Living in Switzerland many years ago should have been prepared me for the onslaught of chocolate bars displayed in the Zurich supermarket during a recent visit. Perhaps the upcoming Easter holiday had amplified the shelf space devoted to this particular confection; chocolate bunnies and chicks in all sizes vied for space with seemingly miles of chocolate bars, boxes of expensive chocolate truffles, and elaborately wrapped balls of melted chocolate encased in slightly bitter chocolate shells. “This must be Swiss chocolate heaven,” I murmured to my husband as we gathered up armfuls of chocolate bars to take back to the States. “They eat all this chocolate, and yet they stay thin.” Earlier that day, as I scanned the crowds of commuters exiting the central railroad station, as well as the pedestrians strolling near the lake in the unexpected spring-like weather, I saw only a handful that might be called obese. This contrasted dramatically with the travelers and airport personnel when we arrived back in the U.S. a few days later. There it was difficult to find anyone who was thin.
How to counter the so-called obesity epidemic in the States has occupied panels of obesity experts, researchers analyzing trends in nutrient intake, physicians prescribing the latest weight-loss regimens and/or medications, and enough Internet space on the best way to lose weight to fill a small planet.
The latest recommendation to cut back on sugar consumption (as that nutrient, not fat, seems to be what causes us to become obese) is yet one more attempt to solve what seems to be an insoluble problem. Although a casual reading of this recommendation might lead one to stop consuming anything that has sugar from milk (lactose) to apples (fructose and glucose) to ketchup (sucrose), the recommendation is an attempt to make people stop consuming soda and drinks that are high in fructose. A corollary interpretation from these recommendations could lead one to assume it is all right to eat butter, salt pork and pork rinds along with heaps of mayonnaise, heavy cream and bacon grease, because it is sugar, not fat, that is causing us to balloon into supersizes.
Which brings us back to the Swiss and their chocolate.
Chocolate contains a substantial amount of both fat (cocoa butter) and sugar. Eating small amounts of it may confer some health benefit because of some tiny amounts of antioxidants, but it hardly competes as a diet food compared to, for example, kale or broiled salmon. Indeed, reading the label of a bar of dark (72% cacao) chocolate bar purchased from the Swiss supermarket, I noticed that the 100 gram bar (3½ ounces) contains 591 calories. So how do the Swiss stay so thin, munching on their fat and sugar-filled snacks?
The answer, of course, has nothing to do with how much sugar or fat they eat. It has everything to do with portion size and exercise.
Like so much of the world outside the U.S., the Swiss do not eat the gigantic portions of food that we Americans typically consume. Dinner one evening at this conference we were attending was a buffet, but unlike those in American restaurants, diners did not serve themselves. Everything was served, even a sauce or salad dressing, and the portions were, to my American eye, exceedingly small: a few ounces of the entrees and tablespoon-size amounts of side dishes and desserts. Obesity specialists in the U.S. have pointed to our enormous portions as a major contributor to weight gain, but that has not yet translated into smaller burgers or bagels.
Exercise probably trumps portion size in preventing the Swiss from becoming fat from chocolate, because they never stop moving. Children are put on skis as soon as they can walk, and the elderly even hike in the summer and cross-country ski during the snow months. Sunday afternoons find entire families out walking, climbing, biking, sledding, sailing, or doing something other than watching sports on television or reading the newspaper in an armchair. They do not consider this exercise as in, “I have to workout or run in order to stay in shape and not gain weight.” Instead, all this national physical activity is their lifestyle, as basic to their routine as sleeping or brushing their teeth.
When we lived in Switzerland, and went for our own hikes, we noticed a fork and knife on signs along with the number of minutes it would take the hiker to reach the restaurant. Of course. After all, there had to be chocolate at the end of the road.
Isn’t it time to stop the battles over how much is too much, of what we are eating? Is it too much to ask that moderation in nutrient intake be promoted as a goal, rather than eliminating or excessively consuming one nutrient or another as a way to stay healthy? And isn’t it time to alter our work/leisure schedule to insert physical activity as a basic part of our lifestyle? If we stopped sitting in a chair, obsessively searching the Internet for a solution to obesity and started to move instead, we, like the Swiss, could enjoy our chocolate and stay thin.