Friday, March 6, 2015

The Costa Rican Diet

No one was more excited than my mother when they found out where I'd be completing my TEFL training program in Costa Rica. I was placed in a small beach town called Samara located on the Nicoyan Peninsula of Costa Rica's western coast. My mom, who is a holistic health coach and certified personal trainer, has had a fascination with the Costa Rican diet ever since reading the "Blue Zones" by Dan Buettner. This book travels to the "blue zones" which are geographic regions where high percentages of centenarians live remarkably long, full lives to study their lifestyle, diet and habits in order to discover how to live the longest, healthiest lives possible. The Nicoyan Peninsula was one of the five blue zones the book chose to highlight. In the end, many of the factors of the Nicoyans long life expectancy were attributed to their strong life purpose, family/social bonds, physical work and plenty of sunlight. However, the book also highlighted the simplistic diet of rice, beans, plantains, coffee and fresh fruit. After hearing about all of this, I (and my mom) was excited to get to know the Costa Rican diet myself, however the reality that I discovered here in Costa Rica is that in many ways the traditional diet is dying and the westernized diet is taking over.

A typical Costa Rican "casado"
In the month I spent in Samara, I spent time asking the locals about their diets and they seemed to be eating a lot of rices, beans, etc. Rice and black beans are a common dish to eat three times a day in Nicoya. A typical breakfast consists of gallo pinto (rice and black beans cooked together), eggs, corn tortilla, natilla (similar to sour cream) and sometimes fried sweet plantains. Lunch is usually a "casado" which means a large serving of white rice, stewed black beans, picadillo (cooked veggies and meat), a fried sweet plantain, some kind of meat/fish and a small simple salad. Dinner is either another casado (usually a smaller portion) or an "olla de carne" which is a brothy beef stew. All meals are usually accompanied with coffee or a "natural" which is a natural fruit juice smoothie. Although some foreigners will complain that this diet is one-noted and a bit repetitive, I was completely on board since the beginning! I eat my version of a "casado" every day for lunch (mine is usually rice, beans, tomato, avocado, an egg, plantains, cabbage salad and LOTS of fresh cilantro) and sometimes even have gallo pinto for breakfast. The only adjustment I've made it to cut out the naturales, which adds a lot of sugar into the diet. I usually just drink water.

After my month in the sleepy town of Samara, I came to the big, bustling, urban metro of the central valley and immediately noticed that a lot of people were eating differently than the Nicoyans. First of all, in Samara there were no major food chains and in Heredia there's everything you can think of. Applebees, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, KFC (referred to as "Kentucky" here), Taco Bell, TGI Fridays and on and on. Not only do these restaurants exist, but they are THRIVING here. I remember growing up that it was common to celebrate a birthday or other event at McDonalds. Most of us Americans have grown out of that and McDonalds is usually ordered through the drive-thru late at night by drunk college students. Here in Costa Rica, McDonalds are very nice on the inside (some even have flatscreen TVs) and they are always FULL of families, friends and other people at every hour of the day. Rather than being a shameful place to eat (which it is in the US), many people find it as an acceptable place to eat out. Furthermore, the junk food has expanded beyond the main restaurants. Burgers, fries, hot dogs and especially fried chicken can be found at lots of small fast-food corner shops throughout Heredia. I'm not exaggerating when I say there's a fried chicken place on nearly every block of downtown Heredia.

Another thing I noticed in the central valley diet is that instead of drinking natural fruit drinks with every meal, they use fruit powder mixes.  Before I came to CR I only thought "Tang" came in one flavor; that almost-orange artificial citrusy flavor. However, in Costa Rica you can find nearly 20 different flavors of Tang in any local supermarket. Though some ticos in the central valley still make the effort to drink the "naturales," many use the sugary powder replacement. In fact, many of my tico friends say they don't like the taste of water, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that their palates are more accustomed to sweet beverages. I believe that these sugar-loaded drinks alone could be the reason that Costa Rica is in the top 5 countries in the world for sugar consumption. Yikes.

In general, the central valley's diet is just becoming westernized. Some ticos still choose to have rice and beans three times a day, but many would prefer a western diet. USA's fast food influence and the high sugar intake has impacted Costa Rica dramatically in the form of health. A recent study found that 67% of women and 55% of men in Costa Rica are considered overweight and child obesity is on the rise as well. I guess the values of the Blue Zone of Nicoya aren't shared by the majority of central valley.

As a health nut, it's sad to me to see how our (USA) impact has tarnished a beautiful country with a healthy diet in the most corporate, negative way. I hope that one day ticos too will grow out of their McDonald's phase and take advantage of the abundance of fresh, healthy food at their finger tips.

For more information about the blue zone of Nicoya, follow this link!

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