The Brazilian Guide to Weight Loss

The country attempts a revolutionary nutrition strategy based around a few simple rules: Eat food. Mostly plants that are native to your country. And absolutely nothing 'ultra-processed.'

Victor R. Caivano / AP

RIO DE JANEIRO—Bela Gil hosts one of Brazil’s most popular food TV shows, Bela Cozinha, now in its fifth season. The premise is putting a hip, healthy spin on Brazilian classics—think tofurkey, but not disgusting.

In one episode, Gil baked cookies using the baru nut, which tastes a bit like peanuts and is crammed with protein. Though the baru is indigenous to Brazil, many of Gil’s viewers either didn’t know what it was or couldn’t find it in stores.

Some said, “‘I’ve never seen these ingredients. She's crazy,’” Gil says.

To her, widespread ignorance about native foods says something profound about the country’s broader nutritional woes. As part of her mission, Gil occasionally meets with the country’s health authorities. They share a goal: To get young Brazilians to eat the traditional foods their grandparents would recognize. That means more family dinners with slow-cooked, local ingredients, and a lot less chips and soda.

“Usually traditional food means homemade food, fresh food,” she told me recently in her apartment in Gavea, one of Rio’s wealthy beachfront neighborhoods. (She’s also daughter of storied Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, and his records line her shelves.) “There's no way that instant noodles are traditional. Growing up, we always had real food at home: Rice and beans and vegetables.”

Like many middle-income countries, during the past few decades Brazil has whiplashed from ​an epidemic of malnutrition t​o one of obesity. The majority of Brazilians are now overweight, and around one in seven are obese. Though Brazil’s obesity rate still pales in comparison to America’s, or even Mexico’s, it has now surpassed that of most European countries, according to the OECD. ​There were reportedly 4,750 extra-wide seats built into the stadiums for the World Cup, which Brazil hosted in 2014, to accommodate the heavyset. Newly middle-class Brazilians want to buy their children the sodas and snacks they never had ​as kids. Among the poor, less education and longer working hours translate to a greater susceptibility to junk-food marketing.

The Brazilian government’s solution is an innovative food guide it released last year. The guide eschews macronutrient measurements, or stacking food in pyramids or on skeuomorphic plates, in favor of a more Pollan-esque plan for eating: Eat food, mostly stuff that has grown in Brazil for centuries, with other people.

A healthy lunch, as recommended by the food guide. (Brazilian Ministry of Health)

The thinking was that simple rules are easier to understand than gram measurements of protein and fat. A reasonable breakfast, according to the guide, is coffee with milk, cassava cake, cheese, and papaya. For lunch, it recommends generous portions of rice, beans, and sauteed vegetables. Dinner is more rice and beans, plus chicken and acai for dessert. Just like mamãe used to make.

The health authorities’ chief villain is ultra-processed food, which comprises 22 percent of the average Brazilian’s diet. A recent study in a Brazilian medical journal found that Brazilians who consume the most ultra-processed food have worse health outcomes than those who consume the least. Thus, “reducing ultra-processed food consumption is a natural way to promote healthy eating in Brazil,” the authors concluded. That theory is bolstered by a major 2003 study by three Harvard economists which suggested that it’s snacks, rather than meals, that are primarily responsible for the rise of obesity in America.

Dorky health documents rarely make a splash, but this one was quickly embraced as an ideal plan for all nations. To Vox, the Brazilian guidelines are the “best in the world.” Food-policy queen Marion Nestle dubbed them “remarkable” because “they are based on foods that Brazilians of all social classes eat every day, and consider the social, cultural, economic and environmental implications of food choices.”

Now the question facing doctors, families, and Brazilian health officials alike is, will the guide work?

* * *
Fruits at a market in Recife, Brazil (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

The guide offers ten specific steps to successful eating, all illustrated with pictures of ideal meals.

1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet

In the guide’s words, these are “nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.” People should seek out a variety, but the guide specifically touts “beans and lentils, rice and corn, potato and cassava, tomatoes and squash, orange and banana, chicken and fish.”

Most health experts agree that fresh, whole foods are good for weight control because they are harder to gorge on.

2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking

The guide says you should use these substances sparingly, but not avoid them altogether: “Oils, fats, salt, and sugar contribute to diverse and delicious diets without making them nutritionally unbalanced,” it reads.

As Carlos Monteiro, a doctor based at University of Sao Paulo, whose Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition helped conceive the guide, told Grist, “Without oil and sugar, at least in Brazil, you cannot cook and prepare meals.”

3. Limit consumption of processed foods

This is where the guide departs from that of the U.S. and other countries. It considers things like bread, cheese, and canned fruit to be “processed food,” and suggests these should be a smaller part of people’s diets than whole fruits and vegetables.

4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods

The guide provides a litany of “ultra-processed” treats it considers verboten: “Fatty, sweet or salty packaged snacks, biscuits (cookies), ice-creams, candies and confectionery in general; cola, soda, and other soft drinks; sweetened juices and ‘energy’ drinks; sweetened breakfast cereals; cakes and cake mix, and cereal bars; sweetened and flavoured yogurts and dairy drinks…”

It calls these foods “nutritionally unbalanced.” “As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess,” it says.

