A Dietitian’s Impression of Brazil

From health and fitness to banana pasta and food fads, read on to hear about my Brazilian adventure!

With the spotlight on Rio in the build-up to the 2016 Olympics I thought I would sum up my recent trip to Brazil in terms of the health, nutrition and food culture that I experienced. Most of our trip was centered around Rio de Janeiro but we also visited the wetlands in central Brazil known as the Pantanal, the picturesque and untouched island Ilha Grande and an historical town just south of Rio called Paraty.

 

Body Confidence and Health Culture

From the moment we arrived in Rio I was struck by the famous Brazilian body confidence; people of all ages, shapes and sizes happily exercised in local parks or by the beach, and nobody seemed self-conscious about wearing tight and often revealing sports gear. It was really refreshing to see this, and it seemed to encourage an inclusive atmosphere of physical activity.

There also seemed to be good facilities for sports and exercise, which included running tracks, beach volleyball nets and of course plenty of outdoor football pitches decorated with colourful street art.

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Even when we visited Brazil’s largest favela (an urban slum) called Rocinha we were surprised to see a ‘Cross Fit’ studio right in the centre; I later learnt that this is a not for profit community engagement initiative1. Similarly in Rocinha we met some youth workers who ran a Capoeira class (a Brazilian martial which combines dance, acrobatics and music) to provide a potential source of income for young people living in the favela and an alternative activity to gang involvement. The enthusiasm, strength, fitness and flexibility of the performers was so impressive!

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(Capoeira performers in action!)

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It was great to see that people were concerned about leading a healthy lifestyle, but particularly in Rio it was also disappointing to see quite a lot of promotion related to food fads. Magazine stands boasted woo nutrition claims and plenty of shops promoted protein shakes and food supplements. This made me wonder if the excitement around the Olympics had increased the health and nutritional hype or whether it is was the emergence of the type of nutritional elitism that can develop with an expanding middle class. I also found it amusing that ANY product that was gluten-free was labelled as such; I later learnt that this is a legal requirement for all food and drink in Brazil but it still made me chuckle to see that my water was labelled as ‘gluten free’!

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(Gluten-free water!!)

Although obesity rates are rising quite rapidly in developing countries with emerging economies such as Brazil2, we saw little evidence of this. Figures from 2008 ranked Brazil 102 in the world in terms of obesity rate which was 18.8% (for comparison: the US ranked 18, the UK 43, Australia 44, Canada 48, Ireland 57)3.

While there were evidently areas affected by poverty, I’m glad to say that we didn’t witness much obvious malnutrition. This is likely to be related to how successful Brazil has been in combating malnutrition, particularly child malnutrition which had reduced by 61% over the space of 9 years from 2003 – 20124.

 

Local Markets and Tasty Meals

The markets in Rio were amazingly colourful, full of flowers and lots of exotic fruit and vegetables; including the biggest avocados I’ve EVER seen which were four times the size that I’m used to! From the markets we tasted some fruit that was new to us, such as fruta-do-conde (sugar apples), guava and caju (cashew fruit).

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At the market we sampled a local tapioca dish that was fried and served like a wrap; we opted for a cheese and tomato filling which was very tasty.

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At restaurants I loved the fusion of fruit and savoury foods on offer; for example grilled fish served with banana and leek, white fish served with passion fruit and mango, a ravioli dish which was filled with banana and a dessert of spiced pumpkin served with coconut ice cream.

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I also had the opportunity to try heart of palm for the first time, which I’ll admit I hadn’t even heard of before (bad Dietitian Maeve!). It was really tasty, quite mild but a nice soft crunchy texture similar to artichoke, and it’s a great source of fibre!

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As a pescatarian (vegetarian who also eats fish) I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of veggie options available despite the fact that meat plays such a central role in Brazilian cuisine. A common meal that we had included rice, beans, pumpkin, cassava, a flavoured couscous type dish and a grilled cheese called Queijo Coelho or “Curds” which is delicious and tasted similar to halloumi but tasted less salty.

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No review of Brazilian food and drink would be complete without mentioning Caparinhas, the local cocktail made with cachaça (a spirit made from sugarcane), sugar and lime (or replacing the lime with a variety of fruit such as passion fruit, mango, strawberry etc which is called a Capifruta). They are definitely worth a try if you’re visiting Brazil, personally I found these cocktails to be slightly too sweet for me, so I usually opted for the local beers such as Bohemia or Brahma which were served in 600ml bottles and usually shared between a few people using small glasses, which was a nice slow paced way to have a beer. While in Paraty we tasted some other local cachaça based drinks including a sweet corn flavoured version which we enjoyed so much we all bought a few bottles home with us, not quite one of your 5 a day but an unusual and tasty drink nonetheless!

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“Superfoods” in Their Natural Environment

I found it interesting to see some of today’s so-called ‘superfoods’ being part of the local food culture, rather than adorning the shelves of overpriced health shops in the UK (remember: superfoods are a marketing tool not a nutritional concept).

For example I had an Amazonian fruit called acai which is served with a type of granola. Acai is often marketed as a cure for arthritis, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction and to improve weight loss, skin appearance and general health. Acai berries are a great source of antioxidants and fibre but research into these health claims is limited and haven’t been proven5-6. However despite the unfounded hype, it was a really sweet and delicious snack!

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On our last day in Rio I enjoyed sipping on coconut water on the beach, which is another product that is often marketed as a ‘superfood’.  Basically coconut water is a good source of fluid and potassium and is low in sodium and sugar.  The evidence base does not support that coconut water helps to cure specific diseases such as cancer. Coconut water is also promoted for re-hydration post sports, but there is no clear benefit of using coconut water rather than ordinary water in terms of moderate exercise. Along with fluid, sodium is needed for re-hydration with strenuous exercise in high temperatures, and with long distance training fast acting carbohydrates (glucose or sugar) is needed to fuel the body; therefore coconut water which contains neither sodium nor glucose might not be the most suitable drink depending on the type of exercise in question7. Again, although coconut water is by no means a miracle drink, it was a tasty and refreshing drink that provides a good level of potassium.

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Overall Impression

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the tastes and experiences that Brazil had to offer and it was really interesting to witness the positives and negatives of such a health conscious society. On the whole I think the pros out-weighed the cons and although I was disappointed with some of the food fads that we came across, I loved the body confident, physically active society and the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer. I really hope to go back at some stage for some more Brazilian adventures!

Have you had any food or health experiences of Brazil? I’d love to hear about them if so!

Maeve  🙂 xx

 

References:

  1. Rochina Cross Fit: http://www.rocinhacrossfit.com/
  2. WHO “Obesity”: http://www.wpro.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/obesity/en/
  3. CIA The World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2228rank.html
  4. Oxfam – Rio+20 Brazil Case Study: https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/oxfam-rioplus20-case-study-brazil-jun2012.pdf
  5. PEN – Healthy Weight/Obesity – Dietary Supplements: http://www.pennutrition.com/KnowledgePathway.aspx?kpid=15325&pqcatid=146&pqid=18786
  6. Web MD Acai Overview: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-1109-acai.aspx?activeingredientid=1109
  7. Web MD – The Truth About Coconut: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/truth-about-coconut-water

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