TOP 5: Health Tips From Abroad

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Fat. Exhausted. Stressed. It seems that no matter what the study, Americans aren’t very healthy. We have a lot of heart attacks. We’re always tired. We take a lot of pills. And all of this in a country with vast financial resources and a supremely “advanced” healthcare system. What exactly are we doing wrong?

Perhaps the better question is, what are people in other countries doing right? American travelers are often inspired by lifestyle choices they see overseas that seem to result in better health. So before you scarf down that Instant Lunch in front of your computer and rush back to work, take note of these top five “healthy living” tips from abroad:

#1 Get out of the car

Americans don’t like to walk. According to the National Institutes of Health, people in metropolitan areas of the United States last year used cars for 66 percent of trips up to a mile long, and 89 percent of trips one to two miles long. By contrast, travel on foot or bicycle in Europe and Asia is commonplace. In Switzerland, 40 percent of all trips (any distance) are done by walking or biking, while in India, between 50 and 75 percent of metropolitan travel is done on foot.

Don’t take it from us: Says Leane Cameron, who studied abroad in London, “Walking was normal. Everybody walked to get from point A to point B. When I got back to the United States, I wanted to stand in the center divide of Interstate 80 and yell, ‘Can’t you people walk ANYWHERE?’ ”

Shaina Shealy, a study abroad student in Amsterdam, adds, “Certainly the most efficient mode of transportation in Amsterdam is riding a bike. Mimicking Amsterdamers as best I could, I decorated my handlebars with tulips and learned that I always had the right of way. Monstrous schools of bikes can be overwhelming at first, but dive in—it’s worth it!”

#2 Eat smaller portions at meals

We take perverse pride in our monster-sized portions. Our jumbo slices of pizza, double cheeseburgers, 64-ounce soft drinks, and mountains of French fries have contributed in large part (no pun intended) to our growing obesity epidemic. Americans who travel abroad are often surprised by the small portions they receive, whether they come in bento boxes in Japan or on miniature dinner plates in France. Even McDonald’s restaurants in Paris offer smaller portions than their American counterparts, with fewer French fries in each order. In the United States, we tend to think we need jumbo portions to get full, but usually we just end up over-stuffed.

Don’t take it from us: While studying abroad in Japan, Amanda Kendle participated in kaiseki ryori, a traditional Buddhist style of meal. “Kaiseki ryori meals follow the Buddhist tradition of only satisfying 80 percent of your hunger," she says. "The small portions of food are presented in beautiful ways, often imitating a shape from nature.”

#3 Leave more time to eat

Ironically, though people in other countries tend to eat less food than Americans, they spend more time eating it. Picture the stereotypical American breakfast: kids shoveling eggs and bacon into their mouths and parents taking huge swigs of coffee before rushing off to school or work. According to one study, the average meal in the United States lasts just 11 minutes. In other words, we often view meals as inconveniences—things that get in the way of our fun or productivity.

In Greece, the national dietary guidelines clearly state, “Eat slowly, at regular times of the day, and in a pleasant environment.” In Turkey, where the national obesity rate is just 12 percent, the average person spends over 2.5 hours a day eating. Compare that to the United States, where the average person spends less than half that amount of time eating (about an hour and 15 minutes), and the national obesity rate is nearly triple, about 35 percent.

The benefits of eating slowly are clear: People consume fewer calories, have less indigestion, and spend more time talking with friends and family (although we suppose the latter could be considered a drawback).

Don’t take it from us: While living abroad in Spain, Michele Jaret compares the eating experience there to her typical experience in the United States: “Most of the food I eat in the States has names like easy mac, fast food, instant breakfast—designed to make eating as fast as possible and leaving time for the ‘real fun.’ In Benicassim, my dinner mates ate slow-cooked ham, aged olive oil, homemade pizza. They savored every bite, drop of soup, and dab of oil, hoping that the real fun would last forever.” 

#4 Work less

Unlike many other countries, the United States has no federal law that mandates workers be paid for time off, or that regulates the minimum number of vacation days each worker has. As a result, many Americans end up with fewer vacation days, and about a third choose not to use all the ones they have. This leads to higher stress levels and decreased job satisfaction. Studies have also shown that workers in high-stress jobs in the United States are three times more likely to suffer stress-related medical conditions and twice as likely to quit.

In Finland, federal law mandates that workers receive 30 days of paid vacation, plus 14 paid holidays each year. Compare that to the American average of 13 paid vacation days, plus 10 to 11 paid holidays. Workers in France, Lithuania, Israel, and Morocco also work far fewer days than most Americans. The result is a workforce that is less stressed and more healthy than its American counterpart, and that has more time to perform non-work related duties.

Don’t take it from us: “Italians essentially ‘work to live,’” says Laura Basil, who had a hard time readjusting to the gung-ho American work ethic when she returned to the United States, “whereas here in the United States we ‘live to work.’” Jasmine Wagner, who studied abroad in Greece, concurs: “In our hectic society we’ve seemingly forgotten to stop and smell the roses. Greeks pride themselves on the fact that they work to live, not the other way around.”

#5 Nap more 

Nap time shouldn’t just be for preschoolers. In a 2002 study by Harvard University and the University of Athens Medical School, 23,000 healthy Greek men and women between the ages of 20 and 86 were followed for six years. Participants who took regular naps—30 minutes or longer at least three times a week—were 37 percent less likely to die from heart disease.

Unfortunately, nap time for those over the age of five seem to be on a global decline. With the pressures of staying competitive in international business and the rise of big-city commuting, some cities in Spain, perhaps most famous for its siestas, are starting to forego long midday breaks in favor of a 9 to 5 schedule.

Don’t take it from us: At least siesta is still alive and well in Granada, Spain, according to Joanie Gidas, who says, “The hours from 2 to 6 p.m. are siesta time, and everyone in the city returns to their homes for a break in the work day. The siesta is time aside for families and friends to enjoy conversation, food, company and rest. It consists of a three or four-course meal followed by a nap that is unfailingly necessary and satisfying in its daily repetition.”


Posted on 1/27/2010 by

Catherine John

Catherine John

I always find that it's easier for me to exercise and eat healthy when I'm in the comfort of my home community. I'd be interested to see an article on how to stay healthy during the stress and shock of adjusting to a new country.

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