It goes so far as to suggest all these chips and cookies are ruining the Brazilian culture and landscape: “Their means of production, distribution, marketing, and consumption damage culture, social life, and the environment.”

5. Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company

Here’s where things start to get a little Eat, Pray, Love:

“Avoid snacking between meals. Eat slowly and enjoy what you are eating, without engaging in another activity. Eat in clean, comfortable and quiet places, where there is no pressure to consume unlimited amounts of food. Whenever possible, eat in company, with family, friends, or colleagues: this increases the enjoyment of food and encourages eating regularly, attentively, and in appropriate environments.”

6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods

“Prefer vegetables and fruits that are locally grown in season. Whenever possible, buy organic and agro-ecological based foods, preferably directly from the producers.”

7. Develop, exercise and share cooking skills

“If you have cooking skills, develop them and share them, especially with boys and girls. If you do not have these skills – men as well as women – acquire them.”

This is a thinly veiled swipe at Brazil’s gender inequality in household chores. In other words, all the lentil-simmering shouldn’t fall solely on female shoulders, as it historically has.

8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life

Check yourself before you wreck your BMI:

“Assess how you live so as to give proper time for food and eating.”

9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals

“Self-service restaurants and canteens that serve food buffet-style charged by weight are good choices. Avoid fast-food chains.”

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff at a Rio buffet restaurant in 2014 (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters)

According to Michele Lessa, general coordinator of nutrition at the Brazilian Ministry of Health, this guideline was aimed at people who say they turn to fast food because preparing food at home is too time-consuming. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is carpeted in buffet-style restaurants where customers pay by the kilogram. These eateries are considered a better choice than fast-food chains, Lessa says, because they tend to serve traditional staples rather than hamburgers and fries.

10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing

Lessa said this rule doesn’t come with any new government restrictions on junk-food advertising, which has grown increasingly brazen here in recent years. In an attempt to reach “emerging-market customers,” for example, in 2010 Nestle began sending branded barges down two rivers in Brazil’s Amazon region. The boats, according to Bloomberg, were packed with “chocolate, yogurt, ice cream and juices.”

Lessa says Brazilians should just be skeptical. “The purpose of advertising is to increase product sales, and not to inform or educate people,” the guide warns. “Be critical and teach children to be critical of all forms of food advertising and marketing.”

* * *

The guide took three years to design, according to Lessa, and it’s being distributed to schools and to the country’s 40,000 health clinics, whose workers will promote the guide on their regular home visits.

Its success will depend on whether Cariocas are willing to step back to a simpler time, when food was rustic and food-prep time more plentiful. Monteiro, the Sao Paulo-based doctor, told Grist that Brazilians are actually buying less sugar and vegetable oil these days. Not because they’re more health-conscious, but because they’re cooking less.

That’s what Sueli Rosa Gama has seen in the Manguinhos favela in Rio’s northeast, where she is a nutritionist.

“Cheetos, cookies, instant ramen…” she says, detailing the typical diet of a child in her community. “Generally their parents are working, so the kids are making it themselves.”

As their parents climb even a rung or two up the economic ladder, fewer kids eat the supremely healthy school-provided lunches, she says. School food is associated with poverty, and branded snacks with wealth.

Some sample recommended breakfasts (Brazilian Ministry of Health)

For better or worse, many in her community don’t see obesity as much of a problem. Historically, a skinny body was considered deprived, while a corpulent one healthy and strong. The country’s economy has changed, but in some areas beauty perceptions haven’t caught up.

What’s more, many favela residents struggle to buy fresh produce—let alone organic—because the jam-packed communities lack big supermarkets. And the guide says little about limiting meat consumption, which is also linked with poor health. (According to Lessa, the photos in the guide already represent a smaller portion of meat than Brazilians typically eat.)

I asked Lessa about the focus on communal cooking and eating. Many Brazilian office workers do still take long lunches away from the office, but leisurely meals aren’t always practical or affordable for the poor. What’s more, some research shows that people eat more, not less, in big groups. For the purposes of curbing obesity, from a purely utilitarian viewpoint, it might be preferable to let them eat Top Ramen by the glow of a laptop. Lessa countered that people who eat in groups also “pay more attention” to their food. And, she added, “elderly people enjoy eating in a group more. It's fun to eat in a group if you can't smell the food as well.”

As the U.S., Mexico, and other scale-tipping nations are finding, societies are reluctant to reject processed food en masse. Brazilians recently ribbed Gil online for eating a “cake” made of watermelon slices on her birthday. Earlier this year, Gil posted a photo on Instagram of the lunch she had packed for her 7-year-old daughter, which consisted of sweet potatoes, granola, and plantains. As NPR reported, Twitter rose up in arms. "You think your life is bad? You could be Bela Gil's daughter,” one critic wrote.

“I was sad to see that people don't tolerate change,” Gil said. The subtext, to her, was, “‘let your daughter be a kid and let her eat crap.’”

Do we know yet if the guide is doing the trick?

The studies on its effectiveness won’t be out for a while, Lessa says, but there is one promising data point. The health ministry adopted the food-guide diet, and they all lost weight.

Olga Khazan reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).