Europeans stay slim while eating regular food

Eating Well

February 13, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From the time our British Airways 747 left the United States until we returned 10 days later, we saw no diet food. Decadence was not the issue. It's just that diet food, as we know it, is largely unavailable in Europe.

There is no Equal, no Sweet 'N Low, no Diet Coke, no fat-free salad dressing, no low-fat cheese. There are no Nutrition Facts labels on food. And, by observation, there are very few fat people.

So one has to wonder about the value of our restructured foods.

Health professionals have long observed that America's love affair with sugar substitutes has not helped us achieve healthy weight. Instead, 33 percent of us are now obese, weighing more than 20 percent above normal. Beyond issues of body image and self-esteem, such excess weight is the most expensive disease in the United States today, because it increases risks for almost all other chronic diseases.

In some corners, hopes are riding high on fat replacers like recently approved olestra. But, given the overall picture, I find it hard to believe that a high-tech nonfat will produce svelte, healthy bodies, especially if fat-free foods are viewed as license to eat to the bottom of the bag.

And therein, I think, lies one of our problems. We tend to view eating as a recreational sport.

In London's massive Victoria Station, I had a hard time finding trash cans. There was little need for them. The place was clean as a whistle. No burger papers, soft-drink cups, french-fry holders, corn-chip bags or candy wrappers wafted about.

In part, expensive paper is to blame (you actually have to beg for a napkin over there). But people weren't eating on the run. Although small shops and food stalls exist, vending machines filled with cookies, crackers and chips are rare. So folks weren't munching and crunching all day long, just for something to do.

They were, however, likely to stop, sit down and relax at 4 p.m. with tea and pastry. Eating was a focused event to be enjoyed and savored.

Activity is the other half of the energy-balance equation where Americans fall short.

In Europe, where gasoline costs more than $5 a gallon, people commonly walk, cycle or use public transportation to get around. Combining aerobic activity with climbing stairs, opening doors and carrying books or groceries increases daily calorie expenditure and helps maintain muscle mass. So they get to eat more without getting fat.

Here in America, we've outsmarted ourselves technologically. We've taken the work (and the calorie expenditure) out of everything, and we've created a food supply so abundant we could survive a famine with ease.

We can learn important life lessons from our friends in Europe and try to put them into daily practice:

* Make eating a discrete event. Focus on food and friendship, and let other business (like reading, watching TV or driving) wait until you're finished.

* Take less, enjoy more. Eat the foods you love, but limit the portions. Give yourself a week to "waste" food. Take usual portions, but pay attention to when you're actually hungry. When you're satisfied but not stuffed, stop eating. Don't clean your plate. Next time, take the smaller portion that's right for you.

* Put activity into your day. Play outside with your kids, walk to the store, chop vegetables with a knife instead of the food processor, use stairs instead of elevators, answer the phone on a different floor, take a walk around the block while waiting for a friend, shovel snow, rake leaves, sweep the floor, park and walk instead of hunting for a parking space, take active vacations.

If you're rally brave, hide the remote. Studies show kids' metabolic rate is lower watching TV than sleeping! Getting up to change channels, especially when you're surfing, can boost energy expenditure and help keep metabolism up.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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