Quelling our fears about the C-word.
Since the Atkins craze, infamous for its “low-carb, high-protein” mantra, people have found any and every reason to avoid eating carbohydrates. Americans are among the most fearful of these simple, energy giving biomolecules, shuddering at their alleged bloat-inducing, fat-causing, and addictive qualities. Widespread carbphobia has prompted the rejection of some of our favorite foods, and many find themselves in a love/hate relationship with carbs, making eating, one of life joy’s, a stressful routine. But, as demonstrated by the rest of the world, it shouldn’t be at all.
When I first arrived in Barcelona, I was struck by how the locals, despite their love for bread, potatoes, and croissants, kept so slim. Obesity is not nearly as prevalent—okay, more like non-existent—in Spain, nor in any of the non-American countries I’ve been to. In Italy, people artfully craft and enjoy their lasagna and pizzas (whole, never sliced), while adults and children alike snack on fresh-baked pretzels in Germany. There’s no denying that the Dutch love their fries (don’t forget the mayonnaise) and that no breakfast is complete without some papos secos, or crunchy rolls, for the Portuguese. And let’s not forget to mention rice, a staple food for so many Asian countries. You don’t hear people constantly talking about diets in these countries, and whether or not to have dessert is not a daily struggle they face. They just eat. As an American, I was weary of regularly consuming carbs, but I had promised myself that wherever I traveled, I would do as the natives did, no matter where I went. I began eating carbs as they did, and what I’ve found, and I secretly always had a gut feeling about this, is that carbohydrates are not to blame. If it’s not the carbs then, what is the big discrepancy between the westernized, American diet and the diets of other countries worldwide?
One poignant difference is how much we eat. Carbs are the scapegoat in our eating woes, helping us point the blame away from our own lack of responsibility. It’s a known fact that the Italians love pasta, but the reality is that they’re not eating for every meal, in heaping platefuls. Making eating our responsibility, in our control, is something we could really learn from other cultures. Which brings me to my next point.
Knowing when to stop. How much should we really eat then? Laboratory studies and scientific “research” claim to always have the new answer, but try explaining the latest findings to your grandmother. Maybe we could bag the studies and find the answer by simply listening to our bodies. Hungry? Eat. Full? Stop. Bored? Find something to do, not eat. The importance of breakfast has been stated and overstated, but my Greek buddy, fit and healthy, only has a cup of coffee and on occasion, a biscuit to go with it for breakfast. “Why eat when I don’t feel like it?” he says, a profound statement indeed. Some days, you’ll only feel like having two meals, and that’s okay. I promise you won’t starve. And since when did we have to observe mice’s eating habits to learn how to eat? I could have told you that eating cake five times a day isn’t good for you.
But eating cake every now and then can be. It may not provide many minerals or essential vitamins, but enjoying the things you like is healthy for your soul. Self-denial is not. The Spanish know this, and take the effort and time to savor quality, satisfying meals. You won’t find a Spaniard forgoing the fresh baked croissant for those six, cardboard filled diet cookies. Isn’t anyone else suspicious of those processed products that barely resemble food? Self-denial leads to bigger cravings, which makes people consumed–no pun intended–with food. Exercise self-control, not self-denial.
With that said, be mindful that all carbohydrates are not made equal, and some are better for you than others. Your body needs these good kinds, found in fruits and whole grains, and they’re the ones you’ll want to be eating most of the time. Balance, in other words, is what you’re aiming for; it’s a concept that Non-American countries seem to grasp flawlessly. The Turkish diet is rich—even overflowing—with fresh vegetables and herbs, lean proteins and fish. Yet the Turkish are able to enjoy, without guilt, rice pudding, pita bread, and baklava. This is because they have a great sense of balance, and know how to vary their food groups, while still incorporating carbs. Balance stops not only with diet, but continues with lifestyle. Exercise, even just in the form of walking, is a good way to keep your body in balance. In all things, remember: not too much of this, not too little of that. Eating really isn’t so hard; the more you obsess over food, the less you enjoy it. Stress less for a healthier relationship with your food.
Sometimes you just have to take a step back and ask yourself, do I genuinely enjoy replacing every meal with steamed broccoli? Unless you truly have a thing for broccoli, the answer will probably be no. Eating is one of the simplest, yet most pleasurable activities in life. Let’s keep it that way.