If you have a Twitter account, chances are you've seen a flood of personal anecdotes from American travelers who have gone to Europe, insisting that they've miraculously dropped a ton of weight with little effort.
Why are Americans insisting that some kind of cultural phenomenon in European countries makes it so much simpler to shed pounds? More than just weight loss, many claim that they feel better than they've ever felt – their mood has improved, they have more energy, and they're no longer bloated.
Viral posts are flooding social media networks attributing this phenomenon to the higher quality of food, but could that be all that's going on? This post investigates the real lifestyle differences that could make losing weight easier in Europe than in the United States.
What Is the Science Of Weight Loss?
Before determining what factors could contribute to weight loss, the mechanisms behind it must be established. When it comes to maintaining, losing, or gaining weight, this all comes down to your energy balance or the ratio of your calorie intake to calories burned.
To understand weight loss, we need to understand the laws of thermodynamics apply – energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system, so all energy must be accounted for.
There are three types of energy balance. When you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. If you consume more than you burn, you will gain weight, and if you consume an equal amount of the calories you burn, you will maintain your weight.
Thankfully, achieving a caloric deficit is relatively simple, as long as you ensure you're consuming less than your body naturally burns at rest or burning more calories than you consume by increasing your activity.
Europe Is Not Immune to Weight Problems
Some notable differences arise when you compare the United States to most European countries. The U.S. has an astonishingly high rate of obesity. 1 in 3 people (36% of the population) is obese, and 2 out of 3 people (69%) are overweight.
Compare this to European nations, and you get an average obesity rate of 15%. Obesity is becoming a growing problem in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, as these countries adopt more of the same harmful habits we've become habituated to in America. However, even Europe's most overweight country, the U.K., has an obesity rate of 25.9%, more than 10% lower than the United States.
Walkable Cities Reduce Obesity
Why is the United States so much more overweight than European countries, and why do Americans find it so easy to lose weight over there? One word: lifestyle. There are many different lifestyle disparities between Europeans and Americans.
Many European nations possess a collection of habits that can account for the lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The most influential factor is walkability.
When you go to the states, chances are, you'll need a car to get wherever you need to go. Our cities are planned around the automobile, not people.
Thrusting yourself into an environment that requires walking all day and night to explore the city and major tourist attractions will increase your daily activity exponentially. Walking is one of the most effective ways to lose weight because it's low impact.
Low-impact exercise is more likely to burn your fat reserves for energy over stored glucose, and you burn the same amount of calories walking as you would running. It just takes longer to reach the same distance and calories burned.
However, low-impact exercise doesn't spike your hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin nearly as much as high-impact exercise. This makes you less likely to eat back your calories.
When you break down the numbers, you'll see that non-exercise-activity-thermogenesis (NEAT), which is any movement you do throughout the day, accounts for up to 15% of your calories burned.
Intentional exercise only accounts for 5%. Increasing overall activity is more efficient for weight loss than a single high-impact gym session. Studies have shown a strong correlation between active transportation, such as walking, bicycling, and taking public transit, with lower rates of obesity.
This study found that the countries with the most active transportation had the lowest rates of obesity. Europeans walk an average of 382 km (237 miles) compared to the measly 140km (87 miles) that Americans walk yearly. Given that activity is tripled in European countries, we should recognize the significance activity can play in weight loss.
Smaller Portion Sizes
Viral videos comparing American portion sizes to that of other European nations are commonly trending on Youtube. They're particularly popular when comparing fast food chains like McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC to their international counterparts. Each of the sizes in the U.S. is usually considerably larger than their European versions.
For example, in this Insider Food video, two men ordered the same sizes of fountain drinks from McDonald's in the U.S. and the U.K., but the U.S. sizes were actually 89% larger. In addition to a U.S. small being larger than a European small, we also tend to offer additional larger sizes of foods and drinks that aren't available in European countries.
For example, UK McDonald's only offers chicken nugget boxes of up to 20 nuggets. Comparatively, the U.S. version carries boxes of up to 40 nuggets. Americans overindulge because larger food portions are always being dangled in front of them.
This idea of portion control carries over into all other facets of dining in Europe. Portions are much smaller in fast food chains, restaurants, and home-cooked meals. Somewhere along the way, Americans forgot what normal portion sizes were.
A typical European breakfast is usually quite small, consisting of a coffee and a small bread item like a croissant, toast, or a small pastry. Typical breakfast meals vary by country, but they often pale in comparison to the size of American breakfasts. They aren't loading their plates with all sorts of savory and sweet foods like pancakes, hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, and potatoes first thing in the morning.
