When I landed in Spain, I was a full 240 pounds, courtesy of the Standard American Diet. Though a lifelong vegetarian, I was carrying the heft of readily available, fast, processed foods. But after three years of living in Madrid, I've lost 100 pounds—just by adopting a Spanish lifestyle.
While size isn't necessarily an indicator of health, I was on a quest to trim down my body, so I began studying the differences in the culture I'm from and the one I was immersed in. Without considerable effort, I started noticing my body changing and my clothes hanging in places they once clung. Soon, my third floor apartment felt closer and easier to get to than the first time I reached the doormat, panting, and hopping on the metro for anything closer than three stops became a thing of the past.
The best part is that everything I learned from living abroad can be applied no matter where in the world you live.
1. Use olive oil—but only the good stuff.
There's no fear of fat here: Whether dipped, drizzled, or deep-fried, oil is clearly the condiment of choice in Spain. In fact, the country consistently ranks among the top three consumers of olive oil in the world. But it's not only an issue of quantity; Spaniards are serious about the quality of their beloved aceite de oliva. Like perfume, the idea is to buy the best you can possibly afford.
I'm still an American, of course, and so I use a misting sprayer, which allows me to infuse foods with the sharp and pungent taste of olive oil without adding hundreds of calories to each meal (or blowing my paycheck on a bottle that lasts weeks). Of course, on weekends when socializing with friends, anything goes. In Spain, bars full of svelte people holding a beer or wine in one hand and an olive oil-soaked snack in the other is a common sight, after all.
2. Keep portions in check with tapas-style plates.
Tapas themselves aren't always healthy, but the concept of eating several small plates is. Variety and multiple dishes on the table make for a gratifying meal. Pimientos de Padrón, or mild, pan-sautéed peppers, is my go-to dish when eating out in bars. With luck, there will also be a selection of traditional offerings, such as meaty Campo Real olives, chilies stuffed with garlic cloves, and pickles on a toothpick. Other salty favorites include Marcona almonds, anchovies, and paper-thin potato chips.
At home, I use tea saucers to create the appearance of a feast with the same amount of food I'd typically have on a large plate. It doesn't make cleanup easier, but it's fulfilling.
3. Walking is a great way to burn calories...
While Madrid has a vast network of public transportation options, the general rule of thumb is if it's less than a kilometer, walk it. No matter the hour of the day, people are using the ample sidewalks and strolling arm-in-arm for a paseo.
4. ...and relatedly, the stairs are your friend.
Fourth-floor walk-ups are the norm in many cities, with elevators often left for the elderly. In the metro, it's common practice to skip the escalator in favor of taking the stairs and working up a small sweat. There's also a sense of community with this: When the person in front of you opts to be healthy, it motivates you to do the same.
5. Eat your five meals.
La merienda is the Spanish term for mid-morning and late-afternoon snacks. Typical dishes are tortilla española (a.k.a. a potato omelet), a small sandwich, or a pastry. La merienda is a great way to keep your metabolism going and avoid exaggerated hunger pangs—which can later cause overeating or poor choices. Personally, I try to pack fresh fruit or a stash of julienned vegetables, as raw foods keep me mentally alert and energized.
6. Indulge in the experience of each meal.
The menú del dia, or daily menu, is a Spanish tradition; restaurants advertise lunch menus consisting of two courses, bread, a drink, and usually a dessert. Portions are kept small, but various courses and beverages can make any meal feel very satisfying. While it sounds like a lot of food, many restaurants offer light options—and dessert can always be exchanged for a coffee.
7. There's even a word for lingering around the table: sobremesa.
The Spanish have perfected the art of hanging around the table after a meal. Plates are piled up, glasses are in various stages of fullness, and conversations begin to really pick up at the end of the meal. This time allows you to feel full, and a customary glass of wine helps you digest the meal. In Spain, there is no pressure to eat quickly—in fact, it can be tricky to get a waiter to bring the bill when you want to leave!
8. Eat local as often as possible.
Spain is overflowing with fruits and vegetables. This is a country known for its persimmons, custard apples, potatoes, and tomatoes. When summer comes, the nation turns to fresh, juicy foods. One of the most wonderful parts of dining out is the wide variety of gazpacho, a cold tomato soup flavored with cucumber, peppers, and garlic that's blended to a puree and topped with a thick glug of olive oil to give it a silky, gorgeous texture.
9. Fresh is best.
Around 6 p.m., it's common to see people walking the streets with a nibbled-on loaf of bread tucked under their arm. Most panaderias, or bakeries, also sell small rolls, which allow you to keep portions in check while participating in this daily carb pilgrimage. And there's nothing like tearing into a hot piece of bread, is there?
The same goes for buying fresh vegetables at the local fruteria—everyone has their go-to shop that keeps their favorites on hand, so it's common to pass by the shop on the way home to pick up a single bell pepper, a head of broccoli, or bag of Valencia oranges. On Fridays, it's customary to visit the pescaderia (fish market) around the corner!
While it's common practice in Spain, you can adopt the habit of buying fresh fruit and vegetables wherever you live.
10. Start the day with pan con tomate.
Rub a slice of toasted baguette with a clove of garlic, top with blended tomato, splash with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. This traditional Spanish breakfast is an easy way to eat good-for-you foods in the morning. Tip: Blend a few tomatoes at the beginning of the week to have on hand, and you've just made this a super-achievable 30-second prep.
After years in Spain, I recently returned to the U.S. for a visit and experienced some reverse culture shock (and weight gain) due to the difference in our transportation and eating habits. The quantity of food served in restaurants was overwhelming, free beverage refills snuck hundreds of additional calories into a single meal, and the sheer availability of processed foods for bargain prices was staggering. It's possible to eat and live well anywhere in the world, but after eight years of traveling the world, I'm doubling down on la vida Española!
Brandy Bell is a freelance travel writer, housesitter, creative producer, and Spainaholic. Find her writing at ItsOneWorldTravel.com, film collaborations on MadalinT.com, and on Instagram and Twitter as @brandyleebell.