You are sitting at an outdoor cafe on a cobblestone plaza in a small town in northern Spain. It is a warm, sunny afternoon, maybe around 2pm, with a light breeze to take the edge off of the heat making it quite comfortable for a leisurely lunch. The plaza is full of Spaniards doing just that: enjoying a leisurely lunch. And it’s Monday. Or Thursday. Not that it matters; this happens every day.
The tables have been empty of food for at least an hour, scattered with breadcrumbs and empty plates, yet the people remain, slowly sipping on wine and/or cafe con leche. Having just enjoyed a meal together, they stay and talk, finding no reason to rush off to things they might need to do. The plaza is full of the sounds of deeply satisfied laughter and statements starting with “But maybe the meaning of life is…” and “I knew I loved you when…”.
This practice in Spain of remaining long after after the meal has been eaten is so common and so a part of the culture that there is actually a word for it. They call it sobremesa, literally translating to “over the table”.
Now picture this:
You have 30 minutes in between work meetings or soccer practice or some other thing you must do in a long list of over-scheduled appointments, and you are starving. So you drive through Wendy’s or Arby’s, or if you are trying to be healthy, maybe Subway and you wolf down your food as quickly as you can (in your car) because you are starving and need to drive through lunch hour traffic to get back to your office. You don’t notice what you are eating because you are thinking about the meeting you have. And you eat too much because you are eating too quickly for your brain to catch up with your body.
The first scenario describes the food culture of Spain; the second, unfortunately, describes what happens all too often in the U.S.
This summer I was lucky enough to spend a month in Spain where I was able to appreciate and enjoy the sobremesa every day. I loved the long conversations over a bottle of wine, the post-meal cafe con leche, and the fact that it was the middle of the day and no one felt the need to leave the table right after eating to get back to the office.
But something about Spaniards constantly perplexed me. For the most part, Spanish cuisine consists of loaves and loaves of bread, copious amounts of cheese, and meat. And lots of wine. Things that many Americans believe will put you on a one way street to obesity. But I can honestly say that I never saw an obese Spaniard during my month there. As a soon-to-be dietitian, this was fascinating to me. So what gives?
In the U.S., experts are calling our population’s rapidly rising incidence of obesity a “public health crisis“. A crisis. We have teenagers undergoing bariatric surgery and children being diagnosed with Type II diabetes. So we pour money into research, trying to understand what causes obesity and we create new products and complicated diets in order to get our nation’s “weight problem” under control. But it is not helping. The rise in obesity is not declining and people are now more obsessed with food then ever. There is a new “enemy food” in the news headlines on a weekly basis, placing the blame on yet another component of our diets that is causing the issue. Not even the mass marketing of kale and goji berries can help the issue.
So on one hand we have an “obesity crisis” and on the other hand we have a culture obsessed with dieting, “healthy eating”, and the new superfood of the day. We can talk about reasons for the high rate of obesity all day, coming up with a million explanations, but none of them explain it fully. Diet, a sedentary lifestyle, food culture, genetics, stress, marketing, fast food, etc are all potential culprits. A population’s weight is so complex and multi-faceted and none of the reasons alone can give us a satisfactory explanation for why it may not be where we want it to be.
But I think part of the issue can be linked to the above descriptions of common eating practices in Spain versus the U.S. and lie in our overall lack of pleasure and enjoyment in food. If good nutrition and healthy bodies could be created solely based on our current definitions of “good” foods versus “bad” foods, we would have it all figured out by now. There is not a shortage of information on the health qualities of certain foods. And there are enough diets out there for all of us to follow a new one every day for the rest of our lives. I believe our problem has more to do with our relationship with food, as opposed to the food itself.
When food is eaten for the sake of enjoyment, when we abandon our ambitions of eating the “right foods”, and when we take some serious pleasure from eating foods we want and crave, I believe we are on the right path. Because we all know that when you eat foods you don’t really want, you won’t be truly satisfied and you will end up eating what you want later, and usually more of it. Food should never be considered a “guilty pleasure” because you should never feel guilty about the food you put into your body. When you allow yourself to eat what you really want and really taste it, really enjoy it, no matter how unhealthy you think it may be, you can begin to appreciate food. When you listen to what your body is craving, you will begin to hear what you body is telling you it needs, and you can begin to honor your hunger and your body.
And then you will be able to better understand when you body is telling you it is full, and when it is telling you it wants a huge salad with gogi berries, and when it is telling you it wants chocolate cake. When you truly hear your body, you will understand that it does not always want chocolate cake.
When you truly hear your body, you will understand that it does not always want chocolate cake.
But it is easy to think that you will lose all control and eat only french fries and burgers every meal for the rest of your life when you have spent so much time controlling every thing that goes into your body. Because this false sense of control has enabled you to ignore your internal hunger cues for long enough that you don’t know what they sound like anymore. When you really know how to listen to your body, it will ask you to eat things other than french fries and burgers most of the time. But sometimes french fries and burgers and that’s fine!
When you view your body as the enemy who is always trying to thwart your goal of “being healthy” we sever the connection we have with ourselves. As soon as you start eating what and how much of it you really want, you can begin to rebuild that connection and trust that your body knows what it needs to keep you healthy. And healthy for you might mean a few pounds over what you think you should look like, but that is discussed in a different post. Part of the learning to listen to what you body needs also means letting go of the expectation that we need to look a certain way. It means releasing the pull the scale has on our lives to be at a certain weight.
Another aspect of enjoying food is also understanding when something will make you feel crappy in the future and then maybe choosing to not eat that food. Or drink. Sometimes one more beer sounds amazing and full of enjoyment, but if you know it’ll make it harder to wake up the next morning, it could be in your best interest to not indulge. So something that may cause a decrease of enjoyment in the future is also something to keep in mind.
If we can return to ourselves and understand that our bodies are not trying to sabotage our chances at being healthy and thin, we can relax around food, which is truly the first step in deriving pleasure from food. The most perfect word I would use to describe Spain’s attitude towards food is just that: relaxed. And because of that, they are free to enjoy and experience food over long, leisurely afternoon lunches because they aren’t worried that the calories they just consumed need to be immediately worked off in a intense spin class or buried in work or starved off by not eating enough during the next meal.
I believe the enjoyment and pleasure in food that Spaniards seem to experience is something we can learn to practice. And could quite possibly be a factor in changing the very negative relationship with food that an overwhelming number of us have in the U.S. This relationship clearly isn’t producing the results we want, so I think it’s high time we move on. And I think the first step in moving on is relaxing around food. But even before that step, we have to let go of whatever restrictive and impossible ideal about health and body weight we have set for ourselves. Once that happens, it will be easier for us to listen to what our bodies want and need, which may put us on the path towards being healthier individuals; both physically as well as emotionally.