difference.
"They eat small portions, they eat three meals a day, they don't snack, they don't skip meals, they don't rush off to dessert before they finish their vegetables and lean protein," she explained. "And they enjoy their foods and they eat smaller amount...and they eat slowly."
The Mediterranean Diet
Another healthy diet is the Mediterranean diet, which is based on the dietary traditions of Crete, the rest of Greece and southern Italy back in the 1960s, Beck said.
Those populations have had some of the lowest rates of chronic disease in the world and a high adult life expectancy rate.
"You can't be afraid of carbohydrates here...higher carbohydrate diets are protective," she said. "The base of the diet is grain foods: pasta, whole grain breads, rice, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and beans. They use monounsaturated fat (olive oil). Even though the diet provides about 25-35 per cent of fat calories, it's very low in saturated fat. Their protein foods: fish, chicken and eggs weekly; red meat once a month."
It's a very healthy diet high in fibre and antioxidants that can help prevent disease, so don't be a carbohydrate basher.
The Asian Diet
Rice and rice products are a staple of this diet, and if you look at people living in rural areas of Asian countries, the diet consists of minimally processed grains, not instant white rice.
The diet is also high in vegetables, Beck said. If you look at some of the vegetables they eat, they are full of compounds called cruciferous chemicals that studies have shown can actually help reduce the risk of cancer by affecting the enzymes in our liver that detoxify cancer-causing substances.
"Soy is the main legume in their diet, soy is the protein, they use plant-based beverages every day; (they drink) green tea, saki, even beer," she noted. "It's really a low-fat diet tha't almost vegetarian. animal protein foods are used very minimally."
the local paper is running a series about food. in the article about eating prepackaged food these countries were mentioned as using the least amount of pre-prepared foods. and the skinny post today is about the joys of food shopping and preparation.
have a great day today
09-15-2004, 09:49 AM
Thanks for posting that, Gen. Very interesting reading, indeed. I've lived in a few other countries, and I can say I was much healthier elsewhere. I moved to Italy when I was 19, and lived there for 3 years; I wasn't overweight when I went, but still came back about 15 pounds lighter, despite having pasta twice a day, full fat cappuccinos, and plenty of red wine. When I lived in Northern India (in Kashmir,) I ate basmati rice, mutton, and ghee (butter solids) and drank whole milk chai-- and I lost about 20 pounds there. Even after living in Ireland, where I ate fried eggs and toast with butter every morning, had plenty of "chips" (fried potatoes) and drank copious amounts of Guiness, I lost weight. I've visited maybe 6-8 other countries for different periods of time, and the only place I've ever gained weight has been America.
I believe that -- at least in my experience -- not only is it what we eat, how much we eat, and when we eat, but it's also our whole culture of immediacy. We need to get the food quickly (fast food); prepare and eat the food quickly (processed food); rush away from the dinner table (affects digestion and a feeling of psychologica lack); and eat to meet the wrong needs (because psycho/social needs are not met, we eat the wrong things for the wrong reasons to meet needs unrelated to hunger.) And then of course, we can't spend the time walking anywhere -- nor do our social and geographical infrastructures support it in many parts of our country -- so we drive everywhere and are becoming increasingly incapable of actually walking for transportation. As we're growing larger, we're growing less able to actually move our own bodies from point A to point B.
It's crazy what we've done to ourselves, and it's all in the name of "progress" under the guise of expediency, convenience, and efficiency. We're killing ourselves and feel superior to the rest of the world as we're doing it.
09-15-2004, 12:42 PM
I've been to a few countries and the biggest difference I see is the level of activity, basically walking. When I was in Greece, breakfast/lunch was very light but dinner was often huge (and damn good I might add) and I didn't gain any weight while I was there but that was probably because I was walking a lot.
I didn't have a car until I was 23 at which point, I gained 20 lbs because I stopped walking as much. So I think that article isn't bad, but I think they overlook the fact that people in other countries are more active than we are.
09-15-2004, 12:58 PM
I agree with Sarah. Portion control and the sense of urgency are definitely very solid reasons for the weight gain here. Everything is so convenient, quick and easy. Im my opinion short cuts aren't always the best way.
