“Travel is a sure shot way to gain kilos.” That’s a pet peeve I hear from friends. (This despite my earlier blog on How to travel right? :)) One of whom refrains from long vacations just to maintain her figure. So unfair to the myriad beautiful destinations waiting to be explored, I say! So this time, I had the perfect opportunity to put that theory to test.
To everyone’s surprise including mine, I came back fitter and definitely leaner(by a kilo) from my 3 week vacation across Europe.
I do realize Europe makes for a skewed destination for such an experiment. Nonetheless, it made for some great observations and learnings.
So here’s my harder look at why French (well, err..generalize it to European) women (or men, for that matter) never get fat…(besides their sworn allegiance to fit into French designer coutour!) and what can we learn from them!
1. The world, your gym!
What do you notice as soon as you step outside your hotel in Prague or Paris? Well, what I noticed even before the medieval marvels that these cities have to offer, was the fact that the entire city is on its feet, literally! On close consideration, I figured that the cities are actually designed such (with its picture-perfect town squares, beautiful bridges, and cobblestone streets) that they inspire everyone to walk. And so everyone does! In fact, most of the working population in Europe commute via public transportation, which again involves significant walking or biking.
In many cities esp. Paris and Copenhagen , they have fancy open gyms alongside river banks, parks, and just about every open space. Come evening, the young and the adult, locals and many non-locals, are all seen bench-pressing, squatting, pulling and pushing-up together, pumping each other up.
Iceland has taken it to another level…with an average of 2 public free-for-all swimming pools for every 500 residents (which to my surprise, were full even on rainy days)!
Btw, in Europe even grocery buying can add to one’s fitness quotient! Instead of the weekly supermarket trip, grocery buying in Europe involves daily rounds to local in- or outdoor market, bakery, or butcher, scouting for and picking up fresh ingredients for the next meal. This ritual, followed by one and many, invariably lends to significant walking carrying bagful of heavy groceries home everyday. Quite a synonymous equivalent to the weights and walkers in the gym, I gather!
Well, and even as a tourist, you are not spared from your daily dose of exercise..i.e. if you haven’t averaged between 5-10 kms of walking and climbing everyday, you cannot do justice to the centuries-old architecture, medieval facades and hidden alleyways, so quintessentially European.
In short, even if you are not exercising in a fancy, fully-equipped gym everyday, you are getting fitter with the European way of life.
Indulge in the European way of life ! Be active and start walking!
2. Little goes a long way!
Moderation begins with portion sizes in Europe. Just like their clothing and shoes, their food and beverage portions are also a size smaller. A point in case is the European version of a coke can available on British Airways. This can is 150 ml, 32% smaller than the U.S. Coke Mini and 58% smaller than the standard U.S. can.
The miniature frenzy does not end there. During the course of the trip, I encountered miniature versions of Magnum ice-creams, Lindt chocolates and even gourmet burgers! In fact, I found out that the average portion size in general is 25% lesser than in the USA.
Even the size of their fridges is smaller! No wonder there is little chance of storing and preparing food in big quantities! No wonder, they make less and they eat less. But in somewhat strange contrast, you do notice those quaint lil street-side cafes always full of people enjoying a bite, anytime of the day! So what gives?
That is when I figured out that little goes a long way in Europe. I believe they compensate for their small portion sizes by eating slower! While the Americans are getting excited about super-sizing their fast foods and gulping it down even faster, the europeans seem to savor their diet-sized servings with cleansing swirls of vino, overlooking the beautiful rivers and vistas, in the company of their loved ones! Beyond the health benefits of the food itself, the ritual of eating is a source of pleasure and an important social experience. This leads to more mindful eating practices, and is better for the overall digestive system.
Cook little, Make fresh, Eat slow! And with good company!
3. Eat like a European
Europeans, like Indians, have a knack of drawing on the best of what is in season to produce regional delicacies. Thanks to the abundance of local markets offering everything fresh and seasonal one can think of!
Well, and they seem quite religious about their regional diets…Take for example, the Italians, Greeks and Spanish who live off their Mediterranean diet and in turn enjoy long healthy lives…Their diet includes mostly locally available foods such as tomatoes, avocados, olive oil, nuts, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and even pasta.
Even though some seasonal/locally available foods may not always seem the most nutrient-dense option…in effect, can still prove to be more beneficial. First, they typically contain what we require at that time of the year and environment. But more importantly, they are part of one’s food heritage making these foods closely attuned to one’s genetic predisposition.
Their diets also include comparatively more raw and unprocessed foods. I couldn’t help but notice the well-stocked aisles of colorful salads, mueslis, fruit pots, cold-cut sandwiches, cold-pressed raw juices at the pret-a-manger store at the Heathrow airport. The fact that it was the most crowded hangouts at the airport say a lot about the locals’ affinity towards natural and unprocessed food choices. In fact, I found this trend across European airports…Each one had many options, whether it be a salad or a sushi bar, fresh sandwich delis or even organic raw presseries. Needless to say, I indulged in these locally available, fresh food options where ever I could lay my hands on them.
You cannot go wrong with local, seasonal or fresh foods.
4. Eurosize the breakfast
In Iceland, the staple breakfast is skyr(local greek yogurt with fruits) and rye bread.
In Prague, the hotel served us hot porridge, salads(yupe…with tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce), and eggs as the main breakfast items.
Well, interesting deviation from the plateful of pancakes, bowlful of sugary cereals, or platter of processed meats, the hotels in the other parts of the world serves as breakfast! For lot of Europeans (esp. the French), breakfast is nothing but a slice of freshly baked bread/croissant, some fruit with tea or coffee. The Spaniards will usually have tomatoes and olive-oil on bread for breakfast. And the English seem to love their porridge in the morning. Now this may seem small and boring but seems to do the trick for them.
Don’t treat breakfast as dessert. A basic breakfast (Think bananas, eggs, porridge, or any locally available fresh breakfast option) can serve you better!
5. Indulge in some Vegan Vibes!
Europeans seems to be leading a covert vegan revolution. In the most popular of town squares in Prague, I found a farmer’s market selling vegan stuff…local fruits(helps that they are a “fruits heaven”), berries, vegetables, desserts, and even vegan black ice-cream.
Eating vegan has never been easier in Europe, with its top cities boasting of variety of top Tripadvisor recommended vegan eateries. Berlin even has a Vegan Avenue which is lined with vegan restaurants, bars and cafes, alongside the world’s largest vegan grocery store.
They have mastered the art of making meat-substitute products such as sausages and chicken nuggets out of plant proteins such as soy, wheat or tofu…Their cashewnut gravies, pumpkin curries, quinoa meatballs all boast of how beautifully they have adapted the vegan principles to regional cooking. The proof of the pudding was that not once did we have to resort to Indian food in our three week travel! In fact, the options at the vegan restaurants spoilt us for choice. And the vegan meals turned out to be some of our fanciest and most enjoyable meals.
Try being vegan for a change. You will surely discover new food options that are healthier, tastier, and more importantly, environmentally friendly.
Actually, travel is what you make out of it. It is not the place, it is how you look at the place that makes a difference. In my case, I allowed myself to look at Europe (or my trip) through my “fitness and well-being” glasses, and that is what it offered me.
But I’m not saying that if you are going with all your health-consciousness, you shouldn’t be indulging in the local dessert (like the delicious trednik) or a locally brewed beer during your travel…(in fact, we did it too) but let your gut drive you! Its a very self-regulating system if you give it a chance.
ps. Still, who would have thought that a trip to Europe could also offer in(sights) of personal well-being?! But now I know why…Europe is always a good idea! 🙂