Diet Secrets from Around the World

What other cultures can teach us about keeping down the pounds

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

The Mediterranean diet. The Asian diet. The French women have their own diet, too. When it comes to weight control, it sometimes seems as if every culture on the planet has the answer -- except us!

As our collective girth steadily grows -- and with it, our risks for heart disease, stroke, and even some cancers -- experts say it's time to sit down at the international dinner table with something more than dessert on our minds.

"There is no real mystery as to why Americans are gaining weight. We have a body that needs roughly 2,200 calories a day to survive, and a food industry that insists on producing and pushing 3,700 calories a day. Do the math and you'll see what's going wrong," says Steven Jonas, MD, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine at State University of New York at Stonybrook, and author of 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines.

But what kind of food is the rest of the world eating that we're not? And, more important, what are we eating that's contributing to our problems? If you're about to jump up and shout, "Desserts, pasta, white bread, fast food!" -- not so fast, the experts say.

If you examine the global pantry item by item, you may be surprised to learn that diets all over the world contain pretty much the same foods. The choices, whether you're in Madrid, Spain or Minnesota, or Provencal or Pasadena, basically much consist of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

The big "aha" comes when we learn that what matters is not so much what foods we eat, as how we eat them.

"It's not just the calories, or just the fat, or just the desserts," Jonas tells WebMD. "It's the whole mentality that swarms around our food culture that is making the biggest difference of all."

Nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, agrees.

"You have to look at the whole picture of how we, as a nation, advertise food, consume food, and use food in our culture before you can really begin to understand how we are different from other countries," says Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.

American Eating Habits

Among the worst of the typically American eating habits, say experts, is our unwillingness to celebrate each meal we eat. Ironically for a culture that uses food to celebrate so many things, dinnertime USA is less about the food and more about filling our bellies -- and doing so quickly.

"I think the one thing that strikes every American who travels abroad, to France, to Italy, to Spain, to Greece, is how each meal is a kind of celebratory event to be savored and enjoyed," says Jonas.

And while the American interpretation might be that "longer meals equal more food," experts say the opposite is true. The slower you eat, the less you eat, Heller says.

"It takes the brain about 20 minutes to figure out that your stomach is full, but you can stuff an awful lot of food down in 20 minutes if you're eating quickly," she says.

By comparison, Jonas says, a meal in any of the Mediterranean countries could take two hours or more. Yet frequently, less food is consumed than at the American dinner table.

"People tend to savor food more, to taste it, to experience it bite by bite," he says.

Additionally, studies show that few cultures snack as much as Americans. After all, our country not only gave birth to fast food and the "coffee break," but to the commercial snack food industry.

Folks living in Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and Africa are far less likely to eat between meals. That means they automatically avoid many of the foods that cause us to gain weight, such as baked goods loaded with trans fats, candy bars high in saturated fat, and sugary, empty-calorie sodas.

"When other cultures do snack, they choose healthy items such as fresh fruit, or fiber-rich whole grains, or nuts, all of which help their health in other ways as well," says Jonas.

Another typically American mistake: Eating snacks as if they were full-sized meals.

"Regardless of what you're snacking on, a snack should be a snack-size portion -- something to take the edge off your hunger -- not a whole meal," says Heller.

But it's not just snack time that we overindulge. From Asia to Africa, from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, Jonas says portion sizes are notoriously smaller everywhere than on the American plate.

"Americans have lost touch with what it feels like to be 'full,' having replaced that feeling with one of being 'stuffed' -- one reason our portion sizes are now so large," say Heller.

Finally, experts say it's time for American's to spend less time in those bucket seats and more time on our feet.