French, Italians & Spaniards Approach Meals Very Differently Than The Typical American – And Are Way Healthier For It!
I was having a very in-depth conversation the other day with a friend over the differences between how American’s and Spaniards take lunch. All of a sudden, it dawned on me … The typical American and the average resident of the Mediterranean view mealtimes with two radically different perspectives and these polar opposite viewpoints are a major contributor to the very different health levels of Americans and Mediterraneans. Mediterraneans are some of the healthiest, happiest, and longest lived people in the world meanwhile Americans suffer from obesity epidemics, high stress and countless chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension just to name a few.
The American Way
I love America and our “Go Getter” mentality, our unbeatable resolve to always go “above and beyond” in everything we do but it is this same “go, go, go” lifestyle that has robbed us of some of the pleasures of life and has been a significant contributor to the rapidly growing health crisis we face. We always have our eyes set to the horizon, always rushing to the next greatest thing but we really need to slow things down a little bit and live in the moment, experience fully the “now” and take the time to enjoy the journey of life. How many times have you sat down to eat and were stressed, distracted, and in a rush? For many people mealtime is nothing more than a necessary evil, something to get through so we can get back to doing something important; when you approach meals like this then they drop to little or no importance and we begin to view food itself as a necessary evil. We look at it in a very clinical light focusing on the nutrients; this makes meals nothing more than an amalgamation of calories, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Which is the Most Important Meal of the Day?
Most American meals are eaten in a state of tension and stress, they are scarfed down as fast as possible, they are eaten in a distracted and unaware state of mind and for the most part the food found in restaurants, fast food, vending machines and stores is low quality junk food that follows the motto “high volume, low quality.”
In the American eating hierarchy, breakfast is the “most important meal of the day” and all of our nutritionists inform us we need to eat a hearty meal first thing in the morning to start the day off right. This is a very British and northern European mentality that puts the emphasis on big meals to start the day. Just think of some of the traditional American breakfast foods such as eggs, pancakes, bacon, potatoes, muffins and numerous other heavy high calorie foods.
Lunch is certainly the “junior” meal in the American trio with people begrudgingly granting it status as an important meal. Often enough this meal is either skipped entirely or relegated to a sub-meal with workers quickly inhaling a bite to eat – typically something processed and unhealthy – then rushing back to work. The whole concept of a “working lunch” is an entirely American work ethic where you spend your lunch multitasking and continuing to process work while trying to eat – this of course leaves you eating in a stressed state and at the same time distracted. Numerous studies have shown stressed eating can be directly linked to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and even cancer. Distracted and rushed eating is directly linked to overeating and therefore obesity. Even when people actually take the time have lunch it still lives up to its junior status because we will normally have small portions at this meal; just think of any restaurant that serves both dinner and lunch. The lunch size meal is normally much smaller than the dinner size; for example if you wanted a pastrami sandwich the lunch portion would most likely be half of a sandwich while dinner would be a full sandwich.
If lunch is a junior meal then dinner is the senior VIP of all the meals; nearly every American eats dinner as their biggest and heaviest meal of the day. Our heaviest meal is eaten at the end of the day when everyone is tired, distracted and stressed from work and household issues. For many people on diets this is the ultimate danger zone because this is when willpower breaks down and many will find themselves scarfing down on all sorts of unhealthy foods.
In America we have a snacking culture where it seems people can’t go more than an hour or two without having to have something to eat. All day long everywhere we go we are bombarded with the constant availability of food – most of which is unhealthy processed junk food. At my work there’s huge vending machines and it seems nearly everyday someone is bringing in food such as donuts, bagels, muffins, snacks, etc… On that same note it appears there can’t be a meeting without having some sort of food being served. This constant grazing and overeating has been linked to obesity which then leads to countless health problems.
The Mediterranean Way
In the countries of the Mediterranean, people are living healthy, vibrant, active, and relaxed lives where nearly everyone acknowledges the essential aspect of mealtime. Life revolves around the meal, which is the opposite of the American mindset where meals are squeezed into a hectic overflowing schedule. Mealtime is an appointment written in stone that is never rushed, cancelled or rescheduled; meals are sit down affairs, eaten slowly, with every bite of food savored and enjoyed in a peaceful ambiance. The meal is a sanctuary from the hectic chaos of everyday life and work.
Meal priority is very different from the American model.
The least important meal? That’s right to the average Frenchman, Italian, etc… breakfast is nothing more than a small snack to hold you over until lunch. In fact, in French there isn’t really a word for “breakfast;” in French the word for lunch is dejeuner and when talking about the morning meal they use petit dejeuner which literally means the “little lunch.” So breakfast doesn’t even merit its own word! The typical breakfast in the Mediterranean is a coffee with cream and either a small pastry or toast. Think of the classic image of the French sipping a Café Au Lait with a small croissant at a neighborhood café in the morning.
The most important meal of the day! This is probably the greatest difference between the Mediterranean eating habits and Americans where we demote lunch to barely essential they hold it up to be the primary meal of the day that can last for hours with multiple courses and wine. Scientific research has shown eating the biggest, heaviest, richest meal of the day at noon coincides with our body’s high point in metabolism and allows the body to have the whole day to efficiently and properly metabolize all the calories we’re eating. Also having a large long leisurely meal in the middle of the day allows you a major break from the stresses of work to relax and avoid the massive health dangers of a high stress lifestyle. Like at all meals but especially at lunch every bite eaten slowly and savored and eating becomes a sensual experience. Many times lunch is followed up with a nice walk or a brief nap as in the siesta tradition of Spain. I remember my grandmother and great aunt’s – who all lived in perfect health well into their 90’s – would always eat a big lunch with a small dinner whenever they could.
Dinner is viewed as the junior meal of the day as compared to lunch; it’s treated in the same light as we look at lunch. It’s treated like a proper meal with a few small courses and some wine but is definitely smaller than lunch and is really a lighter meal. Research has also shown eating a lighter dinner with the majority of your calories coming during the daytime can be very good for the digestion. Our bodies go through a detox and repair mode while we sleep but if significant resources have to be devoted to digestion then much of the essential detox and repair goes undone which leads to premature aging and obesity.
Snacking is nearly nonexistent in the Mediterranean countries. Since there is such a great emphasis on the importance of the meals and meals are designed to keep you full until the next meal very few people following the traditional diet of the region ever have any snacks. If there were to be a snack it would be a one-time event in the late afternoon in between lunch and dinner such as the merienda in Spain but once again it’s not a daily occurrence.
How I’m Putting This To Good Use
In the end by placing high importance on the sanctity of meals and making sure every meal is a long leisurely event where super high quality food is savored and enjoyed Mediterranean’s find themselves leading less hectic, healthier and happier lives and we have a lot to learn from this point of view. I’m always working to incorporate more and more the Mediterranean Diet Lifestyle into my everyday life the most recent of which is taking a bigger focus on my lunch break at work. I brought in a chair and folding table and every day I go outside to a shady grassed in area under some trees that always has a light breeze and slowly savor my lunch listening to a little music. I’m sure some people probably think I’m crazy but since I’ve started taking my lunches al fresco I have found myself feeling great, way more relaxed and less stressed at work which not only puts me in a better mood but also makes me more productive! I have to say this little change has been a huge success.