I was born and raised in North America, land of fast food and 24-hour convenience stores, so it should come as no surprise that my diet hasn’t always been as well-balanced as it should be. Evolution has given us brains that go crazy over fatty, salty and sugary things. These were nutritional rarities for most of our species’ history, and not to be wasted when they became available.
Twentieth-century food science saw the creation of fat- and sugar-bombs the world had never seen (Twinkie, anyone?), and they hit all our evolutionary buttons. We never stood a chance.
It’s been beneficial to my health that I’ve often lived in other parts of the world, experiencing different cultures and lifestyles. I’ve found that every time I live, for any length of time, away from home, I end up losing weight and feeling healthier. I love to eat; it’s certainly not a question of me coincidentally starting to count calories while abroad. What are they doing right, then, that we’re doing wrong? I’ve been paying attention and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.
1) You don’t need meat in every meal. Meat is calorically-dense, particularly compared to high-fiber items like green vegetables, beans and rice. There is also evidence that factory-farmed beef, which is brought to slaughter weight so quickly thanks in large part to a high-calorie corn-based diet (instead of grass), is fattier and higher in cholesterol than it needs to be.
When I lived in China, I didn’t become a vegetarian, but my meat consumption probably dropped by a factor of 10. Many Chinese dishes involve meat, but it is used sparingly, thin slices of chicken or beef are sprinkled throughout a dish that is 90% vegetables. Rice is served on the side. In North America, we invert that ratio, with a large steak and (maybe) a token side dish of green vegetables.
In Central America, black or red beans were frequently the protein source of a meatless meal, mixed with peppers and other vegetables and served with rice or wrapped in a corn tortilla. Indian cooking similarly makes good use of legumes paired with veggies — usually chickpeas, rather than beans.
2) Explore different flavors. It’s a common misconception that cutting back on fat means eating bland, tasteless food. It’s no more true that your food needs to be tasteless than it is true that you have to be hungry all the time. In fact, I’ve never eaten so well as most of my time abroad. I’ve developed a huge love of exotically-flavored dishes. Some of my favorites from around the world include coconut curry from Thailand, a spicy eggplant dish of Northern China, and pinto de gallo from Costa Rica.
If you make these dishes yourself and see what goes into them, you’ll be surprised at how nutritious and low in fat they actually are. The powerful and satisfying flavors come from seasoning, not an abundance of butter, salt or sugar. The very delicious and filling pinto de gallo, for example, is basically just peppers, red or black beans, and rice (in roughly equal proportions).
All of these dishes contain intense flavors but are relatively guilt-free from a diet perspective. And if, like me, you enjoy cranking up the heat, you’ll likely find that an extra-spicy dish forces you to eat slower, helping to ensure your brain will get the message that you’re full before you’ve taken too many excess bites.
Want to apply these principles to something more reminiscent of home? How about a five-alarm chili? But put in lots of veggies and beans, and very little (or no) meat. Making a good chili is all about the way you season it. You may think your recipe calls for anything from half a pound of hamburger, beef tallow, sugar, or cheese. But this isn’t where the flavor comes from: it’s the chile peppers and spices that matter, so skip the fatty additives.
3) Stop drinking so many calories. Even the healthiest meal plans go out the window if you don’t think about what you’re drinking as well as what you’re eating. It’s common throughout Asia to drink a lot of green tea at every meal. The value in it is that it is not taken with milk or sugar, so it’s essentially zero calories (and has some nice medicinal effects, as well). It’s tough to beat as a beverage choice from a nutritional perspective, though plain water is just fine, as well.
4) Don’t buy junk food in bulk. Don’t they eat junk food in Asian or Latin America? Sure. Some countries are picking up our bad habits, with fast food franchises moving in and stores stocking Western convenience staples like potato chips. One of my guilty pleasures in China was your basic chocolate-covered marshmallow treat, aka the Ho-Ho or Wagon Wheel in the US and Canada.
But they didn’t sell them in big boxes of ten or 20. They were individually wrapped (and a smaller size). In fact, they were only a little over 100 calories each. I would cave in and buy one a couple of times a month. Yet if I were craving one back at home, I would have no choice but to buy a box full of them, and probably end up eating ten in three days.
We have a Wal-Mart/Costco mentality where we think we’re coming out ahead by buying our junk food in large quantities for low prices. But we’re forgetting the cost to our health. If you want a cookie, go to the bakery and buy a cookie. Don’t buy or bake a whole batch of cookies. If you want an ice cream, take a long walk and buy a cone, not a gallon pail to keep at home.
In conclusion: Making balanced nutritional choices is primarily a psychological battle. What some of these cultural traditions have are healthy ways of thinking about food where not every treat is sugar- or fat-laden, and not every nutritious dish represents some kind of sacrifice. If we can learn to think that way, a balanced diet will come much more easily.
Photo credit: Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons