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19 Ways the World Loses Weight

As the Reader’s Digest global poll shows, people around the world are struggling with their weight. But that’s not to say that obesity is our collective destiny. In fact, just about every culture has some custom that can keep people lean, and these folkways can form the basis for a potent international weight-loss plan.

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Different cultures have different solutions for fighting obesity.

For example, if you dine out in Europe, a waiter almost always puts a bottle of mineral water on your table. By comparison, in Canada water is often left on tables undrunk, in favour of pop, alcohol or other beverages that add empty calories. Just drinking water with your meal-mineral or tap water-can make a big difference to your waistline over time.


We’ve collected ingenious tips like this from 18 different countries, asking leading nutritionists and Reader’s Digest’s network of international editors to divulge the quirks of their cultures that can help us all fight fat. Consider it a world weight-loss tour you can do at home.

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1. Spice It Up (THAILAND)

Thai food is among the spiciest in the world. While hot peppers raise your metabolism, the real benefit of food with a little zing is that it slows your eating. “In North America, we eat too fast ” says Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network, “By the time your body signals that it’s full, you’ve already overeaten. Eating slower is an effective strategy to avoid weight gain.”

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2. Downsize the Supersizing (UNITED KINGDOM)

In restaurants and at home, the Brits prefer smaller portions, so even their large sizes are smaller than ours, which is perhaps a lingering vestige of the frugality instilled by Second World War rationing, says Simon Hartley, executive editor of Reader’s Digest U.K. Nutritionists say supersizing a meal supersizes you.

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3. Sit Long, Talk a Lot (FRANCE)

The French excel at the leisurely family meal-92 percent of French families dine together every night. These meals typically last 33 minutes during the week and 43 minutes on weekends. In contrast, a 2007 Statistics Canada report noted two trends in Canada over the last 20 years: a steep decline in the number of families eating together and shorter mealtimes. Although it sounds illogical, lengthy meals encourage less eating. “It generally takes 20 minutes from the time you’re full for your brain to realize you’re full, so taking longer to eat means you’ll end up eating less,” says Yong.

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4. Serve Rice and Beans (BRAZIL)

Brazilians stay slim by enjoying this traditional dish at just about every meal, says Sérgio Charlab, editor of Reader’s Digest Brazil. A study in the journal Obesity Research found that a diet consisting primarily of rice and beans lowers the risk of becoming overweight by about 14 percent when compared with typical Western fare. That’s because it’s lower in fat and higher in fibre, which is thought to stabilize blood-sugar levels. It may seem counterintuitive, but more beans = beach-ready.


“Beans are a great healthy addition to a Canadian meal,” says Melodie Yong, registered dietitian for the Heart and Lung Institute of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

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5. Eat at Home More Often Than You Eat Out (POLAND)

Poles typically spend only five percent of their family budget on eating out. According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian family now spends almost 30 percent of total food dollars at restaurants and fast-food joints. To save money and pounds, start tracking how often you eat out and how much you spend each month, then gradually cut back. “People who eat out a lot tend to eat less-healthy food and to be heavier than people who do,” says Yong. In fact, the decline of cooking at home, linked in part to the increasing number of women in the workforce, tracks very closely with the rise in obesity over the last 30 years, she notes.

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6. Eat Your Breakfast (GERMANY)

An impressive 75 percent of Germans eat breakfast daily, sitting down to a meal of whole-grain cereals, breads and fruit.


Recent studies in Canada show that up to 40 percent regularly skip breakfast. For years, nutritionists have been advising people against skipping breakfast, but recent studies give a better picture of its importance. In one, British researchers discovered that if you haven’t eaten breakfast, your brain’s reward centre will light up more vividly if you see a high-calorie food-making you more likely to indulge. “If you could make just one change to impact the obesity epidemic, it would be to get everyone eating breakfast,” says Sharma.


Keep reading for more weight loss tips from around the world.

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7. Swap the Gas Pedal for the Bike Pedal (NETHERLANDS)

Bikes (18 million) outnumber people (16 million) in the Netherlands. While just 1.2 percent of work trips in Canada are by bicycle, 40 percent of the Dutch use their bikes for commuting. Traffic lights in some parts of Amsterdam are even synchronized to bike speed. While most Canadians have to deal with winter conditions, riding bikes in good weather for errands, work or pleasure can help fend off obesity. “Casual riding for errands and commuting can burn around 500 calories an hour, but if you up the exertion or add in some hill-climbing, you can burn up to 1,000 calories an hour,” says professor Stephen Cheung,
an exercise physiologist at Brock University in St. Catharines, who commutes by bike-a 34-kilometre round trip-nine months of the year.

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8. Try a Bowl of Muesli (SWITZERLAND)

Muesli is a porridge or cereal made from oats, fruit and nuts, each of which has been linked to better health and weight control. It was developed by a Swiss physician more than 100 years ago to nourish hospital patients, but the Swiss eat it for breakfast and also as a light evening dish. It is high in soluble fibre, which acts like a sponge and absorbs fat from the digestive tract; the fat is then excreted with the undigested fibre. “Eating a lot of soluble fibre can reduce bad cholesterol levels by up to ten percent,” says Yong. Muesli also keeps you feeling full longer, but read the label carefully: Sugar content can vary from two to 14 grams per serving.

