Why so many Americans lose weight after traveling to Europe

When Melissa O'Leary traveled to Tuscany last year, she was obsessed with the local food — no limits. She recalls the daily meal schedule, usually from 7 a.m. until late at night, with fresh tortellini and fettuccine pasta, panzanella, Tuscan bread, pastries and local wine on the table.

However, like many people who have visited Europe and enjoyed the local cuisine without dietary restrictions, O'Leary found she lost weight during the holidays.

Many Americans note that they count calories, test radical diets and exercise regularly at home, but often struggle to lose weight or maintain a stable weight. However, despite indiscriminate dietary choices during short trips and extended stays in Europe, American travelers reported weight loss.

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This has led many commentators to speculate that nearly 40% of American adults are obese due to the American diet or the ingredients in the food Americans buy in their local supermarkets. Closer inspection reveals a variety of factors that help explain the weight loss effects of the European holiday.

Active European Lifestyle

A common theme emerged among first-hand accounts of losing weight while vacationing in Europe: walking.

Patricia Palacios, founder of destination website España Guide, explains the cultural significance of walking in her native Spain and many other European countries.

“For most Europeans, walking from one place to another is completely normal, even enjoyable,” Palacios noted. “In Spain, it's typical to go out for a leisurely walk, usually in the evening. Even when we go out for tapas or pinchos, there are walks. You go to one bar, have a small bite, and then you go to the next.”

Several U.S. cities, including New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, offer robust public transportation options and walkable layouts. Walking is more common in these cities than in most other parts of the United States.

But as a matter of culture and practice, walking is more prevalent in more European cities than in the United States. Thus, the associated health effects of walking, including weight loss, were to be expected when Americans experienced European lifestyles during any period.

Lightly Processed Foods, Heavy Nutrients Labels

While processed foods, drive-thru restaurants and other nutritional hazards exist in Europe, their prevalence appears to be far lower than in the United States, observers note.

“When you go into an Italian supermarket, you can't find junk food,” O'Leary explained. “They have a few brands of chips and everything else you need to cook.”

European shoppers are also likely to prefer what they buy in supermarkets. Blanca Garcia, registered dietitian nutritionist at Health Canal, explained that several European governments have taken aggressive steps to simplify nutrition literacy through food labelling.

“In the Netherlands, both processed and frozen foods are marked with grades,” says García. “A green letter A means very healthy and an E is not so healthy, it's easy to tell the good from the bad.”

Garcia was referring to the Nutri-Score food labeling system, which was pioneered by the French public health agency Santé Publique and will be used in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Luxembourg from January 2023.

Products are rated between A (most nutritious) and E (least nutritious), and the manufacturer or seller of the food or drink labels the product accordingly on the packaging.

The Dutch government also adopted a National Prevention Agreement in 2019. The legislation urges food manufacturers to reduce the fat, sugar and sodium content of foods by reformulating processed products.

This top-down approach to promoting good nutrition has also contributed to the perception that Europe generally offers a healthier eating environment than the US.

Americans who have spent time in Europe often notice significant weight loss when they return home.

Americans who have spent time in Europe often notice significant weight loss when they return home.

Europe bans several ingredients commonly found in U.S. food

While the typical European walks more than their American counterparts and has access to clearer nutritional information, what about the food they actually eat? For example, is pasta bought in the US any different than pasta bought in an Italian supermarket?


“Most wheat in the United States tends to be high in protein (usually gluten) and is called hard red wheat,” explains Yelena Wheeler, a registered dietitian with the Measuring Instrument Database for the Social Sciences (MIDSS).

“The wheat used in Europe is soft wheat, which tends to be lower in gluten. For those who are sensitive to gluten, consuming bread products that are lower in gluten can in turn reduce bloating and sluggishness.”

In addition to differences in how food manufacturers source wheat and other ingredients, US food and beverage manufacturers are allowed to use certain ingredients and pesticides that are banned in the European Union (EU).

“Certain hormones such as rBHG are banned in the EU but allowed in the US,” Wheeler noted. “Certain pesticides such as paraquat and phorate are still used in the US but have been phased out in the EU”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), titanium dioxide will be banned in the European Union in 2022. Past studies have shown correlations between titanium dioxide and inflammation, oxidative stress, cellular damage, and genotoxicity. However, U.S. consumers will find this ingredient in a variety of foods and beverages in any given supermarket, from milk to chocolate and snack foods.

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By banning titanium dioxide, the EU strengthens its commitment to phase out ingredients known to have adverse health effects or questionable safety. Other ingredients that are restricted or banned in the EU but not in the US include potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide (ADA) (used in baked goods but linked to cancer in animal studies),

BHA and BHT (flavoring and preservative substances designated as probable human carcinogens), certain food dyes, and several growth hormones used in livestock and other farm animals.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned synthetic flavoring substances and other ingredients for years, regulatory action in the U.S. food and beverage industry is believed to be slow and difficult for many people who develop life-threatening health conditions, including Obesity, too little too late.


European travelers are often amazed that they can eat what they eat and travel with less weight than they arrived. Many reported walking far longer than they would in a typical day in the U.S., and most also reported eating fresh, unprocessed foods—even if those foods were ravioli and creme brulee.

While Europeans' mobile lifestyle can have a positive impact on weight loss, European governments and food manufacturers are working together to eliminate potentially harmful ingredients from the food supply and alert consumers when non-nutrient-poor ingredients are present.

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The confluence of these factors removes all the mystery from a common question: How can I possibly eat like that (in Paris, Tuscany, Berlin or Barcelona) and lose weight?

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