Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Pizza Paradox

Let me get this straight: a substantial snack between lunch and dinner - some pizza, say - is "a nice custom"? Isn't that how we Americans got so fat in the first place? Obviously, we should be more like Europeans, who, as we all know, don't snack between meals.

Oh wait. It's chic Northern Italians doing the snacking. It is Traditional. Now it all makes sense.


Dana said...

I wonder if it's because they eat dinner so goshdarn late, and skip breakfast. I prefer to eat 4 small meals a day than 3, or every four hours. But what they describe doesn't sound like a light meal or snack. So maybe it's their substitute mid-day meal. It does sound better than my banana and almonds snack.

Phoebe said...

I believe Tradition has it that they eat custard-filled croissants for breakfast. Or at least this was what I did for the couple days I spent in Milan, along with the evening snack, along with dinner.

They do say that it's better to eat many small meals a day, but They also say we should do as the Europeans do, and legend has it they don't snack.

Whatever the case, Italian aperitif snacks don't make themselves, so it's bananas and almonds for me as well.

Britta said...

Yeah, I find the "eat like Europeans do" comments also kind of annoying. First off, it's a continent with dozens of different eating habits that vary widely and would be mutually contradictory to combine into a diet. In some areas people eat big breakfasts and smaller meals later in the day. Others do the reverse, etc. (Of course, most of these writers consider "European" to be synonymous with Mediterranean or French, because, frankly, traditional Northern European diets include huge amounts of butter, full fat dairy products, sugar, sausages, etc, which doesn't really fit with the whole "be gourmet and healthy" attitude of food writers in America.)
Secondly, while Europeans may not be as morbidly obese like (some) Americans are, they're hardly all super models. I mean, eating like a "European" may prevent you from weighing 500 lbs, but the hardy peasant stereotype came from somewhere, and eating cheesy croissant things, or goulash, or sausage and potatoes, or pasta every night isn't going to melt away the pounds.
The only plus is that Europeans probably do on the whole eat slightly less packaged foods (though apparently Norway has the highest per capita frozen pizza consumption in the world), and maybe more importantly, their packaged foods aren't full of cornstarch, which maybe is the difference between being of normal overweightness and needing to be lifted out of your house with a crane.

I think the fact is that probably 95% of the population cannot look like a model or actress without significant effort and food reduction beyond a comfortable level, regardless of what form one takes one's calories in. Pretending that if we all ate like the French we'd look like Audrey Tatou is irritating, because, well, it's completely not true. It's like claiming that if you eat like an American you can look like Cameron Diaz except the rest of the world knows enough about American weight demographics to realize that these people are the exception, not the norm.

Matt said...

(though apparently Norway has the highest per capita frozen pizza consumption in the world)

This might have something to do w/ the fact that restaurants in Norway being wildly expensive. (Everything is wildly expensive there, but restaurants especially.) (I also expect you mean corn syrup rather than starch, though the point is probably right. Massive corn subsidies and sugar import quotas in the US are very bad things for many reasons.)

Britta said...

oops, yes, I meant corn syrup.

PG said...

I think either several small meals or the standard three is fine; the worst thing to do is to have your largest meal at the end of the day when you're going to have very little physical activity afterwards and then go to sleep for several hours. Everyone I've spoken to with training in nutrition is indifferent to whether I eat three medium-sized meals a day, or 5 small ones; they think I should just pick the one that keeps me from getting hungry at some point and overindulging. But they're all opposed to what I'd thought of as "dinner": eating my largest meal after 7pm on a typical workday (i.e. when I am unlikely to be taking a long walk, going dancing or engaging in any other significant exertion after I consume the meal).

However, if you live somewhere that getting from the restaurant to home requires you to bicycle three miles or walk a mile and a half, it's probably not so bad to have dinner, and if you can make this early-evening snack effectively substitute for dinner (the "snack" being the larger meal, and dinner being a drink and a few ounces of meat and cheese), so much the better.

Phoebe said...

I'm neutral on the nutrition aspects of meal frequency. What I find interesting is that the very same behaviors are treated as evidence of good habits when found in (select) Europeans, and as a sign of the obesity apocalypse when in Americans.

A similar thread recently, I think also on Bitten, discussed the merits of Nutella in a way no one ever would an equivalent American product, referring to the fact that it does not actually kill your child to have a small amount of chocolate-hazelnut spread every morning. If the product were called not Nutella, but Super Fun Snax Spredd, and were associated not with neatly-dressed, well-behaved Continental children but with our own American kidz, I'd imagine it would have been more uniformly condemned.

Dana said...

It doesn't matter when you eat, it matters how much you consume and expend. Portion control matters more, I think. A 2 mile walk doesn't really take care of that doughnut, but it's probably better than nothing. In theory I'd like all of my calories to be nutritious and full of fiber, vitamins, and protein rather than empty processed calories full of fat and sugar. But fat and sugar are so good! And so if my basic nutritional needs are met, I totally indulge in nutella, and I don't think of fat as bad, but rather satiating in a good way in small amounts. And so I wonder if the true difference between the European philosophy of eating and the American one is that there's a greater allowance for food as pleasure in the European model. Food as a means to survive or fuel the body is generally healthy and a good way to live, but way less fun.

Phoebe said...

"And so I wonder if the true difference between the European philosophy of eating and the American one is that there's a greater allowance for food as pleasure in the European model."

That's the model that smitten NYT-readers seem to attribute to Europe, but one that in my experience bears no relation to how Europeans currently in existence actually view food. If anything, fear of overweight is even greater among many European women, particularly in the parts of Europe NYT-readers mean when they say 'Europe,' who are expected to dress in form-fitting clothes, and who do not have the luxury of feeling 'thin' because they don't weigh 400 pounds. There's a certain cultural pride in foods coming from a country or region, but this does not translate to chic Parisians having a healthy, pro-pleasure attitude towards food.

