Anyone who has been to Spain would probably agree that we didn’t want to come back. The beaches, the architecture, the food — oh, the tapas!
And maybe that’s the craziest part. You ate luscious chorizo, eggy tortilla and plenty of salads whose only vice was the mayonnaise they swam in. So how on earth did you come back from España a few pounds slimmer?
Spain has a culture that seems to aid effortlessly in weight loss — especially for Americans. Obesity rates there are less than half of what they are in the United States, according to data from Public Health England. Once you pull back the curtain, it’s not that big of a mystery. Here are seven amazing weight-loss lessons Spain has to offer:
1. Eat a bigger lunch (and a light dinner).
Is it possible our fixation with eating salads at lunch is backfiring on us? In Spain, lunch is typically the largest meal of the day. Spaniards leave work, go home and eat a real meal (that prioritizes whole foods) with their family before going back to work for the afternoon.
That’s a good move if you’re trying to lose weight. Research published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that people who eat the majority of their food between breakfast and lunch have lower body mass indexes than those who fill up during dinner and after. Besides fueling your body with food when you need it, eating the majority of your food in the day’s earlier hours prevents cravings through the evening that lead to late-night refrigerator raids, says Jaime Mass, RD, a Florida-based nutritionist and self-professed lover of all things Spain.
2. Find a legit work-life balance.
In Spain, life comes first and work comes second. In fact, Harvard data shows that, as of 2007, Spanish workers got 22 days of paid leave per year. Compare that with the U.S., where we get 10 such days.
Say what you want about the American work ethic, but when it comes to the weight-loss game, work-life balance — and slashing stress in general — is a major player, says Mass. “Chronically elevated levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline can cause disruption to digestion, immunity, metabolic processes and mood, setting us up for poor weight control and poor overall health,” she says. In fact, recent research from the University of Kentucky shows that simply learning stress-management techniques is an effective weight-loss approach.
3. Go Mediterranean.
In Spain, the Mediterranean diet isn’t a weight-loss approach — it’s a way of life. The plant-heavy diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and red wine is on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Heritage, which means the Spanish government is required to protect it as a cultural artifact.
While physicians regularly recommend the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of coronary heart disease, research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also shows it’s linked with a significantly reduced risk of age-related weight gain.
4. Go on a post-meal walk.
In sunny Spain, going on a walk is a legitimate leisure-time activity — one that often follows meals. Friends and family members meet up on the corner after dinner to enjoy the evening’s cooler hours or catch up on the day’s gossip.
Getting your steps outside and after eating may confer additional benefits. For instance, Diabetes Care research shows that taking a short 15-minute walk three times per day after every meal greatly reduces blood sugar spikes, which can contribute to weight gain as well as metabolic disorders.
5. Try some tapas.
When Spaniards go out to eat, they are way more apt to order small, shareable plates for the table than oversize entrees for one. In fact, it’s not uncommon for restaurants to serve only a few entrees, instead making small, shareable tapas the focus of the menu selection.
And as far as we’re concerned, tapas might as well be Spanish for “portion control.” Eating tapas allows people to sample an array of foods — including those that might not be so healthy — without ever overdoing it, Mass says. Search online for restaurants near you that emphasize shared plate offerings.
6. Layer on the flavor.
It’s time to hit up your supermarket’s spice rack. “The foods in Spain are filled with so many rich flavors that you feel satiated without eating as much as you would in the U.S.,” says Mass, noting that many Americans overeat simply because they are in search of flavor. How many times have you rummaged through your kitchen looking for something sweet? Or salty? Or creamy?
Using a generous array of herbs and spices — paprika, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, cumin and nutmeg are all popular in Spain — simply gives your taste buds a superior level of satisfaction, says Mass, What’s more, they eliminate much of the need for flavor enhancers such as salt and caloric sweeteners.
7. Eat dessert.
In Spain, no home-cooked meal is complete without dessert. But regular dessert options there include oranges, pears and, depending on the household, maybe yogurt cups or cheese wedges. Not only do those options include far fewer calories and grams of sugar than U.S. mainstays like cupcakes and ice cream, they are actually nutritious.
Many studies, including a Nutrition Research trial of overweight adults, have linked regular intake of fruit — which is rich in both filling fiber and health-promoting vitamins and minerals — to improved health and weight maintenance. Meanwhile, if you reach for dairy items such as yogurt or cheese, dessert works to automatically boost your intake of protein, calcium and vitamin D, all of which are critical to promoting healthy levels of metabolically active muscle mass.