Spain Sunday: Nutrition and Health

Your Body Mass Index is a combo of a person’s height and weight to determine a healthy range of weight. With this measurement a number greater than 25 is overweight and any number over 30 is obese. Here are some averages of people in places we’ve lived in:

  • South Korea comes in at 22.78
  • Germany comes in at 23.46
  • USA is 27
  • Spain is 22.57 which is amazingly lower than all of them.

The lowest in Europe is Poland with 20.54 and the highest is Belarus with a whopping 27.11 (the next highest is Iceland with 25.06). Information comes from here but you have to enter some numbers to get the facts.

So the stick-thin people we knew in South Korea are still technically “fatter” than the average looking people we see in Spain (if the Body Mass Index really means anything – and some people say it doesn’t. It’s just a guideline).

22% of males and 24% of females are technically obese in Spain. For the most part everyone on earth is getting fatter and fatter. But this “fact” that Spain is healthier than anywhere else we have lived has surprised us.

In a completely judgmental way – everyone around us is always eating, drinking and smoking. Kids fall off balconies and parents never buckle them into seatbelts. Our neighbor’s kids are shouting and screeching at midnight or later – then go to school the next day at 9. With the smoking and terrible sleeping habits it would seem people are not doing too great.

But here is a fact and a half: Spaniards have the highest life expectancy in Europe. The life expectancy is 83 years (the US is 78). According to the WHO, Spaniards have the second highest life expectancy in the world after Japan. While they smoke like chimneys and are getting fatter they’re still doing better than almost everyone else.

Since I teach mostly science at school I see a few ( haha, kidding, loads of) lessons about staying healthy. We thought we would discuss what we see and teach about health that could be leading to some of the healthiest people in Europe.

We don’t teach the food pyramid

There is a food pyramid but it doesn’t appear in any of our textbooks. When we went to school in the US we were constantly drilled on the food pyramid – write, draw, memorize, reproduce it. How many servings of each? What goes where? The Food Pyramid was life.

The pyramid can oversimplify (and lie about) everything. It’s technically wrong for children and elderly people who need more/less of things.  When you teach broad statements like that some groups get left out or misinformed.

Spanish textbooks keep things vague.

The textbooks all emphasize that the students should eat a variety of everything. The focus is on a balanced diet – and understanding what each food group does for their bodies. By understanding how foods help their bodies they can make a more informed decision of why they should eat them.

The second grade book says “eat a variety of different foods in the right amounts.”

Fourth grade says “A healthy diet is one that gives you all the nutrients and water you need. The definition of a healthy diet depends on your age, your lifestyle and your personal needs.”

This is just a better approach. When we were in school we learned to “eat 11 servings of carbohydrates per day” and worse “2,000 calories a day.” Both of these guidelines are for adult men not women, children or elderly folks. So that’s a bummer.

By keeping it vague and by teaching more of what foods do not how much to eat the students here are more informed.

Set it and forget it

They also don’t keep teaching this crap over and over throughout the years. They focus on nutrition and health a lot in 1st-4th grades but then 5th and 6th grade moves on to bigger and better things. When we went to school we discussed health throughout the years but never talked about healthy eating until the later years – the exact opposite of Spain.

In older grades “health” and “nutrition” start becoming more about how the digestive system works or how neurons create thought. They don’t have to teach this basic human need for food over and over- they move on to bigger and better things.

The food pyramid looks different

Again they don’t really teach the pyramid – but on some awfully caloric (fun) snacks they include the food pyramid. Ruffles brand chips starts by saying you should have a varied and balanced diet (like the textbooks). “Your Ruffles can be part of a varied and balanced diet” (yeah at the top).

Then there is the standard food pyramid. Carbs at the bottom, fruits and vegetables, then proteins and calcium, and at the top is “sweet and salty snacks.” Not “fats and sweets” like ours used to say.

Oh, what’s that at the very bottom? Our food pyramid doesn’t have that. It’s “daily physical activity” and “4 glasses of water!” So while this food pyramid looks similar to the American one, it has more information. It says exercise is important and it doesn’t include any values. It just says the biggest thing in your diet should be carbohydrates but it doesn’t say something absurd like 11 servings for every person of every age always forever.  Also this one says “daily” physical activity, not the “3 times a week” we learned in school. Our food pyramids at home do not mention water at all – and the new “my plate” guidelines show milk as the drink of choice, not water.

The textbooks here also emphasize how important water is. Or that exercise can take on many forms besides just running/jogging. Again, these were things we almost never discussed in our health classes.

Food advertisements come with advice

I don’t think it is an accident there is a huge pyramid on the back of the Ruffle’s chips. When you watch food commercials they almost always have a black bar on the bottom that have health advice. The worse the food the bigger the warning.

Here are some horrible Hostess-equivalent chocolate cakes that are for breakfast. At the bottom it it says “make/do/perform daily physical activity.”