I think walking is definitely a means of getting from place to place more in other countries. Here, you can practically drive a car anywhere: Drive through: food, convenience stores, pharmacy, heck, we barely have to take 3 steps now to pump gas with the pay at the pump option.. Makes for time efficiency but lacks health efficicncy!
On a more positive note about North America, I think the obesity epedemic is making a change for the better. I think we are starting to do a better job in this country of educating our people on health issues and I give many kudos to the restauraunt industry for offering more health conscious options. It's like the new craze to get healthy...we're crazY not to have thought about all this sooner you know??
Great read Gen.. I truly enjoyed it!
09-15-2004, 05:43 PM
I agree too... when I was in Spain, lunch was the biggest meal at about 3 p.m. and then dinner was moderately sized, but not like in the U.S. at about 10 p.m. The big difference though is that they take between 30 minutes and 2 hours to eat a meal. (Sometimes more, but rarely less.) My dad and I eat dinner in 10 minutes flat most nights.... why? Who the heck knows. I'm working on that starting: today.
09-15-2004, 11:52 PM
Thanks for posting this Gen! Very interesting read!
I agree with you Apryl... we eat dinner very quick too and I'm wondering why!?
09-16-2004, 12:00 PM
What I would like to know from people who have lived in other countries is what is the market or grocery stores like? Do they have as many convenience foods as we have ie Kraft Dinner for example and what about like snack cakes, chocolate bars, cookies, potato chips?
Also it seems to me (and correct me if I am wrong) that in a lot of European countries you are more likely to shop everyday for fresh produce at a local shop or market that is in your neighbourhood. It sounds like they have more small shops rather than the gigantic supermarkets we have in North America.
09-16-2004, 12:24 PM
I haven't lived in other countries, only visited. When I was in greece, I don't remember ever going to a grocery store like place, I also don't remember outdoor markets. I do remember small stores, but all I bought in those were water.
When I was in Switzerland and Germany, I did see a few outdoor markets with everything, fruits, veggies, wine, etc. When I went into the grocery type stores which were very similar to our grocery stores, they had all sorts of things, chocolates, potato chips, etc as well as fruits and veggies.
09-16-2004, 01:05 PM
Thanks for posting the article, Gen. It gives you a good feeling to know that several lifestyles seem to work as effectively as others.
I echo some of the comments of others about losing weight living overseas. I lived in Holland for a year, and without even giving it a thought, I lost approx. 40 pounds over the year. I was ecstatic because I wasn't even trying to lose weight (though I knew I needed to) - it just seemed to 'disappear' and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized my pants wouldn't stay up any longer!
I ate a lot of bread and cheese and yoghurt, and the meals with my Dutch housemates were often pasta-based (we were students!). Heck, we even at the salads last. And with my group of foreign exchange student friends we had lots of dinner parties and ate lots of food and tried many different beers and wine. Occasionally, I would eat fries or these fried cheese-soufflees when pressed for time. So, I certainly didn't eat 'great' while I was there, but in general, I think I was somewhat better than how I am in Canada. Also, when we made meals together as a group, portion sizes were controlled so that we would have enough for everyone. However, I think that a huge factor for me was the increased level of activity - as nelie first suggested. We walked and biked *everywhere*. Within 3 weeks there I had already gone on a 70 km bike trip (and for someone who was probably about 270 at the time, yikes! That's jumping right in!!). When I travelled around Europe, I'd easily be walking 6-8 hours a day.
Jen: in Holland, they had some normal sized grocery stores, though not on the same magnitude as the large ones here in North America. You could definitely find chips, chocolate bars and cookies there, though I don't recall that the selection was as huge as you find here. And I can't recall anything on the same level as Kraft Dinner! (Though I keep forgetting to send a box to my Italian friends - I wanted to show them how we 'mutilated' pasta over in North America! ;) My Italian friends always wanted sole control in the kitchen for fear that the rest of us might not do it right!) I think also my unfamiliarity with their 'junk' food helped keep me from buying it. I also found things smaller - for example, I only seemed to find the small boxes of cereal, none of the large family-sized boxes that we can find in most grocery stores over here.
