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Brazil's Food for Thought

What Brazil's dietary guidelines can teach us about healthy eating

See the word "Brazilian' and a few things spring to mind: waxing, beach bodies and the muscle on a footballer's thigh. But what about obesity? Like us, Brazil is fighting the battle of the bulge, with almost half its population estimated to be overweight or obese and, like us, has produced dietary guidelines to encourage people to eat better.

Our guidelines emphasise which foods to eat and which to avoid, but Brazil takes a different tack, focusing more on how to eat with advice like:

  • Eat slowly and enjoy what you are eating without engaging in another activity.

  • Eat in clean, comfortable and quiet places, where there is no pressure to consume unlimited amounts of food.

  • Whenever possible, eat in company, with family, friends or colleagues. This increases the enjoyment of food and encourages eating regularly, attentively, and in appropriate environments.

  • If you have cooking skills, develop them and share them. If you do not have these skills - men as well as women - acquire them.

  • Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life.

  • Plan the food shopping and decide on meals in advance.

  • Share the responsibility for all activities related to meals with family members.

  • Assess whether your lifestyle allows proper time for food and eating.

It's advice that recognises that how we eat, not just what we eat, can be a problem. Habits like snacking on the run or shovelling down food at the desk or in front of TV are the opposite of taking time to enjoy what you eat, and make it easy to overeat. Having no plan for how you'll eat throughout the day can be a recipe for eating badly, and having no cooking skills leaves you reliant on convenience food.


However, Brazil's guidelines also have echoes of another, less hectic time when someone, generally female, spent long hours at home; when families had regular schedules; and cooking from scratch on most nights was the norm. Can we still hold on to "slower" habits when we're squeezed for time?

Yes, if you follow the Brazilians' advice to plan and shop for meals in advance, says Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle, who believes that the availability of cheap convenience food and late-opening supermarkets have helped disable our planning skills.

"Some people start thinking about dinner at the end of the day, stopping off at the supermarket to pick up frozen pizza on the way home, and think they're saving time. But all that takes 30 minutes; if you shop ahead and have the ingredients at home you can put together a healthier homemade pizza with fresh vegetables in less time," she says.

As for eating together around the table, rather than everyone taking a plate to eat in front of their own personal screen, that matters too. It's not just that studies show that families who eat at a table generally eat healthier meals with more vegetables, but that role-modelling from parents can nurture healthier eating habits, says Collins.

"It's also an opportunity to praise up the behaviour you want to see, like 'it's great that you tried the broccoli'," she adds. "But sharing food together is also part of our culture. If you never set the table how will children ever know that eating around a table is part of their family history? It's not a hard habit to instil. You can involve children in putting things on the table from an early age, and the more you do it, the more it gets done without question.

"It takes time, but it also takes time to teach kids to brush their teeth or to learn they need to wear seat belts. We don't skip teaching them these things because we're short of time."

Realistically, though, there will be evenings when plates will teeter on laps in front of the telly, and that's when we can borrow some more good advice from the Brazilians.

"Be wary of food advertising and marketing. The purpose of advertising is to increase product sales, and not to inform or educate people," reads the final point of Brazil's guidelines. "Be critical and teach children to be critical of all forms of food advertising and marketing."

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