Why I lose 5 pounds every time I come back to Brazil

Lacerda Elevator, one of Salvador’s most famous landmarks. Image source

In each of my seven trips to Brazil, I’ve noticed I always slim down a few pounds without even trying. (Obviously, I gain this weight back when I’m in the States, otherwise I’d be a skeleton by now!)

For a while, I puzzled over why – in both countries, I eat healthily and do about 6 hours of capoeira a week. So why the difference? It turns out there are two reasons:

Walking, walking, and more walking

We don’t have a car in Brazil – so I walk. A lot. It doesn’t really seem like much during the day, but I once added up all the walking I do during a typical week and it totaled 6 to 8 hours. Whoa. That’s a lot more than the 20 minutes 3 times a week recommended as the bare minimum to stay healthy.

Take my average Wednesday:

  • Walk 10 minutes to bus stop for morning class, then 5 minutes from station to school.
  • Repeat the trajectory on the way back
  • Walk 25 minutes to capoeira
  • Walk 25 minutes back
  • Walk 10 minutes to a different bus stop for evening class, then 10 minutes from the destination stop to the student’s house.
  • Repeat the trajectory on the way back
  • Total: 120 minutes

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my lunch hour English class is in the Comércio, in the “lower city.” I live in the “upper city.” See the picture at the beginning of this post? The climb from the lower city to the upper city is 191 feet, or about 17 stories. I’d use the giant elevator, but unfortunately it’s in the opposite direction from my destination. So up the hill I go – who needs a stairmaster when I’ve got ladeiras?

You can see why weight-loss advice like “develop the habit of parking farther away from the store entrance” holds water – all that walking can really add up.

A healthier food culture

Most ex-pats would agree that Brazil has a healthier “food culture” in general than the States, with rice and beans as the staple along with fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s not that you can’t get pre-prepared, packaged/preserved heat-it-up-and go food here – it’s just less common and less widely eaten. Home cooking – whether yours, your mother’s, or your hired help’s – is still the norm.

But I’m not exactly a consumer of non-food food in the States, either – so why do I lose weight in Brazil? I even eat more white bread and drink more Coke in Brazil (scandalous, I know). I suspect the reason (for me) is this: there’s simply less food in my house here.

In my parents’ house, the refrigerator and pantry are always stuffed – with healthy food, to be sure, but it’s still food. There are also enough non-perishables in the basement to last several years. If I have a yen for pretty much anything, I can eat it at any time of the day.

My house here has the following in terms of food storage space:

  • the refrigerator
  • one 3 ft. x 2 ft. cupboard

That’s it. For some reason (not sure if it’s the tropics’ fault or the refrigerator’s fault), food doesn’t keep long, so we have to consume everything we buy within about 3 days. This means we just don’t have as much food immediately on hand. So if I have an ice cream craving at 9:30 PM, I’m outta luck – I’d have to take a bus or taxi 20 minutes to the nearest “big” supermarket which is still open at that hour to buy it.

The other day I really, really wanted a snack. I opened up the refrigerator and saw this:

Milk, condiments, and raw meat. YUM!

I tried the cupboard. No luck. Uncooked rice, lentils, and manioc flour – not exactly prime snacking material. What did I eventually eat in my desperation? A tomato with balsamic vinegar and sesame seeds. Kinda hard to get fat on snacks like that.

The moral of the story is this: remove the temptation, and habits change naturally. When you make it “harder” or less convenient to satisfy an urge the moment you have it, you’ll find you actually don’t miss what you’re missing.

…well, most of it anyway. My mom sent me peanut butter in the last care package – the commercially produced, full o’fat, definitely NOT organic kind – and on occasion you can find me eating a spoonful of it out of the jar.

Hey, I have to replace the calories from that 17-story climb somehow! 😉

  • I know exactly what you mean. Each time I travel to Brazil (not including an extended weekend) I’ve lost weight. And now I actually think that I’ve gained a healthy amount of weight with my pregnancy because I’m here. I can’t imagine if I had access to good Chinese food and chicken wings and better tasting pizza. Thank God I’m here and not there!

    And LOL to your refrigerator. Mine looks like that too.

    • Shayna

      You know, I’ve also noticed that fewer women here seem to have the problem of “I just can’t take off these 20 pounds of baby weight” that a lot of women in the States struggle with (often for years). I’ll be interested in hearing your experience after your son is born, since it sounds like you’re already in a great place health-wise.

      I forgot to mention the big covered pot on the bottom shelf of the fridge – that’s tomorrow’s feijao soaking in water, a staple in any Brazilian home 😉

  • LOL, i saw that picture of the fridge and i almost laughed because it looked just like my fridge. We have a fridge not much bigger than yours and the same deal with our cupboards. Only fressh fruits and veggies not going to make us fat. The only thing we have well stocked is chocolate but mostly we eat it as a desert and the kids do too. I remember being back in the states with all the other parents and people who live in the burbs with their fridge bursting with pre packaged foods and snacks galore. ahhhh the good old days. NOT!!!!!!!! 🙂 I really enjoyed this post and you have inspired me to do one similar to it. Thank you for that.

