The European Diet: Observations From A Trip Abroad
By Kristi Kalinsky, RD, LD
September 20, 2022
This summer I was able to take a trip of a lifetime with my kids. It was our last hurrah before sending my daughter off to college. I let my daughter pick our destinations and she chose to visit Europe, specifically Germany, Austria and Switzerland. She wanted to visit a different culture, try different foods and to see, in person, some of what she had learned throughout her history classes. That was her agenda, and I went along with it. Little did I know, that as I was in Europe, I would end up with an agenda as well. I experienced eye opening things, one of which was a recurrent theme. Europeans, in general, are not overweight or obese. We visited 3 countries and 5 different cities, and this proved to be no different regardless of where we were. They weren’t experiencing the obesity epidemic like we were back at home.
This made me stop and pause. What were they doing differently than we were doing in the United States? I needed to find out more, so I went on a food tour; I spoke with a few of the locals, I visited a variety of grocery stores, and I observed Europeans and their eating behaviors as they walked down the street, ate on the trains, and dined at restaurants. What I found seemed to make perfect sense, so why aren’t we collectively as a whole doing this in America?
Real Food As A Way Of Life
My first encounter was a food tour in Innsbruck, Austria. Our guide had grown up on a farm outside of the city and his family also owned a local restaurant situated next to his farm. He grew up as a farm hand and a server/bus boy at his restaurant. He educated me on the fact that the people of Austria pride themselves on sustainability and living off the land. Here were the main things I learned that supported the health of the Austrians:
- They use real, all natural ingredients when making their foods. For example, they make their own cheese, yogurt and butter from the plentiful dairy farms. Their products are full of healthy fat and are delicious.
- The tour guide took us through a grocery store/farmer’s market in town and pointed out how the farmers bring their fruits, vegetables, homemade breads, dairy products, meats, etc. to sell locally instead of outsourcing to others so their products are fresh and as nutrient dense as possible.
- He also pointed out the beautiful decorative fountains throughout the town and how, not only were they pleasing to the eye, they were also used by everyone to refill their water bottles so water was plentiful for everyone to drink.
As we continued to travel, we stopped in Lucerne, Switzerland and here were some observations I made:
- A typical eating schedule for a Swiss individual: breakfast early in the morning, followed by a 9 AM snack, then lunch between 12-2 PM, an afternoon snack, and dinner around 7-8 PM. Our local tour guide pointed out that it seemed that all Swiss people do is eat! Isn’t this exactly what we educate our clients on at NWW as well? It actually works!
- Grocery stores contained very few processed foods and primarily focused on an assortment of fresh vegetables, a variety of fruits, healthy fats (olive oil, real butter, olives, nuts, etc.) and large meat departments.
- Snacks while walking down the street or on a train: apples, bananas, raw veggies with hummus, nuts, etc. They weren’t choosing processed foods or sugary treats. They were eating whole, real foods.
In general, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland:
- People packed their lunches on the train instead of using the dining car. They were saving money and making healthy choices. I saw people eating meats, cheeses, whole pieces of fruit, veggies with hummus, olives and nuts.
- Over the lunch hour, locals gathered on benches, at parks, in green spaces, etc. to share lunch together. I noticed a lot of salad options.
- Fast food restaurants were few and far between. Occasionally we would see an American fast-food restaurant such as McDonalds, but it wasn’t the norm and they never appeared to be crowded.
- Dining out is an event. It is meant to be a social time where people spend a few hours talking, enjoying the surrounding company and eating, at a leisurely pace. They will not bring you the bill, such as in the U.S. but instead you have to ask for the bill when you are ready to leave. One of the waiters, when we first arrived in Europe explained that they never want their customers to be rushed and that everyone needed to have an enjoyable meal and take their time.
- The amount of physical activity I saw people doing was astounding. Bike riding is a central way to get around in each of the towns/cities we visited. Lots of people were walking and using mass transit (electric buses, trains, etc.) to get around. Lakes are plentiful, as they are here, so people took advantage of water sports from kayaking and paddleboarding to swimming.
