You are what you eat

  • 2003-03-27
  • Ieva Tuna

It's a cold morning in early spring. As crowds of people stream out of Riga's central train station, a woman bundled up in a thick sweater and coat continues working in a wooden kiosk by one of the station's main entrances.

Since opening the stall at seven in the morning, she has already sold 60 belyashi (a pastry filled with meet and onions), half of what she usually sells in her 15-hour work day.

To many people, as long as there has been a central train station, there has also been an option of cheap, fast chow like belyashi.

But that is about the only thing in Riga that hasn't changed about eating out in the past decade.

People here are eager to update their eating habits and more are becoming interested in what and how they eat, according to Latvia's leading nutrition experts.

"When I started working in the field of nutrition 15 years ago, I had situations where people, after hearing my advice, got up and exclaimed - am I a cow that you suggest I eat so much greens?" said Atis Tupins, head of the rehabilitation department at the Railway Hospital Bikernieki and one of Latvia's leading nutrition experts.

"Today, people's understanding of these issues has changed. They are much more informed and show greater interest, so I would say there is more positive than negative in how our eating habits have changed over the last decade," said Tupins.

Lolita Neimane, a dietitian and Latvian Food Center expert, agreed. "Although most of my clients are still people looking to lose excess weight, there are many who just want to know the basics of proper nutrition," she said.

Neimane said many were frustrated by the plethora of diets and gimmicks available.

"As new 'diets' and eating plans, such as a diet based on a persons' blood type, keep surfacing, it creates chaos in people's heads," Neimane said. "They don't know what to believe anymore," she said.

The idea that going on a diet would melt away the unwanted pounds quickly has been around for a long time.

Diets that suggested one should consume, say, only rice and kefir (unflavored yogurt) for two weeks to lose weight, used to be published on the backs of wall calendars.

"When such 'diets' are still published from time to time, they create an illusion that results can be reached rapidly and easily," Tupins said. "But we are talking about lifestyle in general, of which nutritious food is an integral part."

Since opening its first chapter in Latvia six years ago, the popular Western weight-loss program Weight Watchers has joined doctors and educators in teaching people that proper nutrition and sufficient exercise are the only sure-fire steps to permanent weight-loss and management.

"Weight watching is not a diet, it is a life-long process. If you want to have a clean house, you have to clean it every day," said Inga Puce, head of the Riga office of Weight Watchers. "Similarly, if you want to have a beautiful body, you have to take care of it every day."

According to Puce's observations, while excess weight used to be a result of consuming rich uniform food, today it is the wide selection of food stuffs available that makes people eat more and gain more weight.

"We used to go shopping with a single grocery bag. Today, we push carts of food," Puce said.

However, lately people tend to look for information in lieu of quick fixes in their attempts to deal with the aftermath of overindulging.

"People are realizing that information is of value," Puce said, adding that people are starting to understand that instead of paying for weight-loss pills and belts, they should pay for a psychologists' advice, motivation and a friend's supportive shoulder.

In Latvia, 35,000 people have attended at least one Weight Watchers class over the last six years.

Every week, 2,000 people on average throughout Latvia attend a Weight Watchers class. Approximately 95 percent of those are women.

But the advantages of a balanced or healthy diet may not have much appeal in the eyes of the younger generation. Endorsed by global celebrities such as Britney Spears and David Beckham, the soft-drink culture enjoys its popularity among children and teenagers in Latvia.

Sodas, potato chips and nutritionally skimpy but calorie-dense pizzas offered at the school canteens today are a far cry from the obligatory glass of warm milk given to young school children every morning about 15 years ago.

But the milk program may soon be back, as more parents and teachers are becoming concerned with the high number of junk food staples sold and consumed in schools, Neimane said.

Not that it matters much to 13-year-olds Reinis and Arturs. Lost in conversation, the two seventh graders walk by the Laima clock in downtown Riga, each taking a bite out of a 45-santim hot dog while taking a break between classes - a snack they say they have about three times a week.

As tasty and comparatively cheap fast food is available on every street corner, the main task of dietitians is to teach people to enjoy eating - one of the basic pleasures in life - through nutritious and wholesome food.

"Because food should be tasty, filling and mouth-watering, but also healthy. Luckily, many food staples are," Tupins said.