Many Americans have noticed that they count calories, test out radical diets, and exercise regularly in their home country, yet often struggle to lose weight or maintain a steady body mass. Yet, U.S.-based travelers report shedding pounds despite indiscriminate dietary choices on both brief jaunts and long-term stays in Europe.
When Melissa O’Leary traveled to Tuscany last year, she indulged in the local culinary fare—no restrictions. She recalls fresh tortelli and pappardelle pasta, Panzanella, Tuscan bread, pastries, and local wine hitting the table during a daily dining schedule that typically spanned 7 in the morning to the wee hours of the night.
Yet, like so many who have visited Europe and partaken in local cuisine without dietary restrictions, O’Leary found that she lost weight during the vacation.
This has led many commentators to speculate that there is something about the American diet or the ingredients in the food that Americans purchase at their local supermarkets that accounts for nearly 40% of American adults being obese. A close examination reveals a combination of factors that help explain the Euro vacation weight-loss effect.
An Active European Lifestyle
A common theme emerges in firsthand accounts of those who lost weight while vacationing in Europe: walking.
Patricia Palacios, the founder of the destination website España Guide, explained the cultural significance of walking in her home country of Spain and many other European nations.
“For most Europeans, walking from place to place is totally normal and even enjoyable,” Palacios noted. “In Spain, it is very typical to go out for a leisurely stroll, usually in the evening. Even when we go out for tapas or pinchos, there will be walking. You go to one bar, eat something small and then you head to the next one.”
Some American cities, including New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, offer robust public transportation options and a walkable layout. Walking is more common in these cities than in most other American locales.
But as a cultural and practical matter, walking tends to be more prevalent in more European cities than in the United States. Correlated health effects of walking, including weight loss, are therefore to be expected when Americans experience the European lifestyle for any period of time.
Light on Processed Food, Heavy on Nutritional Food Labeling
Observers note that while there is processed food, drive-thru dining, and other nutritional hazards in Europe, their prevalence appears far less than in the United States.
“When you go into an Italian supermarket, you do not find junk food,” O’Leary explains. “They have a couple of brands of chips, and everything else is food you need to cook.”
European shoppers may also be more in tune with what they purchase at the supermarket. Blanca Garcia, a Registered Dietician Nutritionist at Health Canal, explains that several European governments have taken active steps to simplify nutritional literacy through food labeling.
“In the Netherlands, processed and frozen foods are labeled with a grade scale,” Garcia said. “The letter A in green means it’s very healthy, and the letter E is not so healthy, an easy way to recognize what is good or bad.”
Garcia is referring to the Nutri-Score food labeling system, pioneered by French public health agency Santé Publique and used in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Luxembourg as of January 2023.
Products receive a score ranging between A (most nutritious) and E (least nutritious), and either the producer or seller of the food or beverage affixes a corresponding label to the packaging.
The Government of the Netherlands also passed The National Prevention Agreement in 2019. This legislation urges food manufacturers to reduce the amount of fat, sugar, and sodium in their foods by reformulating processed products.
Such top-down measures aimed at promoting good nutrition also promote the perception that Europe, by and large, offers a healthier dietary landscape than the United States.
Europe Banned Several Ingredients Commonly Found in American Foods
While the typical European walks more and has access to clearer nutritional information than their American counterpart, what about the actual food they eat? Is there something different about pasta one might buy in America, for example, then pasta they’d find in an Italian supermarket?
“The majority of wheat in the U.S. tends to be higher in protein content (often gluten) and is known as hard red wheat,” explained Yelena Wheeler, Registered Dietician at Measurement Instrument Database for the Social Sciences (MIDSS).
“The wheat utilized in Europe is that of soft wheat, which tends to be lower in gluten. For those with gluten sensitivities, consuming bread products with less gluten in them will in turn result in less bloating and sluggishness.”
In addition to differences in the way that food manufacturers source wheat and other ingredients, American food and beverage manufacturers are permitted to use certain ingredients and pesticides that have been banned in the European Union (E.U.).
“Certain hormones such as rBHG are banned in the E.U., however, are allowed in the United States,” Wheeler noted. “Certain pesticides such as Paraquat and Phorate are still being used in the U.S., however, are phased out in the E.U.”
Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the E.U. banned titanium dioxide in 2022. Past studies indicate a correlation between titanium dioxide and inflammation, oxidative stress, cell damage, and genotoxicity. Yet, American consumers will find this ingredient listed on a variety of foods and beverages in any given supermarket, from milk to chocolate and snack foods.
By banning titanium dioxide, the E.U. reinforced its commitment to phasing out ingredients with known adverse health effects or whose safety is in question. Other ingredients restricted or banned in the E.U. but not in the United States include potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide (ADA) (used in baked goods but linked to cancer in animal studies),
BHA and BHT (flavoring and preservative substances designated as likely human carcinogens), certain food dyes, and several growth hormones for livestock and other farm animals.
While the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned synthetic flavoring substances and other ingredients over the years, the perception is that regulatory action in the U.S. food and beverage industry is slow-moving and, for many who develop life-threatening health conditions, including obesity, too little too late.
European travelers are often astonished that they can eat what they eat and emerge from their trip pounds lighter than on arrival. Many report walking far more than they would during their typical day in America, and most also report eating fresh, unprocessed foods—even when those foods are ravioli and crème brûlée.
While the European lifestyle of walking from place to place will positively affect weight loss, so may the concerted efforts by European governments and food manufacturers to rid the food supply of potentially harmful ingredients and alert consumers when nonnutritious ingredients are present.
This confluence of factors removes all mystery from a common question: How could I have possibly eaten like that (in Paris, Tuscany, Berlin, or Barcelona) and lost weight?
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.