I was in Brazil last August, my second visit there, and while on that trip remembered something that had puzzled me when I had lived in Curitiba for a year in 1994: Why, despite my eating 3 hearty Brazilian meals every day, did I weigh less during that year than at any time before or after--with no effort on my part?
This time around, as a dietitian, I of course took note of the Brazilian lifestyle and attitudes toward eating and found some common threads running through the culinary culture that answered my question. To make a long story short, Brazilians avoid packaged foods, indulge in little or no snacking between meals (other than some fresh fruit and coffee, sans cream), and fill up on salads before meals.
The salads are wonderful, including one of my favorites: hearts of palm with tomatoes and watercress. Unlike most salad lovers, the Brazilians forgo high-calorie salad dressings, which saves them huge numbers of calories. You might see a Brazilian add a small amount of olive oil and vinegar to a salad, but the vegetables are definitely the star of the show.
Filling up on veggies also helps the Brazilians cut back on their portions of higher-calorie entrees, such as red meat, a food that is certainly popular there. (If you eat red meat, I highly recommend the Brazilian-style barbecue. They make delicious BBQ cheeses too!)
Another thing that struck me about meals in Brazil was the abundance of freshly squeezed juices using fruits that you don't often expect to be drinking, like watermelon and pineapple (with a dash of mint). And because these juices don't come from super-concentrates, the purity of the taste, minus the sugar or anything artificial, is deeply satisfying.
My take-aways for U.S. eaters, after casting my dietician's eye on Brazil's eating habits:
- Be sure to include a hearty salad before your entrée, perhaps including such veggies as hearts of palm, fresh tomatoes, watercress, and maybe cilantro or basil. Add balsamic vinegar and a little splash of extra-virgin olive oil--or omit the oil altogether if you'd like to save calories.
- Consider fresh fruits in season for light snacks and desserts.
- If you drink a lot of sugary soda or tend to consume other liquid calories because you never learned to appreciate the taste of plain, old water, consider flavoring fizzy water with just a bit of freshly squeezed orange or pineapple juice (again, with mint). When flavored, carbonated water is refreshing and may even help stave off hunger, since many people mistake being thirsty with being hungry.
Whether you're in South America or North America, however, always try to eat slowly. Chewing your food well not only helps your digestion but will also increase feelings of satiety since your brain doesn't notice that the stomach is full until after you've been munching for about 20 minutes.
In Brazil, dear readers, the people say "Saude," which means "to your health."