By Dr. Tina Marcantel

mediterranean cuisineRecently my husband Peter and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary with a trip to Europe. As we visited several countries bordering the northern Mediterranean Sea I was able to observe for myself what I had often read in health articles: the obesity rates in those countries are far lower than that of the United States. Italy and France, in fact, have some of the lowest rates in the world, hovering around 9% as compared to 30% in America, despite their reputations for gourmet cooking.

With all that great food around, why aren’t more people overweight? Here are some things I noted about the southern European approach to food preparation and consumption that may help to answer that question—and that I try, when possible, to incorporate into my own culinary habits.

1)    The dishes and the way they are prepared (particularly in Italy) tend to be low in saturated fats—heavy on fresh vegetables, light on red meats. They cook in pure olive oil and use garlic and spices that not only enhance the flavor of the foods, but also are healthy for the body.

2)    Courses are served in smaller portions than most Americans are used to. The idea is to savor each dish, not to fill up as fast as you can. Presentation, also, seems as important as the flavor of the food; it sets the stage that makes a meal a feast for all the senses.

3)    People allow themselves time to eat slowly and enjoy their food. Many of our meals lasted for one and a half to two hours, and we heard that three-hour meals in restaurants are not uncommon. It took us a little while to get used to the unhurried pace of dining, but the longer time frame aids digestion and allows you to truly enjoy your meal and the company you’re sharing it with.

4)    Wine is a staple that’s served with most meals. A glass of red wine with a meal contains good antioxidant properties, complements the flavors of the food, and helps make the dining experience relaxing and enjoyable. (If you prefer, a good herbal tea can do the same!)

5)    In many places in southern Europe a siesta is still taken after eating. Taking time to rest after a meal allows for proper digestion and can lower the cortisol production of the body, helping to reduce fat production and weight gain (particularly in the abdomen). I know it’s impractical for most of us who are working to take a lunchtime siesta, but even allowing ten minutes for relaxation and meditation after lunch can be helpful.

6)    The Europeans tend to walk much more than Americans; they walk distances to work or to restaurants that most Americans would drive (not a bad idea, considering the crazy traffic in many European cities!). One article I read said that Europeans walk three times and bicycle five times as far as Americans each year. Using “active transportation” like walking and biking helps burn off some of the calories from those delicious French and Italian desserts.

These observations are not meant to be a scientific study of comparative nutrition between American and European diets. Still, I think there’s a lot we can learn from reconsidering our approach to both what we eat and how we take our meals. The concept of “healthful eating” shouldn’t imply that we are denying ourselves one of life’s great pleasures; it just means that we choose to be thoughtful and deliberate with our dining options.

If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, try reading “Dieting Italian Style” by David Pacchioli. It’s a great online article that goes into quite a bit of the science and psychology of several of the concepts I wrote about in this article.

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