Diet Secrets from Around the World

Last Editorial Review: 6/2/2005

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.

As Mireille Guiliano, author of Why French Women Don't Get Fat, points out, while Europeans typically walk to the bakery, the butcher shop, and the vegetable stand for food that is prepared every day, Americans often load their groceries into trunk of the four-wheel drive, and try to park as close to the store as possible.

"For [the French], walking is the most simple, the most inexpensive exercise there is. Besides what it does to your waistline, it is also exercise for the mind because it gives you time to relax, to think, to dream, and to look at the sky or the buildings or at nature. So it has many other effects that go with the French lifestyle of body and mind," Guiliano recently told WebMD.

At the end of the day, she says, "the idea is to move your butt" -- and put your metabolism in motion.

In addition to eating more slowly, eating smaller portions, and eating less often, there are a number of healthy culture-specific eating habits Americans would be wise to adopt.

Here are a few recommended by our experts:

From Asia:
While Americans generally see meat as an entree, the Asian habit is to use it as a garnish, much the way we eat pickles with a ham sandwich. Most Asian meals consist primarily of vegetables that are merely "spiced" with the flavor of meat. For additional protein sources, this culture eats fish and beans, particularly soy.

Tip: Load your plate with carbohydrates, including grains such as rice. Carbohydrates have been on the American dieter's hit list. Yet in Asia -- where folks regularly consume 300 more calories a day than we do and weigh less -- carbohydrates, particularly rice are a dietary mainstay. So what's the trick? Master the Asian art of substitution, using rice and vegetables to replace high-fat meat dishes, not as side dishes to eat along with them.

From South America:
If you're convinced a meal is not a meal unless you've had a hunk of beef between your teeth, take a tip from Argentineans and buy only super-lean cuts. While these folks reportedly eat up to 30 pounds more beef a year than Americans, their rate of heart disease is decidedly lower. One big difference: Argentinean cows are grass-fed, so the meat is naturally lower in fat -- just 2.5 grams per 4 ounces -- compared with America's grain-fed cattle, which produce steaks with a whopping 10.8 grams of saturated fat in 4 ounces.

From the Mediterranean:
The message here: Eat from the source! If Americans took away any lesson from the famed, heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, it was to replace saturated fats with healthier fats, like those found in olive oil. The message we didn't seem to get: In most European cultures, folks not only cook with olive oil, they actually eat the olives. This "whole foods" approach to diet not only allows them to reap the benefits of the oils, it fills their bellies with a heart-healthy food.

Cultures including the French and the Greek also augment the benefits of red wine by eating the grapes -- a typical "dessert" in many European countries.

Tip: If you do drink wine, or any alcoholic beverage, do like the French and drink it only with meals. On an empty stomach, alcohol goes right to the brain, dissolving those inhibitions that might otherwise keep you from diving into a bowl of potato chips or eating way too much of your entree. Drinking on empty can also drop blood sugar, bringing on ravenous hunger and causing you to overeat.

From Africa:
Add more nuts to your diet -- even consider them as part of your main meal. In at least one African nation, Gambia, peanuts frequently make up the basis of a meal; a favorite dish being tomato and peanut stew. While we consider stews fattening, they are enjoyed daily in this culture. The trick is to load the pot with vegetables, spices, and, of course, nuts, which can replace meat or poultry as a source of protein. And does it work? Well, not only do the Gambians have virtually no weight problems, they also have the lowest international incidence of all types of cancer.

SOURCES: Steven Jonas, MD, professor, preventive medicine, State University of New York at Stonybrook; co-author, 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, New York University School of Medicine, New York. WebMD Live Event Transcript, French Diet, American Women, with Kathleen Zelman and Mireille Guiliano, March 10, 2005.

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