What the Spanish Can Teach Us

Tranquilo in Alquezar, Spain

In the two weeks I’ve been in Spain, I’ve had some revelations about what makes a healthy individual, and, in turn, what odd things make a healthy (healthier than the U.S., at least) nation. Some convictions that have been turned on their heads? Don’t eat too late at night. Don’t smoke.  And don’t eat strange additives. Those doctrines have been some of the cornerstones of my life and my nutrition practice for some time now, and I’m having to reconsider them.  The Spanish have managed to do all of these activities regularly AND maintain better health than Americans.  I’m not saying they’re champions of vigor and wellness – some of them still get cancer, have heart attacks and get fat – but I will say that I have yet to see more than one obese person here.

Let’s start with smoking. After writing my post on the Kitavans, the healthy chain-smoking hunter gatherer group in Papua New Guinea, my belief that smoking is the bastard child of the devil and Phillip Morris was challenged. Now knowing that there is more smoking in Spain and less heart disease, it’s called into further question. I still think smoking is beyond disgusting, but I’m realizing that I may not necessarily need to stop breathing altogether when in the presence of tobacco smoke. And stressing out about breathing someone’s gross second hand smoke may even be the worst thing of all.  Here’s why.

I believe that the Spanish tranquilo lifestyle is what’s helping them live longer, healthier and less obese lives than Americans. Let me give you an example of what I mean by tranquilo. I was at a little grocery shop the other day, and after I’d picked out my 10 or so items (veggies, nuts, an appropriate amount of pork products and bottled water – I’ll get to the last item in a minute), I went up to the counter to pay for them. The cashier began ringing up some of the items, but she was interrupted by a group of muchachos who had cut in front of me at the counter and asked her something. She then LEFT her duties as my cashier for about 5 minutes to take care of whatever it was they wanted. I’m going to say that it wasn’t an emergency, although I can’t guarantee that with my limited Spanish skills. She returned unapologetically and continued ringing up my food. But lo and behold someone ELSE interrupted her process and took her away once again. For another 5 minutes. Again, she returned unflustered and without apology, and finally finished adding up my total, the accuracy of which I have little faith in.  If I were in America, there’s little need to describe the horror I would have experienced in that situation.  It just wouldn’t happen.  But here it does and you just deal with it and wait.  There seems to be nothing so important that it can’t wait.

After I paid for my things, I asked her about the tap water around the area – whether it was safe to drink. She told me that it was fine. She informed me that in the summer it’s not safe because with all the visitors the drinking water gets contaminated by the sewage water, but right now? Tranquilo! It’s totally ok to consume. As a not-so-tranquilo Americana, I was happy with my bottled water purchase.

These are the kinds of things that happen to me a lot here. There’s way less stress. You order your dinner at 9:30 and maybe it will come at 10 or 10:30, but you certainly don’t complain about the wait. We recently decided to stay at our hotel for another week, and asked the attendant if that was alright. She said without hesitation, without looking at the calendar and without making any note on her calendar, “Está bien!” (It’s all good!)  Tranquilo.

When we’re going to bed at 11 or 12, we can usually hear our Spanish neighbors chopping up their veggies for their dinner. And the siesta? Don’t try to visit anything between the hours of 2:00 to 4:30pm or 5:00om because most places will not be open – they’re busy eating and relaxing. Want to buy groceries on a Sunday? No way. Closed.

I don’t know the exact relationship between their tranquilo lifestyle and their better health than Americans’, but I can only assume that there is SOME correlation there. And today when I was lying on my Spanish twin bed at 1:30pm, doing absolutely nothing for the first time in recent memory, I actually let myself enjoy it. I plan to make doing nothing a regular part of my weekly schedule when I get home. That and drinking red wine.  I feel happier this way.  My muscles aren’t as tight, my mood is better, and I have more perspective on my life.  I can breathe better.  We get all tied up in our lives, the importance of the little things like getting our groceries bagged and tabulated at the speed of light. And it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t even matter that I’m having to eat things here that I would scoff at at home: balsalmic vinegar with sulfites in it, olives with MSG in them, nuts with unspecified oils added to them, unrefrigerated eggs, GMO vegetables replete with pesticides and xenoestrogens, and meats of whose origins I am totally unaware. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me because it turns out I’m feeling great, despite it all. No food sensitivity symptoms, no lethargy, no headaches – nothing. I’m not saying I’m going to go home and start buying MSG to sprinkle on my egg scrambles, but I can at least let go of some of my fears of eating out.

We’re all so concerned about, well SOMETHING in our lives – our diets, our yoga, getting our daily runs in, making sure the house is perfectly clean, making sure every second of our time and life is filled with something… Americans are all obsessive compulsive about something, and for me it’s food.  I love my clean-as-a-whistle Paleo diet, and I’m going to keep eating it when I get home, but for this month I’m learning to let go a little.

Occasionally letting go of whatever it is you’re obsessive compulsive about might be the one thing you can do that will actually IMPROVE your health. That, and daily siestas. I think I’ll take one now…

Caveat: This is just my experience in Spain so far.  Not everyone smokes, not everyone takes 3 hour siestas, not everyone eats dinner at midnight, and not at every grocery store will your cashier take 15 minutes to ring up your total.  But often... :)