Much has been said about the health differences between European and American diets. What is it that makes many European diets that makes them better? Is it the bread, the fat, or the wine? Keep reading to find out!
Through my Health Coaching Certification, with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I have studied more than 100 dietary theories that claim to be “the one” perfect diet for everyone. In reality, there is no one diet that fits everyone’s nutritional needs at all times. Our bodies are in constant change, and our diets should be too. However, there are basic food principles that everyone can benefit from regardless of age, ancestry, or metabolic type. Keep reading, as this gets good.
I had the opportunity to travel through four different countries and experience four contrasting diets. What interested me, is that even though these diets were predominantly carbohydrate and fat based, most people consuming these type of diets were far from being overweight or looking unhealthy. So, what’s the BIG secret here? How do people in other parts of the world stay healthy and happy despite their “unhealthy” diet?
This, is the answer. Through my cooking experience in Rome, I was reminded of a few basic principles that we have a tendency to forget when it comes to health and wellness. We have turned into accountants of our own diet; we count calories, value daily percentages, measure ingredients and get penalized for “over eating.” Isn’t that so true? I am not encouraging us to over eat or stop reading labels. I do suggest that we put the math equations aside, and instead focus on what’s truly important which is to live happily, of course.
Below, are the six most important tips I learned from my culinary experience in Ancient Rome. Warning: This IS NOT new information; this, is information all of us already know and that we fail to put into practice!! The Romans were kind enough to remind me what I have forgotten, and I am kindly reminding you of what you may have forgotten as well.
1. REASON FOR THE SEASONS
Something that was brought up constantly during cooking school is that you eat what’s in season. Mother nature will provide you with the nutrients that your body needs by allowing certain crops to grow throughout the year. Currently, we have easy access to food from all over the world. Iit is so tempting to go to the store and buy bananas from Peru, avocados from Mexico, and kiwis from New Zealand. While eating a variety of nutrients is great, we also have to stop and think about this. Most fruits and vegetables in the market are outsourced from other countries, which means that they probably left the field before they were even ripe or full of nutrients. The problem is that we are eating food that may appear healthy, but has little nutritional value. Eating the ancient way requires you to buy what’s local and in season.
2. FIND THE RIGHT FOOD AT THE RIGHT STORE
In Europe there are very few “convenience stores,” meaning people don’t go to stores like Target to buy apples, nor do they go to stores like Big Lots to buy Advil. If you need fruit you go to the fruit stand, and if you need medicine you go to the pharmacy. Well that makes sense.
The point is that when you buy food items at a specialized store you are not only supporting small and local businesses, you also have a greater chance to get fresher, healthier food. I believe the fruit stand guy will pick the best fruit available to sell at his store since that’s all he sells.
3. EAT “AL FRESCO”
Dining Al Fresco really means dining in the “cool air.” I thought about this for a minute. How can eating outside make a difference in your health? Well, eating outside means receiving a good dose of natural vitamin D, thanks to the sun. Fresh air is a natural mood booster. I know it always lifts my spirits. Research even shows that eating outside makes your food taste better, because you are more connected to your senses when you are close to nature! And last but not least, when you eat outside you are forced to get up and move more than if you eat inside. Who would’ve thought?
If weather permits, dine outside, have a picnic, or have coffee on your front porch. If you live in a place with extreme weather, at least sit by the window and get some sunshine.
4. SAY NO TO UNHEALTHY PACKAGED, CANNED, OR FROZEN FOOD
In Europe you eat fresh, and when I say fresh I mean fresh -from your backyard, your barn or the neighbors fruit stand. It is THAT simple. If you want pasta, you mix semolina, eggs and water. If you want red sauce you blend fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. If your sweet tooth is getting a little bit out of control then you grab dark chocolate, real cream, and sugar to whip up yummy gelato from scratch. This was so good for me to see, as I allow very minimal processed food in my kitchen. Canned organic coconut milk is the only can I own. If you open my freezer you will find ice cubes and coffee (to preserve its natural flavors and oils). It is possible to change our habits and live this way!
5. THE MORE THE MERRIER… AND HEALTHIER
Welcome to the table my friends, family, neighbors, and strangers! Yes, according to ancient Rome, the reason why people in European countries stay healthier is because there’s always more than one plate on the table. Eating together is not about the food, it’s about sharing and spreading the love for cooking and making the meal.
First, as you interact, you share, laugh, cheer, and have a blast with each other during dinner, helping you to relax. Relaxation activates the part of your parasympathetic nervous system that is in charge of digestion. Woohoo! Second, when you eat in a group, dinner time becomes a conversation, a bond, and experience, not “just a meal.” Third, when you eat with others you improve your self-esteem, as spending time with others gives you a sense of belonging. In a few words, eat with a few friends and family, rather than alone.
6. LITTLE BY LITTLE IS HOW YOU NIBBLE
In contrast to our hectic, fast-paced, and production-based American lifestyle, Europeans take time for leisure, vacations, and siestas. Relaxation is extremely important to health, but especially when it comes to the way we eat. I’ll be honest, sometimes I catch myself devouring my meal, instead of truly savoring it. I learned through cooking school that eating slowly while using small bites, and chewing thoroughly, is the best way to absorb and digest nutrients. The next time you are eating, take a deep breath before your start, and make it a point to chew your food until you puree it in your mouth. Yes, you should chew that much.