On the surface, taking your weight-loss cues from Latin America may not seem like the smartest idea — the region has some of the fastest-growing waistlines in the world, and the prevalence of overweight or obese adults in Ecuador, for instance, has significantly increased in recent decades. But there’s a secret there, where weight gain is not one-size-fits-all.
Outside the bustling, fast-developing (and weight-gaining) cities, Ecuadorians in remote regions from the Amazon rain forest to the Galápagos Islands live the healthy life — one from which most Americans can certainly learn to boost their own weight-loss efforts, says Juan Alejandro Neira-Mosquera, PhD, a nutrition researcher with La Universidad Técnica Estatal de Quevedo.
For instance, Neira-Mosquera’s research, published in Nutrición Hospitalaria, shows that Ecuadorians living in the country’s Amazonian region have a significantly lower incidence of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and liver diseases — all of which are linked to obesity. In the United States, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, contributing to one of every four American deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here are four of the best weight-loss tips — straight from Ecuador’s remotest, healthiest and slimmest regions.
1. Dial up your morning and afternoon meals.
Unlike the U.S., where we’re all about oversize dinners, the largest meal in Ecuador is traditionally lunch, says Neira-Mosquera. In terms of calories, the afternoon snack and breakfast follow close behind, and dinner makes a relatively small contribution to daily caloric intake.
That’s how your daily menu should go if you’re trying to lose weight. While breakfast has been linked time and again to reduced hunger and cravings throughout the day, mounting evidence suggests that shifting some of your food intake from the evening to earlier in the day also can be beneficial to your health and weight.
For instance, while research from Northwestern University suggests that eating at night throws off the body’s circadian rhythms to result in weight gain (even if you don’t eat extra calories), the Centre for Obesity Research and Education has found a consistent association between eating the majority of your calories in the first half of the day and a healthier weight.
2. Eat local.
Hitting up farmers markets and restaurants that source locally is about way more than going green. It’s about boosting your nutrition, says Neira-Mosquera. He notes that Amazonian Ecuadorians are known for diets high in chontaduro, a traditional, locally grown fruit, while people in the Galápagos consume a huge number of oranges and fish, the latter making up a large portion of their protein intake.
How can local foods translate to a healthier waistline? Every day your food spends on its journey from its source to your mouth, it loses health-boosting vitamins and minerals, according to a study by Harvard University. That research also notes that mechanical harvesting techniques, which are common on large factory farms, can contribute to early harvesting, unnecessary processing and damage to produce. However, in these Ecuadorian regions, people catch or pick their food and then immediately eat it, ensuring that meals are as fresh as can be.
Eating local probably doesn’t mean eating packaged, processed or refined foods. While these Ecuadorians follow a whole-foods diet, a recent BMJ Journal study found that ultraprocessed foods — like frozen pizza and soda — make up 58% of the calories Americans consume on a daily basis. They’re also responsible for 90% of our added sugar intake. These ultraprocessed foods and added sugar contribute to weight gain, as well as the onset of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, according to researchers.
By simply skipping the supermarket’s packaged foods for the farmers market, you’ll go a long way toward automatically reducing your intake of refined carbs and trans fats, and eating more whole, nutritious foods.
3. Make movement part of your lifestyle.
Here’s a stat from Neira-Mosquera: “The majority of the population in the Amazon region dedicates itself to fieldwork. All of this physical work allows for the men to eat more than 4,000 calories a day and maintain healthy weights.”
We aren’t recommending eating 4,000 calories per day, and you don’t have to quit your desk job and take up farming to slim down either, but Neira-Mosquera raises a great point. Weight loss isn’t just about the calories that you put into your body. It’s also about how many calories you burn through activity and exercise. And apparently, these Ecuadorians are burning a lot by working in the fields.
That’s because, rather than making exercise something they have to squeeze into their lives, exercise is their lives. So instead of just factoring 30 minutes of structured exercise five days per week, think through ways that you can make the other 23.5 hours more active. After all, research published in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that women who regularly exercise spent just as much time sitting per day as those who skip the gym.
4. Soak up the sun (but wear sunscreen).
Ecuador means “equator” — it’s one of 13 countries through which the equator passes. That doesn’t just mean balmy weather; it also means Ecuadorians don’t deal with the same vitamin D deficiencies as we do in North America.
Our bodies use UVB rays to manufacture the majority of the vitamin D that’s found in our bloodstreams. In the winter, especially in northern locations, the angle of the sun is so indirect that UVB rays can’t break through the atmosphere for us to make enough D, according to research from the Boston University School of Medicine. Plus, the number of light-filled hours in the day are very limited.
That lack of vitamin D — four in 10 Americans are deficient in D, according to Nutrition Research — has grave health consequences. Low levels increase your risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, prediabetes and metabolic syndrome, according to the Endocrine Society.
This summer, you can easily boost your vitamin D levels by spending time outside. And don’t worry about sunscreen blocking out the best parts of those rays — most studies show that while it’s essential for protecting your skin, the recommended amounts of sunscreen don’t actually prevent a healthy amount of vitamin D from entering your bloodstream.
Your doctor can also assess your vitamin D status to determine if your levels are where they need to be or if you need to up your intake of fortified foods (like milk) or consider taking a supplement.