After all of these observations, I was able to understand how they were living healthier lives. They were primarily choosing whole, real foods and limiting processed foods. Eating was a social event where the primary focus wasn’t food but the company. They were eating frequently. They were drinking plenty of fresh, clean water and they were physically active. All of these messages are resonant with what we educate our clients on to live a healthier life, to assist in controlling or eliminating disease and/or with weight loss.
One way to bring cultural cuisine into your life is by cooking at home. Take an online cooking demo class with us to learn nutritional and culinary tips to make your food delish!
Steps To Take To Live The Real Food Way
Now, most of us can’t just pack our bags to move to Europe, and overhauling the culture in the United States isn’t a solo act, so what can you start to do today to incorporate some of these lifestyle choices into your daily life?
- As a starting point, pack your lunch and snacks for the days you are out and about. Choose real, whole foods that you can grab at your leisure. This reduces the temptation to make less healthy choices when having to search for food, especially if you’ve already hit that point of hunger or low blood sugar. It also saves money in the long run by dining out less frequently.
- When you are partaking in a meal either inside or outside of your home, ask a friend, colleague or family member to join you. Make the dining experience about socialization and human connections, instead of the sole focus being on the food. The food can be a side-light and not always the highlight.
- We may not have beautiful decorative fountains to fill our water bottles on every corner, but pack a large, filled water bottle for when you leave the house. Maybe pick a water bottle that makes you feel fancy or that you enjoy drinking out of. Carry it with you and drink throughout the day to support fat metabolism and kidney health. More and more water fountains have places where you can refill your bottles or remember to put extra water bottles in the trunk of your car.
- Find ways to be physically active throughout the day, whether it be walking up the flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, parking your car further away when running errands or going into work, or setting a timer on your phone to get up and walk for 5 minutes each hour. Little bits of physical activity throughout the day add up over time.
Get personal support on incorporating these steps in a one-on-one nutrition consultation with a registered and licensed dietitian or nutritionist.
Help Make A Better World With Real Food
In summary, don’t take for granted how impactful small changes can be for your life and the lives of those around you. The more each of us decides to choose local, fresh, whole foods, the ripple effect reaches out into our communities. And we are here to support you! If you need help making lifestyle changes, my fellow dietitians and nutritionists are great resources and we offer group classes with fellow, like-minded folks wanting to accomplish the same. Surround yourself with others with similar goals and it makes the journey that much easier, and more enjoyable!
For more information on lifestyle changes and real foods, check out these resources:
Good article. I had seen people say on social media that when they were in Europe they lost weight and couldn't understand why even though they ate the same amount. The processed foods or lack thereof seem key.
September 21, 2022 at 5:17 pm
Reading Kristi's article on the way Europeans eat. I have German friends and they had meats, sausages, cheeses in variety on the table every meal along with salads and breads and good butter much like my grandmother. My French friends start the day with coffee with toast with butter and jam and then rest of day having salads or soups and having pasta, beans, duck, ,fish, chicken for dinner at 10 pm. lots of olive oil and duck fat were used. also bread .
September 22, 2022 at 8:13 am
My first time in Europe was a trip to Italy 30 years ago, and there was not an overweight person in sight. Of the many remarkable things we saw related to food, one was that even on the Autostrada, the gas station "convenience" stores sold real food - they had slices of really good fresh pizza (not the fast food kind that we would get here). And you could duck into a little store while you were out walking and get real food as quickly as you could get a candy bar.
September 22, 2022 at 9:29 am
I noticed that as well many years ago! No salt butter , wayyy less sugar in bakery items. USA has too many chemicals in their packaged food by comparison. Soups there have 3-4 ingredients.They ban chemicals that the FDA and USDA allow.AND they WALK everywhere - kinda like as kids we were outside playing year round- not like now TV and phones
September 23, 2022 at 8:40 pm