Ever wonder how all those Brazilian beach bums maintain their killer bikini bods? Sure, you'll want to taste some of the traditional feijoada while you're there, but I doubt daily helpings of the pork-laden stew is how they inspired the country's eponymous butt-lift.
With acres of lush rainforest and access to both the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean, Brazilian cuisine has a cornucopia of exotic and health-friendly fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and meats to offer its visitors. I enlisted native dietitian and natural chef Anna Maria Forcelini to share some tips on how to experience Brazil's bountiful fresh local foods and unique national cuisine while still maintaining a mostly nutritious, balanced diet (you're still on vacation, after all!).
Below are a few of our tips on how to eat well in Brazil:
You may have heard of this much buzzed-about superfood, which has found its way into everything from juice and smoothies to supplements and specialty liqueurs here in the States. Is this Brazilian berry really a magic bullet that will reverse aging, kick start weight loss and prevent cancer? Data from current research suggests we might want to be cautious about buying into all the hype; however, the açai berry does have many great nutritional qualities. It boasts a very high anti-oxidant content, plus it's a great source of fiber, protein, heart-healthy unsaturated fats, B vitamins and minerals like potassium and iron. That's a whole lot of good stuff packed into one little berry! Enjoy açai in the northern regions of Brazil, where it is grown, if you want to experience the fruit at its freshest. It is commonly served frozen and mashed in a dish called açaí na tigela (açai in a bowl).
You know the phrase "you are what you eat?" Well, logic would then dictate that you are what what you eat eats... which is a slightly (ok, very) convoluted way of saying that what Bessie T. Cow has consumed impacts the nutritional value of her meat when we in turn eat her as a hamburger. Brazil has a thriving beef industry, with ranches run by the gauchos of the south and southeast regions of the country. Brazil is an excellent place to indulge your craving for steak because their cattle are exclusively grass-fed. Studies have shown that in comparison with grain-fed beef, the grass-fed variety has a more favorable ratio of healthy fat to unhealthy fat. And some folks say its tastier too. Head to a churrascaria to get your fix. These barbeque restaurants often charge a fixed price for an all-you-can-eat meal and offer rodízio de carnes service, in which waiters come around with various skewers of meat and carve them onto your plate tableside. Just remember, all beef is relatively high in saturated fat so the rules of moderation still apply (no matter what Bessie had for lunch).
Brazilians commonly eat lunch in restaurantes por quilo, buffet restaurants where you serve yourself and pay for the meal by weight. They generally have a wide variety of cold salads and vegetables on offer, plus rice, beans, side dishes and meat. Hitting up restaurantes por quilo with the locals provides two excellent opportunities for eating well. First, it lets you be choosy. Load up your plate with simply-prepared vegetables and lean proteins; take a bit less of dishes that are fried or smothered in rich sauces. Second, it lets you take your taste buds on a tour of Brazil without over committing your stomach. As is the case at any buffet, just be sure that your little tastes aren't adding up to a larger than intended meal. Anna suggests getting to the restaurantes por quilo on the early side to ensure that food is fresh and hot. Come later, and it may have been sitting around for a while.
One thing I've learned spending time with global nutrition experts is that America's habit of snarfing our food may be a key contributor to our obesity situation. While the "slow food" movement and intuitive eating are novel concepts here, they are philosophies that have kept civilizations around the world within their BMI zone for hundreds of years. Slowing down is a key concept in Brazil, where meal time is very important, and most families set aside time to eat together at least once a day. Taking time to be present with your food and your loved ones doesn't have to be a luxury limited to vacation -- numerous studies have shown that there are physiological and psychological benefits associated with eating meals as a family (not in front of the TV), so this is a great way to bring a little bit of the Brazilian lifestyle home with you. Anna says that "the traditional Brazilian way of eating is really about turning mealtimes into pleasant and enjoyable family and friends-time," and that "eating is considered a pleasure and a way to celebrate everyday life." Sounds good to me.