Monday, January 11, 2010

Keeping fit and trim while smoking and drinking excessively

One of the biggest differences between Spanish and Americans is their attitude towards health and fitness. In most U.S cities, there are plenty gourmet supermarkets offering organic meats, fruit and vegetables. Gyms are open 24 hours to burn off calories. Smoking is banned even outdoors in many places and no body drinks alcohol at lunch anymore. Based on appearances, it would seem Americans are the healthiest people in the world, yet when I visit home I see nothing but girth.

In Spain, there's the odd specialty market, but I have yet to see the word organic used as a marketing term, and there are gyms open for certain hours but you have to look for them. In many ways it's like living in the eighties again; smoking is still prevalent and a glass of beer or wine at lunch is not that uncommon. In general, however, Spanish people seem to be healthier at physically. When I look around the streets of Barcelona, I see less round men and women wheezing for breath than I do back home, despite the fact everyone seems to have a cigarette. 

Much of the current obesity in the states, I think, has to do with a lack of any consistent physical activity when it comes to everyday living. You drive from home to work, to buy the groceries, to meet friends, and even, sometimes, the two blocks to go to the park. Most of the day is sedentary. Lunch is spent at the desk with a sandwich and an energy drink; since no one smokes, there's no reason to ever get up except to visit the toilet. Maybe after work, you pound a few cocktails during happy hour to unwind before jumping in the car, going home and ordering food for delivery.

Anyone who has been to Barcelona can attest, you do walk a lot here. Despite the noise and congestion of a major city, it's quite compact and small, making the distance between places walkable. The price of gas, parking and maintenance makes the car a luxury, but even if you take the metro, you'll probably be climbing stairs. People smoke and drink, but it's usually spread throughout the day, at lunch, maybe after work over tapas and then at home with dinner. It's all very civilized.

The lifestyle difference go beyond just walking versus driving, chugging versus sipping. The American dream is to own a house and spend the next years making it the perfect place to sit and do nothing. Home entertainment systems are almost as common as microwaves and couches are as soft as beds. All this comfort and money means, of course, you're planning on spending the majority of time at home flipping through the hundreds of satellite T.V stations, enjoying the surround sound as your waist line grows.

The Spanish dream is not dissimilar to the American one; the biggest difference is to own a flat instead of a house. Still, unlike in the states, home is not the center of life in Spain. Cable TV is from ubiquitous and flat screens are just now becoming affordable. The street with its restaurants for the seniors, terraces for the parents and squares for the children is still the hub of activity, so instead of going home and watching the T.V fir three hours, you pop down the street to your favorite bar with friends for a drink and a chat before heading back home again.  Like I said, you walk a lot and thinking about it, over the course of the day you probably burn more calories just going from place to place than you would at the gym.

Then of course, there's the diet. Despite what my Spanish friends tell me, Americans don't only eat hamburgers and pizza. The food choices in a U.S. city are seemingly endless, offering something for everybody at a reasonable price.  It's the portions that could feed an African village, the love of sauces and free refills that pack on the pounds.

In fact, I think the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet is a bit of myth. Much of the food is fried, meats are eaten with abundance, along with carbohydrates like rice, bread and potatoes. They do eat more fish here and the amount on the plates is small, allowing the stomach to quickly digest the quantities. Plus the whole approach to eating is different, the meal to be savored here while I remember in the states it was to devoured to keep the energy up.

There is, also, a difference in the quality of the food. Visit the fruit and vegetable section of a U.S. market, even an organic one, and you'll be amazed at the bright colors and size of the produce. Judging from looks alone, you'd think the apples, oranges and carrots had been picked in the garden of Eden.  Try one and you'll find them as flavorful as a wax Hollywood prop. Same goes for those thick t-bone steaks and chickens the size of turkeys on display in the meats section. When I bite into a small, lumpy orange here, I can taste the citrus and nutrients; the steaks are succulent and the vegetables fresh.

I have to admit, though, that I don't have any statistics comparing the general health of Americans versus Spanish, just what my eyes tell me, and I think it isn't so much the diet than makes the latter healthier, but the lifestyle of getting out and walking and food removed of preservatives.


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the word used for organic is "bio"...and it's definitely available, even if you have to hunt for it a little bit! All the "Veritas" stores as well as lots of little markets in Gracia have organic produce available. Still not seen in regular grocery stores, though.

    I agree that there's a lot to be said for slower meals, walking everywhere, and in general a people-oriented lifestyle rather than an entertainment-oriented lifestyle. That's why I miss being in Barcelona!

  2. Another word used for 'organic' here is 'ecològic'.

  3. I just arrived back from spending three months in Barcelona and I miss it terribly. Walking every where can be daunting at first but you get use to it and then it becomes routine. You seem to be right on the mark about the fruit, veggies and the food. It is fresher and in smaller portions. I never once looked for "Organic Fruit" I just bought what was available in the markets. The cheese in Spain also did not make my wife sick. She has a terrible allergy to dairy from the states. In Barcelona she could eat a 10' pizza and was perfectly fine. The smaller portion of food was also something I had to adjust to. I miss walking every day and I miss the food and the friends I made.

  4. Telling a spaniard that americans eat good food (specially if he has lived in the US) is like telling an american that spaniards know something about business (specially if he has lived in Spain). It's a matter of culture, and everything is described brilliantly here:

    enjoy :)

  5. I just wanted to say Hi! Very interesting post!I am going to try and read more posts of yours as soon as I have a coffee break! Have a nice Wednesday!

  6. I agree that the walking makes a big difference. When we moved here, our first 2 months were spent in a loft in Barcelona. I quickly lost about 5-7 pounds only because I was walking everywhere and lugging groceries for a family of four up flights of stairs. Now we live in Valldoreix directly across from the Collersola Park. Whenever we hike in the forest, I am impressed to see seniors hiking the trails. In the city you always see old people walking around to meet their friends, buy groceries. It seems that in the States people of that age are not so active.

  7. Our organic food experience has been pretty good. Corte Ingles actually has a decent selection if you order online (make sure your order gets sent to the Placa Catalunya one, not the Sabadell). Even Al Campo has an organic section (you have to look carefully).

    We go to Veritas every week... it's no Trader Joe's and the prices are horrible, but they've lowered them a bit. The fruit is sometimes a bit sad looking, but has improved a lot since we moved here.

    It's great seeing seniors walking around in the woods. I remember where we lived in the US they were all zipping around on their scooters.

  8. People don't (or shouldn't) exercise for burning calories, that's ridiculous. It would take ten hours of mountain biking to burn off one Big Mac. 20 minutes of jogging for a cookie. Exercise changes how your body metabolizes what you eat, reduces stress, etc.

    A great lecture from the University of San Francisco deals with sugar and health very well: