Dancing in the Fountain: The Spanish diet

Dancing in the Fountain: The secret to the Spanish diet

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The Spanish diet may violate every nutritional belief Karen McCann has learned, yet the lifestyle and eating habits in Spain have worked enormous benefits. What's the secret?

At dinner parties, even nibbling the minimal amounts required of a good guest, I am always more than replete after the appetisers alone. But of course, there is always more to come. But how, with all this eating and drinking, aren’t the Spanish fatter? More to the point, why wasn’t I gaining weight?

In Spain, I had abandoned my long-held, low-fat vegetarian diet, committing a host of sins with jamon, fried fish, chocolate, and beer. Yet my weight actually went down a little, and I knew I looked and felt fitter. How was this possible? And what next? Was I about to learn that recycling actually harms the planet, driving sober increases the chances of car accidents, and cigarettes prevent cancer? Just how upside-down was my worldview going to get?

So far, no one has tried to convince me of any of those things. But during my first year in Seville, as I violated one fundamental nutritional belief after another with apparent impunity, I began to develop some theories (or possibly rationalisations) to explain the phenomenon.

The true Spanish diet

First of all, while my diet is extremely rich, the amount I eat (when not at dinner parties) is quite small. I consume less but never feel hungry, because in place of mountains of low-fat food, I’m eating small portions of dishes that are truly satisfying to palate and stomach.

Meals are also taken slowly. The Sevillano lunch is no mere sandwich, no quick carton of yogurt gulped down at the desk surrounded by ringing phones. This is the main meal of the day, and most shops and businesses close from two until five in order to allow people time to collect the kids from school and head home to a family meal or to a nearby café with friends or coworkers.

The other reason I feel so healthy is that I walk everywhere. In a city like Seville, travelling by foot is simply the most practical way to get around. The convoluted street plan, with its overabundance of one-ways and dead-ends — to say nothing of the narrow streets crowded with illegally parked vehicles — makes driving in the city centre a nightmare.

Living in the Ohio countryside, I averaged two hours in the car every day; now I spend that amount of time strolling through the city to visit the shops, markets, cafés, gymnasium, friends’ homes, museums, theatres, and other places that make up the daily round.

On the rare occasion when my husband Rich and I want to go out of the city, we rent a car or travel with friends. Many Spanish and expat friends have cars, especially if they have kids or need to travel for business; but even then, if they live in the city, walking is their first choice. Among all the other advantages, the pedestrian lifestyle means no one has to serve as the designated driver and spend the night drinking cerveza sin alcohol (alcohol-free beer), known as sin for short.

Alcohol is such an accepted fact of Spanish life that the government makes little effort to control the drinking habits of the population, but it has undertaken the equally thankless task of trying to rein in the nation’s tobacco consumption. When I arrived in Seville, it seemed as if everyone smoked, including my doctor and the young woman who worked at the health food store. Many considered it one of the basic pleasures of life and a health risk worth taking, in much the same way Americans consume considerably more sugar than they know is good for them. A famous Spanish ad campaign positioned smoking as a matter of personal freedom; its slogan, “I choose,” ran beneath photos such as a naked man capering joyfully in a field or two pretty girls kissing passionately.

I began to understand why the Spanish live an average of four years longer than Americans, despite the fact that huge numbers of them smoke, drink alcohol (sometimes even at breakfast), and eat vast amounts of ham (which they claim actually lowers cholesterol).

Sitting with good friends, nibbling ham and olives, sipping drinks, and trying to express how we truly think and feel about what’s most important to us — life just doesn’t get better than that. As the Spanish saying goes, el vino, para que sepa a vino, bebelo con un amigo — for wine to taste like wine, you must drink it with a friend.

I suspect their longevity is due to some combination of the famous Mediterranean diet, the less hard-charging lifestyle, and of course, universal access to medical treatment. Their approach to health care may sometimes appear a little unorthodox by American standards, but it seems to work.


 Karen McCann / Expatica

Karen McCannKaren McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter... The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world.


Photo credit: Maarten Takens (wine).

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Tim posted:

    on 20th August 2015, 11:43:58 - Reply

    I agree with you Karen. It is amazing that they've stayed so slim with their diet, compared to Americans. However, I have noticed when comparing the Spanish to the rest of Europe, they are quite a bit wider (to use a euphemism) :-D

    De todos modos, well written article.
  • Kay posted:

    on 30th April 2014, 21:09:45 - Reply

    You are right Karen, wine is better with friends!