The Secrets to How Europeans Stay Thin
I Have Two Little Secrets to Confess
- I love good food.
- I love fine wine.
As a full-time historical fiction author, most of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer. My former job as a gastronomic tour guide put me in constant contact with delicious, tasty treats and wonderful Tuscan cuisine.
I cook often and have published many food articles and recipes. Food is an extremely important aspect of my life. The number one question I get asked by people when they visit Florence is:
How do you stay so thin?
Travelers and tourists seldom fail to notice that there are not many fat people in Europe. Despite all the incredible food that is available here, the obesity percentage is much lower than in other countries like the U.S. and U.K.
People marvel at the fact that many Europeans stay fit and slim well into their 50s, 60s, and 70s
I do not have a high metabolism. On the contrary! If I don't keep an eye on my diet and lifestyle, I will quickly gain weight (and it seems to go straight to my hips and thighs, just like most women). I don't smoke, nor do I overindulge in coffee (usually one espresso in the morning, maybe another later in the day). I don't have a tapeworm, either.
So, what's my secret to keeping slim?
My entire family comes from Portugal (Azores) and I was raised to embrace my cultural heritage, especially when it came to food. My mother purchased seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, used a lot of high-quality olive oil, and made everything from scratch. My sisters and I were raised in the U.S., yet we rarely at junk food.
My father is the perfect example of how most Europeans eat on a daily basis. Every morning, his breakfast consisted of toast with cheese and a cup of coffee. He would leave work at noon to come home for lunch, sit at the dining table and eat a full meal (complete with a glass of red wine) before returning to work. Dinner was the same time each night (6 pm) and he would have another proper meal (usually with another glass of wine). No snacks in between, no junk food, just three good meals a day.
My father has always been very active. He walked to work, rode his bicycle a lot, worked in the yard (we had a full garden, including a grapevine), and he was always fixing something around the house. He is now over 75 years old and he's still fit, healthy, and very active.
Fortunately, I have retained the eating and drinking habits that I learned as a child. Sometimes, my tour participants would appear a bit shocked when I informed them that I was introduced to wine in my early teens and taught that it was meant to be appreciated with food. I'd like to add that I never abused alcohol because it was really no big deal when I turned 21 (the legal age for drinking alcohol in the U.S.).
In addition to drinking wine on regular basis, I drink a lot of water throughout the day. I also consume green and herbal teas, and a bit of natural fruit juice. I do NOT drink any prepackaged sugary beverages or soft drinks since both are full of nasty chemicals, artificial colorants, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup.
When it comes to food, my husband and I are omnivores. We don't eat meat every day, however. I like to prepare vegetarian meals about three times per week. I don't eat any frozen dinners or industrial, prepackaged foods due to their high sodium and fat content. I don't eat canned soups, canned meats (except for some tuna in spring water), or so-called "foods" that are wrapped in plastic with unusually long expiration dates (real food decomposes and rots).
It may surprise some of you readers that I also don't eat anything that is labeled "fat-free" or "low-fat." My morning yogurt has all the fat and creaminess that is so good for my hair, skin, and nails (let's not forget my taste buds, too). I only use real butter for baking and real sugar—no fake stuff!
I avoid margarine, artificial sweeteners, and basically anything that is man-made. My best friend in the kitchen is extra virgin olive oil, which I drizzle on everything, especially salads since I never use bottled dressings. My husband and I consume one liter of extra virgin olive oil every 2-3 weeks. Remember, only eat it raw because if you heat it up, it will ruin all the health benefits!
My soups, sauces, cakes—just about everything—are made fresh from scratch. Since I work, most of my recipes are quick and easy. I follow a seasonal diet, eating the freshest produce I can find at the local market. My midday meal is my biggest meal of the day, I don't usually eat between meals, and I never eat late dinners or have fattening treats before bedtime. I try to control my portions, eating enough to satisfy my hunger and stopping when I am full.
It takes a bit more time and effort to make everything from scratch, but it is so worth it. Not only does it keep me at a healthy weight, it keeps me healthy. My last blood exam was great; sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, all normal. To me, being healthy is my most valuable asset. Without good health, you cannot enjoy your life!
Small changes make a difference.
What do you put on your salad?
Notice, I didn't write "exercise." To be honest with you, I really don't like that word at all. When I lived in the U.S., I maintained memberships at health clubs for more than ten years. Like many of you, I packed a gym bag, got in my car, drove several miles to the gym, changed into my workout gear, worked out (many times self-consciously enduring unwanted attention), and then finally ended the whole unpleasant affair with an even more unpleasant communal shower experience. Ugh!
I tried to convince myself that I liked going to the gym while I sprayed disinfectant and wiped some other person's sweat off the weight bench so that I could use it next (disgusting). I have had my fill of the gym and of all the aerobic workout videos, too. I hate them all. Wow, it feels great to just admit that publicly!
When I left the U.S. to live abroad, I also left my car. You know what? It's one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. True, it is inconvenient at times, but the benefits of not owning a car outweigh the disadvantages. No maintenance or fuel costs, no expensive insurance coverage, and no more searching or paying for a parking space. It's one less material thing in my life to stress over or to pollute the environment with, and to me, that is important.
I walk just about everywhere, and if there is a place that is too far to walk, I will take a bus or train. It's really that easy. I walk to the grocery store and carry my bags home, which naturally keeps my arms toned. The Palazzo where I live does not have an elevator, so I climb up and down almost 40 steps (more than once a day), which keeps my butt and legs toned. Hopefully, I can defy gravity for a few more years!
Walking in green spaces is crucial to my sanity and emotional health, so I try to do a daily 40-50 minute walk. Sometimes, if I feel like it, I'll do some stomach crunches after I stretch. No set routine, no disciplined regimen, just when I feel the need. In short, I have designed a lifestyle for myself that keeps me in shape whether I like it or not. I'm forced to walk, forced to climb, forced to carry, so every day I am working out and don't think of it! My world has become my gym.
What you eat, what you drink, how you live—all of these factors contribute to your weight and your health. It's really all about choices, isn't it? Ditch the diet food and choose the delicious tastes of fat and sugar, but don't eat them all the time. Have them once in a while, in moderation.
Choose to walk or take the stairs whenever possible. Choose to eat fresh vegetables and fruits instead of prepackaged, industrialized junk food. Choose to drink a glass of wine with your meal instead of a soft drink (red wine is the healthiest for your heart). Choose to drink a lot of water during the day to detoxify yourself and stay hydrated- avoid soft drinks. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil on everything!
These are all small changes that you can easily adapt to your life. In the long run, they will make a big difference!
Note: The advice I have offered is what maintains my healthy weight. If you have a few extra kilos or pounds to shed, then give the Mediterranean diet and an active lifestyle a try (then let me know how things turn out). If you are obese, my advice still applies, but please consult with your physician beforehand. Thank you for reading!
Questions & Answers
© 2010 C De Melo