This year I’ve been doing some traveling, mostly in Europe. This brought me to some interesting realizations about some cultural differences in eating between Europeans and Americans.
I live in Montreal, which culturally finds itself between Europe and America. Depending where you live in Montreal, it can feel more like you’re in America, or Europe.
I’ve also lived in the USA and travelled there quite a bit. I’ve visited over 25 countries and I’ve been to Europe many times. I’ve been four or five times to France, a couple of times to Eastern Europe, 8 or 9 times to England, a few times to Spain and Italy, and so on.
Whenever I go back and forth between countries, some important differences in eating habits become very apparent to me.
But first, why does it matter?
In America, obesity rates reach over 30% of the population. In France, it’s 11%. The 11% obesity rate in France is caused by the fact that French people are starting to eat more like Americans, because obesity rates used to be only 5.5% in 1995.
In America, 33.8% of the adult population is now considered obese. In 1997 it used to be 19.4%. Keep in mind that we’re talking about obesity here, which means a BMI over 30. For example, for me to become obese, at a height of 5 foot 10 inches, I would have to weigh about 210 pounds.
So even though the French, and other Europeans, are going in the wrong direction with their eating habits, they still have a long way to go to reach the horrendous proportions in America.
So let’s take a look at some important cultural differences.
The Importance of Tradition
In Italy, the cappuccino or caffè latte is something you drink in the morning, for breakfast. At other times of the day you’re supposed to drink black espresso, and only after meals. If you order a caffè latte in the middle of the day in Italy, people will automatically know that you’re not Italian. They will also secretly and sometimes not so secretly laugh at you…
In America of course, once we embraced the caffè latte, or as we call it, the latte, we didn’t attach any traditions around it. Which means people have giant lattes loaded with sugar and calories several times a day!
Traditions in food matter because they keep a certain order to things, and prevent overeating. In England, the “afternoon tea” allowed you to have a cup of tea with something sweet. In America, any time of the day is a good excuse to eat something sweet…
Other traditions that we’ve completely forgotten is the “dessert,” which is supposed to be a special treat that you have after a meal, when you can afford it. In America, dessert is something you eat soon after you wake up in the morning, when you have your giant muffin. It’s also something you eat throughout the day, whenever you feel something remotely close to hunger!
The Sweet Breakfast
As I learned in the book “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” a wonderful exposé of the processed food industry in America, the sweet breakfast is an invention of the cereal manufacturers in the middle of the last century.
Americans have a sweet tooth for breakfast, which is why they usually eat cake for breakfast. Except that they don’t call it cake. Instead, they call it “pancakes with syrup” (cake!), muffin (cake!), or Nutella covered toasts (cake!), or a bowl of sweet cereal with milk (almost cake!).
Recently, I was spending some time with a Czech family, on my last trips to Europe. I noticed how the typical Czech breakfast was nothing but sweet. Typical foods included cold cuts, smoked salmon, savory spreads, with some bread, and some fruits. Many Europeans also like to eat raw vegetables for breakfast, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, to accompany their other breakfast choices.
In most parts of the world, breakfast is not sweet. In Thailand, the typical could include a thick rice porridge, eggs, meat, Chinese dumplings (Dim Sum) and some kind of savory soup. In other Asian countries, there is no clear distinction between breakfast foods and lunch and dinner food.
In France, people are traditionally practically fasting for breakfast. That’s why the word for breakfast (déjeuner) in France actually means the lunch meal. Later, when people got in the habit of having a croissant with a cup of coffee in the morning, a new word was added to describe this new “meal.” It was called “petit déjeuner” or “little breakfast.”
Most French people have very little food for breakfast. Some French people I know, living in Montreal, only eat some fruit and have a cup of coffee for breakfast. A single croissant is also popular to eat for breakfast in France, and dip in your coffee.
In France, snacking is frowned upon. As we’ve seen, French people eat a small breakfast (if they eat at all). Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day, and when time allows, it can drag on for hours and include many courses, with wine. Dinner is typically small and many people only eat a few things for dinner, like yogurt and fruit.
But no matter what French people choose to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, one thing is for sure: snacking is not encouraged and not usually part of the habits taught to children. In France, culturally speaking, parents don’t have this constant obsession and guilt around parenting, which generally leads to more well-behaved children, at least according to American author Pamela Druckerman, who wrote “Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.”
In France, children eat three meals a day and have one snack around 4 p.m. Adults generally don’t have this afternoon snack. Of course, things are changing in France, as more and more people break away with tradition and snack more often. But after a stay in France outside of big cities, and coming back to America, you’d think you were dealing with two separate races of humans: one who only requires to eat 2 or 3 times a day, and one who seemingly must eat every 2 hours to survive! Guess which is which?
This constant snacking is also encouraged by America’s nutritionists and fitness experts, who have for years spoken against eating “big meals that drain your energy” and instead recommended to eat lots of small meals every 2-3 hours, to “keep the metabolism up.” In reality, this eating frequency has no real scientific basis and seemingly doesn’t lead to good results, considering that most of the world goes pretty well on 2 or 3 meals a day, while Americans, with obesity rates pushing 35%, are told to eat more often.
If you ever go to Paris, or on your next trip there, I want you to walk into a Parisian café and order a “jus d’orange” (orange juice). Besides practicing your French, you’ll probably be shocked at how small your glass is! The typical freshly-squeezed orange juice glass in Parisian cafés is 6 ounces, or less than a cup of juice. Then you’ll be mad at me for having to pay a few Euros for that, but at least you’ll have learned an interesting lesson in portion sizes.
