As I sit, sipping my coffee in a cute but nondescript side street café in Barcelona, Spain I can’t help but reflect (and of course put a health/wellness spin on it). I'm writing this at the tail end of a once in a lifetime vacation across Spain and Portugal (by the time you read this, I'll be back in the states... fully back to obsessing over my diet and exercise:-). Over the past few weeks I’ve taken in all the sights, sounds, smells, and especially ALL the foods...I mean all of them! It got me thinking, my entire professional career has been dedicated to one of a couple of things: working with athletes or directly/indirectly working against the obesity epidemic, yet no one in Europe seems to pay much attention to what they eat (IMO) or be overly obsessed (bordering on refreshingly dismissive) about exercise.
Despite what I’ve witnessed firsthand and what I’ve always read, Europeans don’t suffer from nearly the health-related complications that we do as Americans from poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Until I was able to witness it firsthand I never really understood how it penciled out. I think I romantically imagined that every piece of food was transported magically from a quaint local farm right into a restaurant just moments before a dish was ordered or that every person shopped exclusively at farmer’s markets. All of course are not true and I have a few theories below where I’m going to break down why and how I think Europeans are able to stay relatively healthier* (remember, “fit” and “healthy” are two completely different entities) than us.
Oh my god the walking! Everyone walks! Everywhere! All day! I guesstimated that I averaged five miles of walking per day based on the time spent out and the terrain covered. No I did not use a tracking device…I actually enjoyed my vacation. Five miles per day though! When is the last time you voluntarily walked five miles…or one mile? It was SOP (standard operating procedure) to wake up, walk 10-15 minutes to breakfast or to get coffee then walk 10-15 minutes back to wherever I was staying or to the next stop on the discovery tour. I love to be active, I am always moving, love to move, however were I in the US and you were to ask to walk 15 minutes every morning to get breakfast….my answer would lie somewhere between my index finger and ring finger.
We should all be so lucky to have walking be THE WAY, instead of something that we do reluctantly. When coupled with all the walking I was doing as a tourist, it was no wonder I didn’t gain much if any weight despite doing ZERO of what would be considered dedicated exercise. Despite promising myself I wouldn’t analyze it I did come up with some cursory figures. 10-15 minutes’ walk was typically .4 - .6 miles in distance. I would traverse that distance a minimum of 2x per day (reality was closer to 4x per day) just for food or coffee not counting all the walking to see Palaces, Castles, and Cathedrals. My rough estimate of five miles per day may have been conservative.
Intrigued, I started to look at it a bit deeper. I went back to Tim Ferris’s book the 4-hour body. In it he mentioned the digestive and thermic benefits of doing something active immediately before and immediately after eating. Whether I liked it or not that was happening automatically, every time! Then there was the terrain. By terrain I mean hills. By hills I mean straight up lean forward so you don’t fall back vertical ascents up some of the streets. In fact, I always felt like I was going uphill, never downhill somehow (☺), always uphill, and for some reason there were always stairs (think step ups with a verticality component).
From some of the research I read relative to walking and the caloric cost, a guy my size (6’1 195lbs) can expect to burn around 300 kcal per mile (20-25mins of walking). That figure varies and is to a degree dependent on the age of the person, the sex, the amount of muscle, and of course the terrain. Most studies were done on a treadmill, so take that into consideration. From a fitness perspective, which is blasphemous to consider since I’m on vacation but I can’t help it, I don’t feel like I have lost much from a fitness perspective. I’ve probably gained a little weight, I’m probably not quite as lean, however relative to the amount of pastries I’ve been eating……I feel great! Which leads me to the next component.
PORTION SIZE AND MEAL FREQUENCY
This probably should have been/could have been first as it’s arguably the most important aspect of the equation. We as American’s (thank Texas) are used to having everything supersized – our meals, drinks, cars, trucks, living spaces, you name it. We do everything large! Europe, not so much. It took a day or so to get used to the tiny cars, the small apartments, the incredibly tiny and scary elevators, small showers/bathrooms (I had to get creative at times), and especially the small food portions. After I got over it I started to appreciate it. It’s subtle, it’s normal, it’s what they do, and it’s magnificent. Plates are small, and despite being small, are still meant to be shared with others (tapas).
Coffees are all espresso -which, if you’re not familiar are comically small. Soft drinks come in tiny bottles (glass), no 32-64oz monstrosity. Beer’s don’t come in steins or jugs or boots or by the gallon – most of the beers I had were no more than 8-12oz. Same for mixed drinks (which didn’t seem to be as mainstream). Wine was typically what we would consider a conservative pour. You know what? It was perfectly fine. I got used to it and then I began to enjoy it. It helped me slow down and enjoy everything I was eating and drinking. It also allowed me to not over indulge or overeat. I had the opportunity to eat until I was full without the feeling that I need to finish everything that was brought to me or the temptation of overeating due to the amount of food in front of my face.
The other interesting aspect I noticed was meal frequency. I’ll delve into the sleep aspect more in part 3, however due to the sleep patterns, I noticed an “accidental” fasting component. Breakfast, sometimes didn’t happen. Instead, brunch seemed to be the norm and brunch happened as it happens here in the U.S., around 11am. The best part, no tupperware toting spazoids or people freaking out over how many feedings they were getting in so that they could keep their metabolism stoked (btw -does anyone still believe that crap anymore?).
Two meals a day plus a snack (coffee, cigarette, pastry:-) was the norm. With that kind of frequency, doesn’t it seem reasonable that total calorie intake would be lower? It seemed like a no brainer. In part 2 I’ll delve into the “what” in terms of food selections as well as sleep and stress and how i think it plays into the bigger picture. Be on the lookout for Part 2 next week!