What I mean is, agreed that it's better to see food as more than just necessary nutrients versus evil, evil Fat. But where I disagree is in the notion that this is somehow 'how things are done in Europe.' For the most part, it's just like here in the US - women fear getting fat, and have just the eating neuroses one would expect from women in that situation.

Dana said...

I am sure there must be actual systematic, longitudinal epidemiological studies of nation-wide obesity rates where they control for the relevant factors and can identify the source of the difference, be it more exercise, portion control, diet, or joie de vivre or savoir faire or whatever. It probably is the corn syrup. I try to make most things from scratch and even then, I eat a ton of processed foods and bleached flour and sugars. Mostly because I think whole wheat tastes like cardboard, and I don't always have time to make my own stock and bread. One of my friends is really good about this because her husband's a Type I diabetic (he's thin, so it went undiagnosed for years!). It turns out that even Trader Joe's broth has a ton of sugar and "caramel color". Do Europeans eat fewer processed foods?

Phoebe said...

Europeans are thinner (when they're thinner - last I read, Germans are heavier than Americans) for, presumably, a mix of cultural reasons and, consequently, differences in food consumption. A study might show differences regarding processed foods (Europeans absolutely eat processed foods, but perhaps the foods are processed in different ways?) A study, if one exists, would have to look at attitudes and actual calories-in-and-out, to look for a connection.

I think it's important, though, to remember that all factors contributing to whatever increased thinness there might be in Europe are not ones Americans would likely consider 'positive' - i.e. it's not all about proper respect for pastries-in-moderation. It could be that in Europe, in general, there's less of a stigma against smoking and a greater stigma against bursting out of your pants. (Not to mention the social unacceptability in much of Western Europe of leaving the house in sweatpants.) Tobacco use and fat-shaming are not about to be encouraged in the US, so when praising the skinny Europeans, the thing to do is to assume they savor a tiny bite of tarte, and because the dessert was of such high quality, they don't even need more than that one taste.

PG said...

I thought that pretty much all parts of Europe -- even the parts like Germany, Austria and Ireland where people eat lots of pork and potatoes -- have less of a car culture than most of the United States. Cities like Houston or Dallas, or areas like Northern Virginia, where it is literally impossible to walk the 2 miles between your home and office without incurring jaywalking citations because there are no sidewalks nor crosswalks, are less prevalent in Europe because most of the continent was settled and developed before mass auto ownership. Therefore exercise is built into people's daily lives to a much greater extent.

Reportedly the countries with the lowest rates of overweight are France and Italy, so the American pop culture perception seems accurate. Is smoking any more prevalent in those two countries than in parts of Europe with higher rates of overweight, such as Germany, the Czech Republic or the UK?

Also, if it were mostly about negative media images, wouldn't we expect to see huge disparities between the levels of significant overweight (obesity) in the women vs. the men, with men much more likely to be obviously overweight because they're less culturally punished for it? Yet the level of obesity in French men is actually slightly lower than that in French women.

As for Germans' being heavier than Americans, I think they have a higher proportion of their male population that's overweight, but a smaller proportion that's obese.

Phoebe said...

I'm no fan of cars, but exercise does not seem to have a huge impact on weight loss. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if more people smoked in Germany than France, but if it's one factor among many, then perhaps enough Wurst makes up for it?

Anyway, I don't believe I said anything about Europeans being pressured by media images to stay thin - I think of it as being more something in the culture, along with an unwillingness to leave the house in elastic-waistband clothing. This could potentially affect men and women.

PG said...

Intense exercise doesn't do a lot for weight loss in the absence of controlling food intake, because if you just exercise without paying attention to what you eat, you'll naturally be hungry after the exercise (when you wouldn't be hungry if you'd spent the hour sitting on your arse), and will end up consuming more calories than in the absence of exercise. The article you linked is about studies that show exercise doesn't help you burn calories beyond those burned in the course of the exercise itself; the studies appear to disprove the myth of "afterburn," the idea that your body continues to burn calories at a higher level even after you've gotten off the treadmill and onto your arse.

Exercise that's integrated into daily life doesn't have the same effect of making you feel hungry. E.g., I always want to eat after an hour "working out," but I never felt a particular need to eat after walking the 15 minutes from school to my apartment and then going up the 4 flights of stairs. This was true even if I had to do this 3 or 4 times in a day, so long as the efforts are dispersed over a day (move-in and move-out days are a different matter). Lower-intensity exercise for a briefer time doesn't affect your appetite physically or psychologically the way a "workout" does.

You seem to be focusing particularly on women in your discussion of how people are just as anxious about weight in Europe as they are here: "If anything, fear of overweight is even greater among many European women, particularly in the parts of Europe NYT-readers mean when they say 'Europe,' who are expected to dress in form-fitting clothes, and who do not have the luxury of feeling 'thin' because they don't weigh 400 pounds." See also your past posts about cellulite cream adverts in European magazines, etc. I don't recall having read much you've written on the topic that has come across as being of general applicability to both sexes, much less of particular applicability to men.

Phoebe said...


My sense is that European men might be slightly more concerned with weight than are American men, but more in the sense of it being socially unacceptable to eat/dress in certain ways than in a counting-kilos sort of a way. But I really have no idea.

And: "Exercise that's integrated into daily life doesn't have the same effect of making you feel hungry."

I'm not sure. I'm definitely less hungry on days I just stay in and read, which by implication suggests I'm more so on days I walk around a lot. Granted no one intentionally 'compensates' with Gatorade for incidental walking-around, which must make some difference.