Ham, Coffee, and Coca-Cola: A nutritionist’s perspective on eating in Spain (Laura)
A few months in Spain has illuminated what I suspected were huge differences between eating here and eating there. I have to warn you though, I’m not talking about the typical across the board praise of how healthfuly “Mediterraneans” eat. In fact, as of now I’m not sure who wins when it comes to healthy eating. My plan is to lay out some observations and then hopefully make a decision. This topic has come up a lot with friends, family, and even strangers. Yes, even strangers. For instance, if I order a water from a waiter who has just asked me where I am from, a typical retort is, “Water? But aren’t you American? Americans don’t drink water, they drink soda!” It’s this type of jumping to conclusions I’m trying to undo in my own head, because for so long we’ve heard how healthfuly Mediterraneans eat and how poorly Americans eat, and I don’t think it’s that black and white.
A huge factor in deciding this question is: which American and which Spaniard are you comparing? If you compare an “average American” with an “average Spaniard” I think the Spaniard would win in terms of healthy eating: more vegetables, more fish, more healthy fat, smaller portions of meat, less pre-packaged and more fresh foods. But my perspective on this is one of a northern Californian from a community rich in farmers’ markets, vegetarians, anti-soda culture, and make-your-own-granola-bar hippies. I don’t have any friends who have white bread or soda in their house. But I guarantee you will find almond butter, quinoa, and tofu in every one of their houses. So from this perspective, I’ve actually been a little bit shocked to find that it is hard to eat as healthfuly as I did at home during this year in Spain.
One of the biggest barriers is that it is almost impossible to avoid meat here. After over a year of eating pescatarian, I am more aware this time around of the absence of meatless options in restaurants. Even the “veggie sandwich” and lentil soup has ham in it, a national staple. But whereas California restaurants win in terms of availability of good vegetarian options, Spain wins in terms of portion size– even though meat is in almost everything, it is in very small amounts, like a paper thin slice of ham or veal, almost as a garnish rather than a 10-oz. centerpiece. There is also no shortage of fish options, but if you are completely vegetarian or vegan, good luck eating out in this country…
Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is their relationship to soda here. There are three types of Americans: the ones who love soda and drink it in large quantities and often; the ones who loved soda but switched to artificially sweetened diet soda because they think it’s better for them; and the ones who demonize all forms of soda, diet or not, and thus never drink it. But the average Spaniard is a fourth type that doesn’t seem to exist back home: they know soda is not a health food but also don’t think chemical sweetener could be that great for you, so they just occasionally have a mini-sized REAL Coca-Cola and are satisfied with their 6-ounce treat that comes out of a bottle too diminutive to even exist in the U.S.
On a similar note, Mike and I almost died when we saw the size of the sugar packets that come with coffee here. This sack of sugar has to contain at least three or four of our sugar packets, and while Mike and I split less than one between the two of us, I watch these slim Spaniards pour out the whole packet in a stream of sugar that hypnotizes me like an hourglass timer. Where’s the Splenda??? And did I mention nonfat milk isn’t an option in your cafe con leche? Oh, this would never do in California. We drink sugar-free nonfat lattes. But the interesting thing is that a cafe con leche with its full-fat, full-sugar goodness has less calories in it than the smallest nonfat sugar-free latte available in America. How do they defy science, you ask? Do they use some sort of chemical milk substitute? The answer lies in a small porcelain cup. Just like the Coca-Cola, it seems like Spaniards know how to get more enjoyment out of a small amount of the Real Thing rather than try to trick their bodies into enjoying more of the fake stuff.
Now before this gets too one-sided, I do have some indisputable wins for the U.S. The biggest advantage in the U.S. is the availability of healthy products in the grocery store, and particularly whole grains. I’m not just talking about the grocery stores in rich hippy neighborhoods like Berkeley, because even the Lucky’s in east Oakland and the supermarkets in Virginia have real whole grain bread, whole oats, brown rice, and unsweetened cereals. I’ve gone to at least ten different stores here in Madrid and still haven’t found a high fiber whole wheat bread or a single cereal that’s not coated in sugar. You can’t even get normal Cheerios or Special K– they look like the same box but then I almost choke on the 17 grams of sugar per cup. And don’t bother looking for ethnic foods like corn tortillas, tofu, black beans, or edamame.
But what you can find in the markets here in Spain is an exquisite variety of fresh seafood and flavorful fruits and vegetables. And while tapas and meals out tend to be lacking in vegetables, the home cooking here usually features a heaping portion of vegetables or legumes that is rare to see in the U.S. Even the kids gulp down piles of cooked chard, green beans, gazpacho, salads, and lentils, more than making up for the lack of fiber in their white bread and white rice, while we wonder how they survive without “fiber added Mac & Cheese.” But I have to say that sometimes I crave a lighter version of these vegetable dishes, as they are all coated in olive oil. The stereotype of the use of olive oil in Spain is not exaggerated, and while it’s refreshing that people use real, flavorful olive oil rather that fat-free Newman’s Own, sometimes I just want some steamed broccoli with lemon.
The last comment I’ll make is on the huge difference in meal times. Spain is famous for its unique eating schedule. The day starts with coffee and maybe a few cookies, a slice of toast, or cereal. The biggest meal falls around 3:00 p.m., and then a very light dinner around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. I don’t need to explain how different this is to our typical eating schedule in the U.S. but what I will say is that I find these differences so intriguing given the nutrition recommendations we have in our country. The nutrition world (myself included) generally advocate a higher protein breakfast followed by four or five small meals or snacks, cutting it off at least three hours before bed, as this routine has been shown to help control appetite, blood sugar, and weight. So it is interesting to see a culture that does almost the exact opposite and yet seem to fare better, or at least no worse.
While it is hard to choose a winner and a loser, I think both cultures could learn some important lessons from each other. Spaniards could learn that breakfast doesn’t have to be a nutritionally empty sugar bomb, that you don’t need to put ham in everything, and that whole grains can be a delicious addition to the day. But Americans could learn that sometimes it’s better to enjoy a small amount of the things that please us rather than try to trick ourselves into enjoying fake substitutes that leave us unsatisfied and eating more of it in the end. Just have your small cup of cafe con leche and enjoy the hell out of it.