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! 😉