Any meal you eat in Europe is likely to be magnitudes smaller than what you would receive in an American restaurant, and that means even though you're ordering all of the same foods you normally eat, the calories are going to be a fraction of what you're used to.
The Work/Life Balance in Europe Creates Less Food Convenience
In the U.S., capitalism is king. We're focused on 24/7 convenience. When you enter a grocery store in the U.S., the aisles are stacked with 50 different varieties of the same item in all ranges of flavors.
Snacks are widely available in late-night convenience stores, many of which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even fast food chains like Mcdonald's or Taco Bell are usually open all night, but this is less common in Europe.
In fact, more emphasis is placed on cooked meals and socializing over the dinner table, which reduces snacking and fast food in European countries.
Take Italy, for instance. Each day, Italians take part in something called “riposo,” which means to rest. During lunchtime, virtually all businesses shut down so store owners can eat lunch with their families at home.
This shutdown period lasts for hours, usually from 12 to 3 pm. Restaurants are usually closed between lunch and dinner. After closing at 12 pm, many may not reopen until 6 or 7 pm. With shorter work weeks in European countries, businesses, including restaurants, are closed more frequently.
Restaurants and shops are not open at all hours of the day or every day of the week, so you will need to plan around this. Europeans also eat dinner later than Americans, which prevents them from snacking.
The lack of a snacking culture can mean there are fewer convenience stores and supermarkets stocked with a large array of chips, cookies, and other processed, high-calorie foods. Americans are constantly inundated with advertising for unhealthy foods.
The most widely discussed factor as it relates to Americans losing weight in Europe is the supposedly higher quality of the food. Ultimately, a calorie is a calorie whether or not it comes from a healthy source. When you look at the thermic effect of food, however, your body uses more energy to break down protein than it does to break down carbs or fat.
Eating a more balanced diet may increase your body's energy efficiency and burn more calories. The effects of eating healthier food may be negligible on weight loss because, ultimately, if you eat in a caloric deficit, you will lose weight either way. However, this can account for improved energy and mood and reduced bloating people report.
There are different regulations regarding what you can add to foods in Europe. The U.S. regulatory body is the Food & Drug Administration, which permits additives in food until they have been proven to be harmful.
In the E.U., however, the European Food Safety Authority only approves additives that have been proven to be non-harmful. Europe is proactive about food safety, while the U.S. is reactive. This has resulted in many controversial chemicals and additives being permitted in American foods while they remain illegal in Europe.
Some of these additives include potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide, commonly found in American baked goods but banned in Europe because studies show they may cause cancer.
Preservatives like BHA and BHT face more severe restrictions in Europe but are widely found in American foods, despite being listed as a likely carcinogen and studies showing there is a reasonable link between these preservatives causing cancer.
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is often added to sodas to prevent ingredients from separating. It's banned in Europe because it contains bromine, which can cause serious health issues like memory loss and nerve damage in high doses.
Food dyes and coloring are permitted in both places, but Europe requires a disclaimer on labels that warns the dyes can have adverse health effects on children, particularly on their activity and attention.
It's not just prohibited ingredients that account for the differences in nutritional quality. Americans eat more processed foods with more added sugars, seed oils, high trans fats, more artificial dyes, and less fiber. American companies are also not legally obligated to label genetically modified foods.
Is it the Food Causing Americans to Lose Weight?
While frequently eating unhealthy foods can lead to insulin resistance and many other health complications in the long run, reducing your consumption during a short vacation is unlikely to be the root cause of sudden weight loss.
Eating more whole foods and fresh seasonal ingredients in Europe will likely reduce your consumption of processed foods in exchange for higher-quality ingredients. This may inadvertently cause you to eat fewer calories and avoid insulin spikes. Insulin spikes prevent your body from using fat as energy, instead using your glucose stores for fuel.
While fewer additives, pesticides, and chemicals in European foods may reduce inflammation, skin problems, and bloating, it's probably not the biggest contributor to weight loss.
Coupling a reduction in portion sizes and increasing your activity will put you in a caloric deficit, often without realizing it. While on vacation, most people are also less stressed, reducing cortisol levels.
Chronically high cortisol levels increase your appetite and lead to weight gain. The short answer is that vacationing in Europe creates the perfect storm of optimal conditions for weight loss. That's good news for those who want an excuse to see the Eiffel Tower in person.
This article was produced and syndicated by the Wealth of Geeks.