That being said, there was definitely a big emphasis on shopping at the market (Gouda cheese straight from Gouda!) and shopping on a day-by-day basis. In my student house (with 16 people) we'd have people indicate on a bulletin board whether they were going to be there for dinner that day. Then at 5pm, we'd decide what we were going to make and we'd send a couple people out to go shopping just for that dinner, so we always ate fresh meat and vegetables. Then a few people would cook, we'd all eat together (usually about 8 of us), then a few would clean up. Like Apryl mentioned, we took more time eating our meal and enjoying it and the company.
I think, also, that the smaller presence of fast-food restaurants overseas helps. I lived in a city of about 90,000 and I can think of only one McDonald's restaurant (though maybe there more that I didn't notice) but it sort of blended into the neighbourhood, so it didn't stand out much. I actually avoided all North American fast-food chains while in Holland because I certainly didn't go overseas to eat at McDonald's!
Whew...this is getting long.
So in conclusion, the fact that I think I'm healthier overseas is one of the several reasons that I am going to go overseas in about 4 months to live and work for at least a couple years.
a broad abroad
09-16-2004, 03:37 PM
Thanks for posting the article. Some good points were raised. I also enjoyed reading about others' experiences living in and visiting other countries. Besides the US, I've lived in Germany and Belgium, and visitied many other countries.
We definitely eat too large portions, too much junk, too many soft drinks, fast food, snacking, convenience food, low-quality foods, don't exercise enough, and all the other things that were mentioned above.
It's interesting to hear others opinions of Americans and some of the ways we do things. Here are some experiences I've had.
My British friend relayed a story to me one time about when she was telling a German person the famous story of the elderly woman who spilled hot coffee from McD's on her in the drive-thru and sued for big $$. The German person's first response was "who eats in their car?" The answer: Americans
A German friend that married an American man told me about the first time she went to America to live for a few years (this was 20 years ago). They were invited to someone's home for Thanksgiving and the hostess made everything for dinner from a bag, box or can - nothing fresh. She asked her husband if all Americans ate that way.
About 10 years ago a group of 5 German and Austrian guys I know went to the US for 6 weeks of traveling around America. They couldn't believe how many overweight, fat and obese people were in our country. They even started using a code word to discuss it in public - sick.
Another German friend is a Master Butcher with years of schooling in the food industry. He pointed out that much of our food has many, many preservatives in it to make it last longer and fillers to make it go further. The cows are fed hormones and supplements to produce more and last longer, too. Too many of the restaurants use frozen, or treated food shipped from who knows where.
Just two days ago I took three boxes of Jello mix to work to offer to the folks who have kids (I accidentally purchased regular instead of sugar-free and couldn't use it.) I offered it to the French woman whose child is half American and she said "no thanks, my daughter doesn't eat the typical American way."
A few years ago we drove to Italy. On the way home we stopped in the supermarket to get some Italian food that we couldn't get in Germany. We went a little bonkers and got a cart full of stuff, about $100 worth at the time. I could tell from the check-out girl's face that she wasn't used to seeing people buy that much at one time.
In guidebooks to the US, people from other countries are warned of the portion sizes in restaurants and that it may be difficult to find quality.
Jen, - I'll give you an idea that will illustrate one of your questions. The refrigerator in the house we rent is not much bigger than those dorm sized ones we have in the states, meaning that the shopping is done daily or almost daily. Plus, it has no freezer!! Of course, with us being Americans that wouldn't do, so we have a regular fridge/freezer hidden in the pantry!!
Here in Germany they don't have as many convience foods as we do because people value freshness in food, "real food." Times are changing and you are starting to see more convenience items though. You asked about chocolate bars. YES, they are everywhere, but once again it is of the highest quality and cocoa is the first ingredient, not sugar. I echo what Lekker said about the size of products, too. No "family sized' boxes or bags of whatever. Most food products over here have manufacture and expiration dates on them so you know how old the stuff is. Most things are produced as naturally as possible and don't last too long.
There are many small supermarkets, but now there are more large marketplaces in the bigger cities. Most towns, even the small ones still have a fresh market/farmers market once a week in the city center.
Oh, I do love the food over here!! ;)
09-16-2004, 06:09 PM
a_broad_abroad: I'm glad you mentioned the freezer thing! It slipped my mind, but I didn't use a microwave or a freezer for the entire year I lived abroad! The first couple weeks abroad I was confused/frustrated at having to change my patterns (at first I couldn't fathom getting on without a freezer!), but eventually I got used to it.