Everything in America is bigger. The country. The cars. The food plates. The people. I don’t mind big highways myself and I feel more comfortable driving a Jeep SUV than a Smart ForTwo car. But when it comes to food, portion sizes matter.
The topic of portion sizes as a cue to overeating is explored in depth in the book “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler. Quoting a study done on the popcorn eating habits at movie theaters, “people who were given the big buckets ate an average of 53 percent more than those given medium-size buckets. Give them a lot, and they eat a lot.”
After a recent trip to Europe, I’m writing this article in San Francisco. Staying downtown, I’m noticing everywhere the ubiquitous Starbucks to-go cups. I’m also noticing how everyone walks around with those giant drinks, loaded with milk and sugar, and at how uncommon the smaller sizes are.
Give them a lot, they eat a lot. Give them less, they eat less. And if the food is good, both groups feel equally satisfied.
I don’t have to go in details about this point. Travel to almost any country in the world and you’ll notice how the typical portion sizes are much smaller than in America. Yet, French food is revered throughout the world as the culinary standard upon which all other cuisines are judged. And guess what is the characteristic of gourmet French food: small portions of extremely rich and delicious food.
The problem in America is that people eat large portions of extremely rich foods, which most people think are also extremely delicious as well. The only way to stay lean while eating large portions of food is to eat foods that are naturally low in calories, such as fruits and vegetables.
The Joy of Eating Socially
The movement for “Slow Food” started in the North of Italy, when its founder, Carlo Petrini, found that Italian people were losing their regional cuisine and falling for the fast food culture stemming from America. The movement now promotes local food traditions in over 150 countries.
When we sit down to enjoy long lunches or dinners in company of family, we eat fewer total calories, even though the dishes may contain rich elements such as cream, and be washed down with some wine. Although most of the daily calories may come from a typical long French lunch, the overall caloric intake is lower than in snacking and fast-fooding America.
The industry of processed foods in America came to answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind by 4 p.m. and to which most have no answer. That question is “what’s for dinner?” The disappearance of the family dinner led to the Kraft Dinner and Cookies for dessert, among other of the many processed food choices.
When we take time to eat with friends and family, we focus on our food, we enjoy it more, and we’ll be less tempted after to binge on sugary and fatty snacks to compensate. Is it time to bring back this tradition to this continent?
The Quality of Ingredients
The obsession over ingredient quality is palpable in France. I once sat through a very heated discussion between two French men, who were discussing the best way to cook a snail, and of course, where to source them.
In France, there’s a deep concern about the area where the food is from, whether it’s wine or other foodstuffs. It’s called “le terroir” in French and it’s fundamental to understanding the somewhat complex system of rules that rule over certain specific food products in the country.
In France, for a cheese to be labeled as “Roquefort,” it not only has to be made using very specific ingredients, but also has to come from a specific area.
Of course, French wines are a famous example. It would be heresy in France (and, in fact, illegal) to label a wine as “Champagne” if the product is mere sparkling wine coming from any other region than the region of Champagne in the north of France.
Although all of the labeling laws make it difficult for some people to innovate, it does help preserve tradition and purity in food products. This comes from a cultural instinct to seek the best ingredients possible and make the recipe in a very specific way before you can call your product “genuine.”
Finally, a less obvious cultural difference in eating between Americans and Europeans is something that I refer to as “food angst.”
In America, everybody has access to an abundance of rich and delicious foods (that unfortunately have the side effect of making you fat and unhealthy) at a very low cost. At the same time, no one is more obsessed about food, dieting and “control” than Americans.
Watch a French cook prepare his food and you’d be shocked at how little consideration they put into the amount of salt and butter they throw in their concoctions. Yet, in spite of eating such calorie-dense foods, French people will eat fewer total calories than Americans, without even thinking about it.
Maybe you’ve read the book “Eat, Pray, Love” or have seen the movie. For me the dialogue that most represents this food angst that I’m talking about is from the movie Eat, Pray, Love, when in the Barber shops Italian people discuss these cultural differences.
Julia Roberts: I feel so guilty. I’ve been in Rome for three weeks and all I’ve done is learn a few Italian words and eat!”
Man on Barber chair: “You feel guilty because you’re American! You don’t know how to enjoy yourself!
Julia Roberts: I beg your pardon?
Man on Barber chair: It’s true. Americans know entertainment. But they don’t know pleasure… I’m serious. Listen to me! You want to know your problem? Americans… you work too hard, you get burned out! Then you come home and spend the whole weekend in your pajamas in front of the TV! But you don’t know pleasure… You have to be told you’ve earned it! You see a commercial that says “It’s Miller time!” and you say… “That’s right! Now I’m going to buy a six-pack! And you drink the whole thing and you wake up the next morning and you feel terrible! But… an Italian doesn’t need to be told. He walks by a sign that says “you deserve a break today!” And he says, “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m planning on taking a break at noon… to go over to your house, and sleep with your wife!” (laughs).
Of course, the quote is taking quite out of context, but I think you understand my point…
Instead of having so much guilt over food, we should learn to enjoy ourselves when we actually indulge, and then forget about it. Think about food and enjoy it when it’s time to eat, and then enjoy the rest of your time not thinking about food.
I love American and I love Europe, and I feel blessed living somewhere that seems like a middle point between the two worlds. My English friend Michael used to say “I never had a bad day in America,” and I think this short sentences summarizes what I love most about this country.
The dynamism, the innovation, and energy of America also has another side, which is playing itself out in the obesity crisis. Maybe it’s time to return to some sense of tradition and we might start making a bigger dent in the obesity crisis.
How about you? Am I far off in my observations? What have you found to be true? Leave your comments below…