Sunday, March 28, 2010

When large cheese dishes collide with active pursuit. The Swiss paradox.

I find myself in the midst of a somewhat extended European trip right now.  It started in Frankfort, Germany this past Thursday and Friday, continuing this coming week to the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.  So far it’s been a great trip. I had the pleasure of spending two fantastic days with my colleagues from the German management team as well as participating in a Townhall with German leaders.  I have more of the same in the countries that follow this week.

One of the side effects of this trip has been the weekend layover.  This happens a few times a year, and it is a necessary part of undertaking lots of overseas travel.  I try to make the best of it by spending a weekend exploring whatever city is hosting me.  The plan this trip was to spend the weekend in London, so I called an old friend.  He informed me that he and his family were getting ready to head down to Switzerland to spend their school break skiing.  Why don’t I join them for the weekend he asked?  It’s not wise to gaze too long at a gift horse such as this, so I jumped at the opportunity before he could take it back.

I arrived Friday night,  and I got connected with a Swiss ski guide who proceeded to beat me senseless on the slopes from 9:30 to 4:30 on Saturday.  I suspected that my experience skiing with the guide would be somewhat like my experiences with other types of exercise performed under the supervision of a professional:  I would work about 10 times as hard.  I was not disappointed as he was somewhat merciless in a very nice Swiss way.

We pulled into a late lunch at a quaint mountainside restaurant, and I collapsed in a heap at one of the outdoor picnic tables.  I glanced through the menu and did not see a single item sanctioned by the healthy living police.  Instead, my friendly guide encouraged me to try one of the Alp specialties, called Croûte.


What is Croûte?  Nothing that a sedentary person should eat very often.  Basically, it’s a layer of bread baked in wine smothered with Alpine cheese, infused with ham, served with a fried egg on top for good measure.  There has been much talk about smaller portion sizes in Europe, but this was not in evidence here.  This thing consumed an entire small (not too small) skillet.  I did not attempt to calculate its POINTS value, but suffice to say, it was completely decadent.  And it was unbelievably good.

[As a curious side note, he also encouraged me to try a carbonated drink called Rivella.  Well, when in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do.  In this case, that involved sipping on a soft drink made from milk extract (whey to be specific).  Truth be told, it wasn’t bad, and the one I got was Rivella blue label, which is low calorie.  Let me re-cap this:  I had carbonated diet milk byproduct.  Seriously.]

Back to the Croûte.  How is it that the relatively thin Swiss can regularly eat this stuff?  My guide wolfed his down, and he was a trim dude.  The guy who ran the restaurant was skinny as a rail.  Everybody there seemed to be in great shape despite diving into delicacies such as this.  What could explain such a towering mystery?  What is this Swiss paradox?

It’s hardly complicated.  Five to six hours of skiing burns a ton of calories.  In fact, according to my handy Weight Watchers Activity Points calculator, skiing burns about 10 POINTS value per hour.  Assume an effective four hours of skiing (taking out time on lifts, lunch tables, etc.), and I burned about 40 POINTS.  The Croûte surely was no match for this?  Well, actually it was probably close to break-even, but I chose to give the exercise side of the ledger the benefit of the doubt.

I do not find it to be a surprise that places where people are outside ALL the time, like Switzerland, Colorado, etc., tend to have lower obesity rates.  It is amazing how useful couch extraction is to helping to fix the calorie deficit equation.  It doesn’t have to be skiing, as people in these two locales undertake a myriad of outdoor physical activities.  Being active in mountainous regions seems to be a way of life.  There is lesson in this for all of us.

The other helpful concept in here is that of the active vacation.  Spend a week where you are doing something active for four to six hours a day, and you can just about eat whatever you want (within reason).  This applies to skiing, biking, hiking, surfing, walking tours, etc., etc.  Sadly, it does not apply to lying on the beach.  Oh well.

Moral of the story:  know your vacation calorie deficit math.




  1. WOW I am so impressed you are sharing all the way across the world and you are being mindful. Im about to go on vacation tomorrow and you have inspired me to be active and maybe try the Putin in Monreal. I swear I will be active! Cheers and enjoy!

  2. I track my calorie deficit everyday now, and it's easy enough to adjust my level of activity because I'm paying attention to it.
    And a couple of weeks ago I spent my beach vacation in the water as opposed to (only) lying in the sun...and I was down 1.2 pounds at my WW meeting which was mostly satisfactory in my mind.
    My next vacation is coming up the week after next in Colorado. ;) The last time I was there I came back several pounds lighter..can't wait.
    Enjoy Europe..

  3. I lived in Switzerland for three years (and I even joined WW there!) I must say, that once I got over the "I've got to try everything on the menu - immediately!" feeling and started living a more Swiss lifestyle with lots of skiing (well, snowboarding in my case), hiking, walking all over beautiful old cities, I lost 40 pounds in those three years! All while semi-regularly eating dishes such as the croute you showed, or the equally decadent (or deadly - choose your adjective) Alpine Macaroni. I won;t even get into the ingredients of that one! Anyway, "en guete", and enjoy Switzerland!

  4. I agree! When I do a New York trip, we put on so many miles walking everday that I really do not have to worry about having some treats while I am there! It works out great.