Get your samba on, because Brazil is shaping up in a big way.
While obesity is increasingly becoming a health crisis throughout South America, that continent’s biggest and most populous nation is busy hosting world-class international sporting events like the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, which kicked off last week. To follow suit, the Brazilian government has implemented countless initiatives in recent years to combat the country’s adult obesity rate, which currently sits at about 18.8%.
That’s significantly lower than the 33% U.S. rate, for the record, and dietary experts on this side of the equator are taking notice. New York University nutrition professor and food-policy expert Marion Nestle has called Brazil’s newest iteration of dietary guidelines “remarkable.” Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a weight-loss expert with the University of Ottawa, has praised the nation for addressing the “big picture,” rather than getting hung up on the details that tend to make nutrition — and weight loss in general — confusing. Adds St. Louis-based registered dietitian Alex Caspero: “I wish the American dietary guidelines were this explicit.”
Don’t despair. While you may not be in Rio watching the Games, you can still follow our four favorite Brazilian-inspired weight-loss lessons:
1. Cut down on processed foods.
Brazil’s nutritional guidelines, as defined by the Brazilian Ministry of Health, call out ultra-processed foods in a big way. “Because of their ingredients, ultra-processed foods — such as packaged snacks, soft drinks and instant noodles — are nutritionally unbalanced,” they read. “As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods. Their means of production, distribution, marketing and consumption damage culture, social life and the environment.”
Talk about telling it like it is. There’s more: “Ultra-processed foods disturb mechanisms located in the digestive system and the brain that ensure that the intake and expenditure of dietary energy is balanced. These mechanisms tend to underestimate the energy contained in ultra-processed foods, with the result that the sense of satiety occurs only after excess consumption. Excess dietary energy is stored as body fat. The result is obesity.”
This a tip that Americans need even more than Brazilians do. While a 2015 study in the journal Revista de Saúde Pública found that 21.5% of calories in the average Brazilian’s diet come from ultra-processed foods, a 2016 BMJ Open study put that number at 57.9% for the average American. (What’s more, the researchers found that 89.7% of those ultra-processed calories are from added sugars.)
So what do Brazilians eat if they aren’t filling up on foods from boxes and bags? Whole, locally and organically grown foods. According to the Revista study, 69.5% of the average Brazilian’s calories come from whole or minimally processed foods. When you get down to it, subbing out ultra-processed foods for whole ones is the foundation of any healthy diet.
“I call it finding food as Mama Nature intended,” says registered dietitian Tori Holthaus. “Fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds in their more whole-food forms rather than their processed counterparts. Reasonable processing, otherwise known as preparation, is understandable. For example, it takes a bit of work to make olive oil from olives. That’s OK. It’s when we choose overly processed foods made with refined flour, foods made with laboratory-made artificial sweeteners or other highly refined or manufactured foods that we no longer see health wins.”
According to the BMJ Open study, the most commonly consumed ultra-processed foods in the American diet include breads, soft drinks, fruit drinks, desserts, breakfast cereals, salty snack foods, frozen and shelf-stable meals, as well as processed meats and cheeses.
2. Shop local and organic whenever possible.
Holthaus’ favorite aspect of the Brazilian nutritional guidelines is the explicit recommendation to shop at farmers markets, to purchase locally grown, in-season vegetables and to go organic as often as possible. “Not only will locally grown food likely be fresher because it had to travel a lesser distance to get to you,” she says, “the foods will be more nutrient-dense.”
In fact, a 2014 British Journal of Nutrition meta-analysis of 343 studies concluded that organic crops contain significantly higher concentrations of health-promoting antioxidants compared with conventionally grown foods. And research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has linked certain antioxidants to improved blood sugar control, which can translate into healthier weight management.
3. Watch your snack habit.
Snacking doesn’t have to be unhealthy; it’s just that for most of us, it tends to be. It’s a problem in Brazil as well. Dietary experts there recommend eating filling, quality meals at regular intervals throughout the day and avoiding snacks between meals — which becomes way more doable if you practice the first two habits. If you’re going to snack, opt for fruit, nuts, yogurt and other whole and healthy foods, says Caspero, owner of Delish Knowledge. And do so mindfully.
4. Slow down and enjoy your food — and in good company.
This is one of our favorite Brazilian guidelines: “Eat slowly, with full attention, and enjoy eating without engaging in another activity.” Seriously. That’s a line straight out of the guidelines.
While most Americans eat alone, in a huge rush or both, the guidelines point out that eating with company — which is a huge part of Brazilian culture — prevents hurried, disengaged eating habits, which contribute to weight gain. For instance, research from the NPD Group, a global information company, shows that more than half of Americans regularly eat alone. A study published in Appetite demonstrates that eating alone is associated with unhealthy eating habits and obesity. What’s more, a review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows a strong link between multitasking and overeating.
“I speak with so many clients who eat breakfast in their car in the morning, work through their lunch and then have dinner in front of the television or computer at night,” says Holthaus, owner of YES! Nutrition. “Slowing down and really enjoying what you’re eating — whether that be a vegetable-packed salad or a sweet dark chocolate treat — goes a long way with feeling satisfied, not stuffed.”
So gather up the friends and family, put a whole, home-cooked meal on the table and enjoy what’s on your plate.