    • Shayna

      I’m inspired that I inspired you 🙂

      I confess that I too have a weakness for chocolate – good chocolate, that is! It’s probably a good thing I don’t have much access to it – for a cocoa-producing country, the quality of chocolate in Brazil is pretty bad.

      It’s great that you’re creating a family culture of healthy eating – I think that when kids develop a taste for good food, they tend to keep it, whereas kids raised on the pre-packaged stuff often have a hard time switching.

  • That’s our fridge, too. I wanted a snack today, and couldn’t find anything. I decided to just skip it! We do buy handmade treats at the feira on Saturdays, but it’s not like grabbing a Snickers every day after lunch- which is how I gained 20+pounds in grad school! I also live better here- doing less, working less, more content b/c there’s really nothing to do and nowhere to go here anyway. 🙂 And, like you, I walk more. We walk the dogs in the morning, I walk back and forth to the school, it’s nice.

    • Shayna

      Wow, boo to the Snickers weight! I love the fact that you can buy reasonably healthy food on the street here – from fruit juice to corn on the cob to … okay, acaraje doesn’t quite qualify as healthy. My snack of choice is picole – cool, fruity, cheap, and refreshing!

      • That Snickers weight fell off in my first 4 months here! That was year 2 of grad school. Now I need to work on year 1. 🙂 7 more kilos.

  • Loved the blog – some random comments:
    1. Yes, food availability does play a role in eating more than we should – that’s why it’s important to listen to your body’s “cues” – is what you’re feeling true hunger, or is it thirst, fatigue, stress, boredom, or unresolved emotion? Sometimes the question is not “What am I eating?’ but rather, “What’s eating me?”
    2. Consider that when you’re in the states, you don’t do the level of physical activity that you do in Brazil – your body is saying, “Ah! I can hibernate and store fat now!”
    3. American food as a whole has a higher level of sodium – some of that weight is due to water retention. When I eat canned veggies or even lower sodium soup, the scale will show a 2 lb increase the next day.

    So, my dear daughter – are the giant Reese’s cups, the peanut butter and the fudge gone? hehehe.

    • Shayna

      Ummmmmmmm I wasn’t going to mention the chocolate bounty in this post 😉

      The chocolate’s gone, but we still have one jar of PB left!

  • Peg

    My fridge looks just the same too! Except I have two pineapples in there, which I’m about to cut up and eat for lunch.

    Without fail, my first two weeks back here I lose five pounds. The walking makes all the difference for me.

    The four jars of peanut butter my mom sent to me do call my name occasionally, but so far I’m making it last :0)

  • I can sympathize with this.

    At school, while I do have a kitchen, I do not use it. The only thing (that’s mine) in the whole kitchen is Crsytal Lite powder! If I want to get something to eat, I have to walk a mile to get it. As you can guess, this keeps me walking A LOT. Honestly, I love it because it keeps you feeling healthy and you really feel the difference after you don’t walk like that for a few days. Just for fun facts, I walk around 5 miles a day to and from classes. (My campus is HUGE)

    At home I always feel like I’m overstuffed, and the reason is the same as yours…my parents stuff the fridge full of food!

    Interesting analysis!


  • nina

    I agree with you! But I think for me, I haven’t always connect with all the food either. A kind of lost in translation thing, I really really don’t like my MIL’s cooking. It literally makes my stomach turn. She has a very specific mineiro style from her birth city. She puts meat in EVERYTHING. And we are talking red meat. And lots of fat dishes or bones. I’m veggies and it’s made unbearable to even eat at her house during this pregnancy. And actually there are tons of people in my city with this same style. They put meat in Rice and Beans.

    The heat, also makes me to a liquid diet and fresh veggies/fruit. I can’t put anything hot in my mouth. I reject it. I’m from the lake michigan side of wisconsin.

    My American side is addicted to eating out, I HAVE to cook in Brazil. It’s too expensive to eat out. So we stay at home to eat. I get lazy and tired. If I am out in the sun or heat, I work 10 hours and spend another 3 in traffic– I don’t want to cook every night. Most nights I do and some times Ricardo picks up the slack. More during my pregnancy, because I have all day and night sickness too. I cheat often and make soup.

    I think my baby weight will roll off and stay like that for a while. Breast feeding helps, as long as your eating and exercising. I have no problem going to the gym. But I always go up and down on the scale, my hormones are crazy. I can gain and lose weight serious weight in two months. I’m worried about ending breast feeding during winter. I want to try to stick with it until November at least.

    • Shayna

      I can’t stomach the fat dishes and bones either :-/ I don’t mind meat in the beans, but my husband doesn’t eat pork or bacon, so he always has to ask if there’s any in the feijao when we eat out. That’s unfortunate that your MIL’s style clashes with yours.

      Working 10 hours and spending 3 in traffic is NUTS! Are your classes spread out all over the city?

  • I could have written this post! Honestly while being pregnant here I had a hard time packing on the needed weight. I had to start drinking sutigen shakes twice a day with whole milk… surprisingly the weight after the baby didn’t come off as easily as I thought it would at first. Now 6 months out I am back to having a hard time eating enough to keep weight on.

    Like you said- it’s hard to gain weight when you snack on tomatoes 🙂