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9. Carve out a Dacha Plot (RUSSIA)

Country houses, a.k.a. dachas, where 51 percent of city dwellers spend vacations and summer weekends, almost always feature a garden. Russians grow their own vegetables and fruits, which automatically makes their diet more nutritious. Plus, they preserve what they grow. It’s the age-old practice of living off the land. “Growing a garden really puts people in touch with the food they are eating,” notes Tamara Cohen, a registered dietitian and clinical co-ordinator and faculty lecturer in dietetics at McGill University. “Just make sure not to add extra high-cal-orie sauces or dressings, including butter.”

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10. Turn up the Turmeric (MALAYSIA)

This spice, a key ingredient in curries, grows wild in Malaysian jungles. One of its chief components is a substance called curcumin, which may turn out to be a potent fat fighter. A recent study by researchers at Tufts University in Boston found that mice fed a high-fat diet with small amounts of curcumin gained less weight and body fat than did other mice given similar, but curcumin-free, meals. Researchers think the ingredient suppresses the growth of fat tissue. “Exactly how much of an impact this finding may have on the obesity epi-demic remains to be seen,” says Sharma.

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11. Sip Some Rooibos Tea (SOUTH AFRICA)

Enjoyed throughout the country, rooibos tea is more robust than green tea, and because it’s naturally sweet it needs no sugar. Ditching your daily specialty coffee for a cup of rooibos or other tea without milk and sugar could save you thousands of calories a month. “The liquid calories sneak up on us,” says Sue Mah, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. “Even a cup of nutritious fruit juice has over 100 calories. Cut out 100 calories a day-from food and drinks-and you could lose ten pounds in a year.”

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12. Bypass the Buffets (CANADA)

There are more than 5,500 buffet chain restaurants in the States, but we have far fewer in Canada. All-you-can-eat spreads encourage pigging out beyond just getting your money’s worth. Numerous studies have found that when faced with a variety of foods, people tend to override the brain’s messages of fullness. “Variety prompts overeating,” says Sharma. The same is true at home and parties, so to trim calories, limit your number of choices.

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13. Make the Mid-Day Meal the Biggest (MEXICO)

Instead of ingesting the bulk of the day’s calories in the evening, Mexicans traditionally eat their biggest meal between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. If you eat less at night, you’ll wake up hungrier and eat a bigger breakfast, which facilitates weight control. As a general fat-fighting rule, try to get the bulk of your daily calories at breakfast and lunch.

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14. Crunch More Pickles (HUNGARY)

Hungarians like their pickles-not just cucumbers, but bell peppers, cabbage and tomatoes. All these brined beauties can help keep you thin, probably because of the vinegar used to pickle them. Growing evidence suggests that acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, helps reduce blood pressure, blood-sugar levels and the formation of fat. Pickles aren’t your thing? Swap your ranch salad dressing for oil-and-vinegar.

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15. Take a Family Tour (NORWAY)

It’s a deeply rooted Norwegian tradition: On Sundays, everyone from toddlers to grandparents heads out to hike or cross-country ski. In 2007, Statistics Canada found that in the past 20 years, Canadian families are spending less time together in all activities. So start this weekend tradition and get everyone out for a walk in the neighbourhood or a hike up the nearest hill.

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16. Get All Twisted Up (INDIA)

Most North Americans respect yoga’s stress-busting and flexibility-enhancing power, but not many realize it facilitates weight loss. A recent study found that yoga devotees have a lower body mass index than do other exercisers. Some reasons why: Yoga’s best done on an empty stomach, and certain poses build muscle, which boosts the metabolism. It encourages mindfulness, which includes paying attention to whether you feel full. “Yoga is fabulous. It will really get you tuned into what you are putting into your body, and help you eat mindfully,” says Cohen.

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17. Perfect the Power Nap (JAPAN)

In this on-the-go country, many people take time for a daily 20- to 30-minute nap, says James Maas, a sleep researcher at Cornell University and the author of Power Sleep. Increasing evidence shows that chronic sleep deprivation raises the risk of weight gain. Maas cites two crucial hormones: leptin, which helps the brain sense when you’re full, and ghrelin, which triggers hunger. Less sleep means lower leptin levels-and higher ghrelin levels. “Many people think they’re hungry when they’re actually sleepy,” he says. “Instead of a snack, they need some shut-eye.”

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18. Take Up Nordic Walking (FINLAND)

This is one of the Finns’ favourite outdoor activities, and not as exotic as it sounds. All that’s needed is a pair of inexpensive, lightweight walking poles. Holding them aids balance, which is great if you’re older or on slippery terrain. Even better: Because they make you use muscles in your shoulders, arms and torso, the poles transform walking into a total-body workout. A number of recent studies show that Nordic walking increases the number of calories burned by up to 65 percent, without the feeling of working harder. Winter or summer, it’s a simple way to derive more fat-reducing bene-fit from your regular walk.

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19. Swallow More Herring (NETHERLANDS)

The Dutch down about 85 million of these slippery fish a year-raw. They’re pickled, then served unadorned as snacks or in soft buns with onions and gherkins for lunch.


Oily fish like herring are a great addition to our diet, says Bruce Holub, nutritional sciences professor at the University of Guelph and a world expert in omega-3s. Herring is one of the best sources of the long-chain omega 3s ( DHA and EPA)-essential nutrients for neurological functioning and cardiovascular health, lowering blood triglyceride levels, preventing blood clots and improving heart rhythm. “We need about 300 to 500 mg daily of DHA/EPA, but the average Canadian gets just 130,” says Holub. And herring (or canned sardines) have far fewer calories than fish sticks.