What is it about Europeans that allows them to break almost every dieting rule ever written and still remain so slim? They eat almost nothing but carbs, have their last meal way after 7pm, drink real milk, eat real mayonnaise, have dessert after at least one of their three meals… You know, all those things they tell you NOT to do when watching your waistline! And yet, we in America with all of our diets and weight loss aids, a plethora of lite, reduced-fat, and fat-free foods are the ones who are overweight. The answer is very simple and very logical, yet always overlooked because it is so simple (not to mention it actually takes work).
Of the 3 other countries in which I've lived, there's only one that I have enough experience in to actually speak with any sort of authority: Holland. I moved here early December 2008 after marrying a Dutchman.
My first several months here, I drank several cups of tea and coffee per day sweetened with pure sugar. I went from skim milk to halfvolle ("half full" or "half whole"). Every night after dinner, my husband and I would have dessert: ice cream, custard, pudding, etc. Every night we'd watch a movie and polish off a bag of M&Ms between the two of us.
I was introduced to all the Dutch treats. Patat: a large cone filled with fat Flemish fries, smothered in whatever topping you choose. Most Dutch just go for plain mayonnaise, but curry and peanut sauce are also popular. My favorite: a mix of mayonnaise, peanut sauce, and onion called Patat Oorloog, or "fries war." Ollieballen: a New Year's treat. It literally means "oil balls." You take it from there. Bitterballen: God only knows what's in it, but it's some sort of meat mixture that's fried. Speculaas: a spice cookie. Eirekoeken: some sort of bread/cookie thing that resembles angel food cake in texture. Hagelslag: sprinkles that come in all sorts of flavors. Chocolate's the winner in my book. Vla: a custard pudding. You get the idea.
Do you know how much weight I gained? None. Zip. Zilch. Nil, Not a single inch, kilo, or pound (until my mom came over and lavished us with Easter candy…). Cool, huh? You're probably wondering how I was able to pull this off… In one word: fiets.
Fiets is Dutch for bike. The Dutch are nuts about their bikes. In the city I live in, they have the traffic lights rigged so you can pretty much expect every light you arrive at to be red. The hope is that this will motivate more people to use their bikes or public transportation. There are bike paths literally everywhere complete with special bike traffic lights and road rules.
A Dutchie utilizes all parts of the two-wheeled contraption: the baggage carrier on the back, the handle bars, they add baskets and bicycle bags, attach baby seats and wagons - anything you can imagine. They carry everything from fresh flowers, to several of their buddies, to furniture. Families travel on vacation by bike and many Cloggies can even ride without using the handle bars at all! Since being here, I have accomplished riding a bike in heels, with my dog Turner on the leash, with ridiculous amounts of cargo, while talking and texting on my cell, and while holding an umbrella against deadly winds and pelting rain. I cycle to my classes, I cycle into town, I cycle to my friends' places, meetings, the dentist, the train station, and to work.
But of course, I don't attribute it all to my bike (her name's Bonnie, by the way). Living in an apartment in the city, I have no back yard to let Turner out in, so I must walk him. We walk about 400 meters 3-4 times a day. Everyday. The grocery store is 200 meters round trip. I do groceries about 5-6 times a week. And if I'm late and don't get to that particular store before it closes, I walk just a few blocks to the chain that's open a little later. My doctor's office is about a 2 minute walk from the apartment, which gives me yet another opportunity to get some walking in. Luckily, we live on the first floor, so there are 21 steps to walk up and down every time I leave and come home.
There are also several ways that burn calories without really qualifying as activity. But when meticulously counting incoming and outgoing calories, every little bit helps. Holland is a small country, but they really know how to use what space they're given. Therefore, everyone has a garden. No matter how big or small. I, of course, had to have one as well. I spend about 10-15 minutes on my balcony everyday trimming, watering, feeding, composting, killing pests, or cutting herbs to use in dinners. I'm also cooking now, which was completely new to me upon arriving here. And, unlike Americans, Netherlanders hardly ever eat out. Not having a daily job also means I'm the one who gets to do the chores: bathroom, toilet (they are two separate things here!), mopping, vacuuming, and dog bathing.
I still drink real juice and use real milk in my cereal. I still indulge in dessert after dinner and movie snacks with my husband. I've developed a taste for dark beer. Like most Europeans I buy and ingest real mayonnaise, real meat, real yogurt, and real whatever-else-you can think of. And due to my husband's sensitive stomach, I still cook with butter. I have gone back to sweetener though and have a lovely little dispenser that fits right into my purse.
What I've noticed being here is that it's not at all about what you eat but about how much you eat. Portions are very sensible here. I find that knowing I'll have dessert after dinner curbs my cravings for sweets – I don't feel deprived of them so I'm able to eat them in moderation. And having the ‘real deal' keeps me more satisfied. There's also a great deal of fresh food eaten here and they don't have even half the additives Americans put in foods (hence my having to go grocery shopping almost every day of the week). My fruit and vegetable intake has skyrocketed and I'm eating a lot more in the way of whole grains.
I remember going to an International Womens' Club meeting about a month after arriving here where the topic was nutrition. We had a nutritionist come and give a lecture and then answer any of our questions. The one thing that really got me was when she made a comment on how severely healthy the typical Dutch diet is. I just remember thinking "God forbid she knew how I was eating in the US." I just kept going through my old eating habits and feeling so embarrassed! And that was when I was making an effort to eat healthily!
But the Europeans definitely have the right idea: eat fresh, eat real, eat what you want, and eat just enough!