PUMPING IRONY: The Belgian Waffle Diet

Back to the gym last night after a couple of weeks away, and I have to admit I was a little apprehensive when I climbed on the scale before my workout.

It’s not just that I’ve been avoiding the gym; I’ve been avoiding the gym while quaffing pints of ale, brutalizing Belgian waffles, devouring Yorkshire pudding with no regard for my personal safety and simply inhaling any jambon et fromage within 30 meters of a baguette. And I’m not even going to mention the chocolate. A European vacation is a magnificent culinary adventure, but I had to assume that our 10 days in Belgium, France and England would create some unwanted impact on my personal poundage.

So, I had to look twice when 158.6 flashed on the scale’s digital screen. All summer long, I’ve been essentially stuck at 160 — despite ramping up my fat-burning efforts on the Elliptical Death Machine, despite embracing a mindful eating protocol, despite creatively visualizing those last 5 lbs. melting away. I’ve been stranded in plateau city.

Now, if I knew that drinking lots of beer and eating lots of rich food (you cannot even believe those waffles) was the key to rappelling down from that bluff, I would’ve got after it a lot sooner. But, of course, that’s not how it works. My personal weight-loss serendipity had nothing to do with what I ate or didn’t eat; it’s all about the sightseeing. Or, more accurately, it’s all about getting from point A to point B without an automobile.

For years, Americans have puzzled over the seemingly counterintuitive spectacle of lithe French women who eat all the rich food they want without accumulating any excess weight. How come all those croissants and full-fat yoghurt and wine and exquisite sauces and chocolate don’t wind up attaching themselves to their hips?

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not just the women and it’s not just the French. Europeans, in general, avoid the epidemic of obesity that so afflicts Americans because they don’t drive that much. A 2008 study from the Journal of Physical Activity and Health says it all: In Belgium, 30 percent of all trips away from home involve walking, biking or mass transit. And Belgians are pikers compared with the Dutch; people in the Netherlands get around town without an automobile 52 percent of the time. (Each year, the average Dutch resident logs an outrageous 1,225 kilometers on foot, bicycle, bus or train.) Americans, on the other hand, drive everywhere: only 12 percent of trips away from home in the U.S. are accomplished sans automobile.

Such “active transportation” helps prevent weight gain, the study’s authors note: “Walking and bicycle commuting usually fall into the moderate-intensity range, and if performed regularly, can result in substantial amounts of energy expenditure. In addition, the use of public transit (trains, subways, and buses) usually involves walking or cycling to and from transit stops and, hence, would also be expected to promote weight control, as well as a host of other physical and mental health benefits.”

This added “routine” activity by your average European burns as much as 9 pounds of fat per year, while your average car centric American might burn 2. And, when you add it all up, here’s what you get: In the U.S., 34 percent of the population is now considered obese. In the Netherlands, it’s 11 percent.

So, this helps to explain that 158.6 number above. Every day of our vacation, we walked. A lot. On our last day in London, for instance, my son decided for some reason to count the number of stairs he climbed. The final count when we boarded the train back to Brussels that evening: 903. Now, he went out of his way to scamper up steps unnecessarily at times, but I’m guessing that My Lovely Wife and I scaled at least 750. At least, that’s what my knees were telling me. That’s a pretty decent StairMaster session.

We’ll see in a few days whether I’ve been able to maintain my newfound European weight-loss plan in a city with one puny light-rail line and the ever-alluring Crapmobile parked in the driveway, but as long as my old Schwinn remains operational and my sneakers hold onto their tread, there’s no reason why I can’t continue to live like a Belgian (or even a Dutchman!) right here on the prairie.

Except for the waffles. I’m really going to miss the waffles.

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