How we can learn to eat more mindfully by observing other cultures! (1/3)

Food for thought or thought for food?

Did you ever travel from the US abroad and think to yourself “How can they eat so much and not get fat?” or “How can they spend so much time at mealtime or at the table?” I have lived in Switzerland for over 30 years and I get this kind of remark every time I have guests from the US. I hold Swiss Nationality, live with my family of 5 a few hundred feet from the French border and have travelled extensively all over Europe and to many other parts of the world. I think that some curious observation of foreign cultures and their eating habits is both very interesting and useful in our quest to be eat more mindfully. In the following series of 3 blogs, let’s get curious, observe without judgement and try to learn from other cultures.

My first observation….It’s about time!

I recently saw a video revealing that Americans spend an average of 75 minutes per day eating, of which 60% of that time is alone, and that a majority consider eating a « chore ». It compared with the French who spend an average of 2.5 hours a day eating, of which only 20% is time alone, and that eating is considered by most as an “important social activity”. This phenomenon in the US is likely partly due to the fact that over the past few decades, many Americans have traded in meals for snacks; interestingly, the majority of additional daily calories consumed since the late 70’s comes between meals. Busy schedules, eating quickly, on the run, in the car or in front of a computer are likely other contributors to the scarce time Americans spend eating. Europeans, on the other hand, prioritize mealtimes. My children returned home from school for 1 ½ hour midday breaks until they were 16. Most employers require real lunch break time, like vacation time. Whenever Europeans are doing business around noon, a sit-down lunch will inevitably be proposed, that’s just part of business etiquette. Standing up to eat is actually considered taboo. Through observation, I often get the feeling that in America we feel guilty taking time to eat and feel guilty eating certain foods rather than truly enjoying whatever we eat, taking the time, and then enjoying the rest of our time not obsessing about food but living our lives to the fullest.

I know most Europeans are proud to spend time eating together and I have noticed that people who pride themselves in creating or enjoying delicious food tend to eat slowly and really appreciate it. What I have also noticed (and has been shown by multiple studies) is that when we sit down to enjoy longer meals in company of family or friends, we focus on our food, we enjoy it more, usually eat less and are less tempted to binge afterward. Once again, observing business, school and home life in Europe, generally speaking, one does not eat alone but one invites others to share a meal and then takes the time to savor both the food and the moment.

What can we learn?

Observe your own pattern, how close to that French 2.5 hours a day are you? Your family? Do you feel guilty taking time to eat? Do you eat alone? Fast? Nurturing a healthy relationship with food begins with prioritizing the time we spend eating and sharing the experience with others. Just yesterday my 22 year old son sent our “family” a text message “shall I expect you and wait for lunch?” Yes, I will admit to sitting at a set table and using silver, porcelain and napkins at every meal – however simple that meal might be - and to having created a home culture of everyone eating together whenever possible. Yes, I will also admit that every teen that comes for dinner says that we are the family that sits the longest at the table chatting. I am also proud to say that my Swiss-American family would have it no other way! Do you agree that imitating the Europeans might just help us on our path toward instinctive, mindful eating?

Read my next blog “Bigger is Better…or is it?” where I compare foreign cultures with the American culture around quantity (2/3)