When I’m traveling, there’s nothing more fascinating than observing the habits of the locals.
So when I embarked on a European vacation this summer, I soaked in every moment of eating and enjoying life like a European. I visited five countries, and each one taught me something new about how to improve my daily eating and lifestyle habits.
Italy is a culinary heaven, and I could not wait to take in the Mediterranean lifestyle that awaited me there. One of my favorite stops was Venice, a city known for its winding canals and awe-inspiring architecture. I was eager to experience its small-plate style of eating. Everywhere we visited in Italy was a foodie’s dream.
Portions were smaller. The meals were longer. The ingredients were fresh, simple and seasonal. Finally and most notably, though the total calories may have been higher, it all contained less sugar than the food found in American restaurants. In fact, Italians take in less sugar than most countries in the world and significantly less than Americans. I found myself immersed in (and loving) the tantalizing Mediterranean diet. With the highest life expectancy of all the countries I visited (even for men), Italians are reaping the benefits of eating this way.
The French are famous for remaining trim despite their equally famous rich food. As I walked the charming streets of Paris, I saw as many thin people as I saw croissants in the windows of the cafes. Yet it was clear to me why this seeming paradox exists. The French eat real, fresh food. None of it is fast, none of it is cooked in a microwave, and the portions are minuscule compared to those found in America. If there is one thing I learned while sipping coffee and eating a buttery croissant, it was to savor each bite and never overindulge. It’s possible to eat rich foods and drink good wine, as long as it’s done so in moderation. With only 18 % of its population as obese (and an impressive life expectancy), the French are proving that it can be done.
Munich is a cosmopolitan city at the doorstep of the Bavarian Alps. The Germans there were warm and welcoming, and I was taken with the ornate, Gothic architecture. With a recent tech boom and the stable German economy, its residents are well-educated and affluent. With affluence, however, comes choice and processed food- resulting in large sums of sugar consumed daily by the average German. This is certainly a trap that is easy to fall into in America as well. Though it can be tempting to reach for packaged foods when you have the means to do so, the French and Italian approach to slow down at mealtime proves to be a more healthful option- even if it isn’t always the fastest one.
The Swiss enjoy a top-notch health care system and a clean and orderly lifestyle. However, life isn’t perfect in this mountainous country. The Swiss love their chocolate, which probably one reason for their relatively higher daily sugar intake. But their high intake of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate has been proposed as part of the reason they live longer. Like Germany, it’s a strong economy, which may explain the thicker waistlines I noticed as I toured Zurich. Still, the outdoor lifestyle and peaceful Swiss life probably help to offset some of the negative effects of their eating habits, which would explain why the Swiss life expectancy is still noticeably longer than the average American’s.
Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture (as well as just about any other type you can imagine) can be seen in the charming city of Prague. The architecture combined with the cobblestone streets and the Vlatava River makes it a picturesque city. Again, like Germany and Switzerland, Bohemian eating habits aren’t as healthful as the French and Italians. Instead of lean meats and healthy grains, I found bread, dumplings drenched in heavy sauces, and beer. Heavy food and inactivity have wreaked havoc on the Czech waistline. Tourism and fast-food restaurants support the economy, but fast-food is hurting their overall health. Once the “fattest country in Europe,” a Czech has a life expectancy that is comparable to an American’s— demonstrating just how important it is to eat whole, healthy foods and be active.
I gained so much (and due to the extensive amount of walking none of that was weight) from my travels around Europe, but I was also reminded that wellness isn’t just about what we put in our bodies. It is also about how we soothe our souls and being a part of the community. Taking in a beautiful view, sipping a glass of red wine, enjoying a square of quality chocolate, and using all your allotted vacation days are an important accompaniment to a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.