Here are some breakfast cookies (sigh, yes. More dessert for breakfast. We only watch kid’s channels to practice Spanish so there are no adverts for mayonnaise, only breakfast sweets). The warning says “It’s recommended you moderately consume salt, fats and sugars.”

Most food commercials from TicTacs to mayonayse to breakfast cookies and cakes (super common) have this black bar with tips and facts about health.

There is no push towards fad-diets

The textbooks here teach that fat is a reasonable source of energy (which is true) rather than the American lesson that fat makes you fat and should be avoided like the plague.

The main lessons here is what each food group does, and we drill over and over that fat and carbohydrates (energy) are fine to eat – so long as you’re eating varied everything and getting exercise. This is huge compared to most American diets and guidelines either being highly anti-fat (Alli medicine, the foot pyramid, my plate, Weight Watchers) or severely anti-carbohydrate (Keto, Atkins, LCD).

Instead of fad diets the textbooks discuss regional diets – that different cultures eat different diets and specifically that they eat the Mediterranean diet in Spain.

Here the book says that the Mediterranean diet (what Spain eats) “includes lots of vegetables, pasta, rice, pulses [beans], fruit, nuts, seeds and dried fruit, as well as fish, seafood, chicken, dairy products and eggs. The principal source of fat is olive oil and it’s a healthy diet because it gives people all the nutrients they need.”

Spain teaches kids to eat more small meals

In the 2nd grade science book it says that we should “eat five times a day: breakfast, a morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner.”

Spain eats a lot of small meals throughout the day.

  • Breakfast (7-9) am (usually something sweet and a cup of coffee)
  • Mid morning snack (10-11 am) – all my kids and a lot of the teachers eat during our mid morning break-time at 11:15-11:45. (sandwiches, fruit, smoothies)
  • The meal/lunch (2-3 pm)  this is the biggest or really the most important meal of the day. Rather than slaving over kitchens for dinner we hear and smell moms and housewives slaving over kitchens for “the meal” (lunch).
  • Afternoon snack (5-7) this is closer to tea-time or “kaffee und kuechen” in Germany. Just something sweet and a cup of coffee – usually with a friend.
  • Snack Time/dinner/Tapas 8:30-until whenever (11:30/midnight or later).
  • Actual dinner 9-11. Usually shared and not very heavy.

Some studies suggest eating small meals throughout the day helps keep you feeling fuller longer. Other studies suggest it never gives your liver (insulin) a break and you never feel satisfied since you never sat down to eat a proper meal. I think this is one of those cultural things you have to have grown up doing for your body to be used to the insulin release, the portion sizes and the feeling of being satisfied.  So this one is just cultural. Seems to be working, though. If my kids can eat cakes and cookies for breakfast, chocolate milk and a sandwich for snack, a huge meal for lunch, some more snacks for snack time, parents are having alcohol and tapas, and then shared food just before bedtime – something must be working.

Also it’s worth noting how many of these “meals” revolve around friends and family. Food is social here, it’s not eating at your desk or in front of the TV. Eating takes hours because you chat and visit for so long.

We teach mental health as part of nutritional chapters

The chapters about nutrition (health) always have some mention of mental health and discuss that the two must go hand in hand for you to truly be healthy.

The books always include something about getting enough sleep but also how important it is to relax. Never ever have we seen or read this in an American book growing up.  Having fun and relaxing will make you healthier because you aren’t so stressed that you make yourself sick. Part of the health chapters I teach in elementary school actually have test questions like “what is important?” “To have fun and relax.” Damn, Spain!

My third grade chapters go over preventative mental health a lot which we never learned when we were in school. It talks about activities people can and should do to relax and how to combat depression.

This page blew me away:

“Sometimes you feel worried or sad. You must tell someone that you trust.” This is crazy. What a wonderful thing to include in a textbook (and ha ha, yeah we do test them on this).

In conclusion

Anti-smoking was drilled in us since 1st or 2nd grade. Here it’s never discussed but nutrition and eating healthy is drilled from 1st grade. The way the anti-smoking worked on us, the nutrition lesson works on them. They educate why to do (or not to do) something at an early age.

I would say none of my kids are fat. A couple are chubby but they’re prepubescent and we all know how that works. Walking around town it’s very rare to see anyone very large. Stores don’t even have larger sizes.

So whatever they’re doing – the meal times, the preventative warnings, the cookies for breakfast, the smoking, the terrible sleeping habits, the education. Something is working for them.

So we’ll leave you with a prescription for a Spanish day: Make sure you relax, talk to some friends and make some art, have a cookie for breakfast, do exercise you enjoy, get some tapas and wine -and maybe you can live to 83 instead of America’s average of 78. Cookies for breakfast for 5 extra years? Maybe.



One thought on “Spain Sunday: Nutrition and Health

  1. I love this, so simple and yet it makes so much sense. The “Feeling Happy” checklist is awesome. I had no idea that Spain was generally considered to have a higher life expectancy; very cool.


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