Primal Lifestyle in Europe
Three months ago, after a year of planning, my wife and I decided to leave (or pause) our jobs and travel Europe for a couple of months. We agreed it was time for a break from the 9-5 lifestyle to see what it would be like if work was not a requirement of everyday life! Our ultimate goal in life is to be in control of our time and be our own bosses, so we figured this would be a good start toward that goal.
Since I recently launched my health coaching business and maintained my client roster while abroad, I was constantly observing our surroundings through my Primal Blueprint lifestyle lens. I was pleasantly surprised over and over again with how congruent the lifestyle we experienced in the ten different countries we visited was with the Primal Blueprint.
Below is a breakdown of the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws and my observations of their application in everyday life in Europe. Enjoy!
1. Eat Plants & Animals
There was no shortage of meat and fish available in each city I visited. The food systems seemed very locally driven and it appeared restaurants and grocery stores typically stocked mostly from nearby farms. Specifically in Iceland, I learned there is a desire to support the local farming community, so they actually ban the import of various goods to help support local and native products! Also, I was happy to see chicken livers and other organ based meat varieties available. Some of these countries have long traditions of utilizing these incredibly nutrient dense cuts of meat.
However, when it comes to plants, some countries were severely lacking! The meat and potatoes culture of Ireland, Scotland and Germany made it very difficult to find vegetables on the menu. Things were better in the Scandinavian countries, and again I will point out Iceland, which manages to growth several vegetables year round in greenhouses! We visited a greenhouse ‘farm’, that doubles as a restaurant, which produces 20% of the entire tomato yield for the entire country, all on a few acres of land. Let me tell you, there is something to be said for local, fresh produce. The tomato soup at this restaurant is the best I have ever had in my life. The Bloody Marys weren’t too bad either!
2. Avoid Poisonous Things
The Primal Blueprint philosophy categorizes highly processed carbohydrates and vegetable oils as ‘hidden’ poisons, due to their chemically altered states and lack of healthy nutrients.
In Europe, processed foods were harder to come by. The grocery stores reminded me of the ethnic grocery stores here in the States. I saw a real focus on meats, herbs, spices, vegetables and local delicacies. There were few convenience stores (7/11 has infiltrated some countries), and most grocery stores had limited high-carb snacks, mostly just some potato crisps (chips) and maybe some Doritos, imported from the US.
As I’m sure anyone who has ever traveled to Europe knows, when it comes to staying aways from pastries and gluten, Europe falls flat. Bakeries are on every corner and every coffee break is accompanied by a baked good. In Sweden there is even an official name for this, “fika”. Every afternoon around 3 PM you see people out for “fika”, coffee and a cinnamon bun. I imagine the majority of these baked goods are made from scratch and use more nutrient dense raw ingredients than mass-made Krispy Kreme donuts.
Still, I was a little baffled by this and how Europeans do not gain a massive amount of weight! If I had to come up with an answer, I would guess it has to do with eating habits and overall lifestyle. The meals I observed were so much more deliberate and slow paced. Mealtimes seemed like rituals where people sit down together, chat, and slowly enjoy their food and social interaction. At lunchtime on a weekday, cafes are full because people are leaving their offices to enjoy meals and each other; not running to the local fast food place to find an easy meal to sit in front of their computer and mindlessly eat. When you really enjoy a meal and feel physically and mentally satiated there is hardly a need for a quick, high-carb, processed snack in between in meals.
3. Move Frequently
This one is a no brainer. Due to efficient city planning, comprehensive public transportation systems, and pedestrianized streets, the citizens of Europe do a LOT of walking. People just don't need to drive as much when the city is compact, with ample buses, trams, subways, bike lanes, bike share programs, and streets closed to cars, where you can walk freely in the middle of the road. It is insanely easy to get around and so much more enjoyable, as you don't have to compete with honking cars and exhaust pipes.
4. Lift Heavy Things
My favorite way to lift heavy things is to lift my own body mass, which, on vacation-mode, got quite a bit heavier during my two months in Europe! Luckily, the cities I visited all had incredible amounts of public parks and public workout equipment. There were pull-up bars, parallel bars, ropes to climb and I even found a squat machine made out of wood!
5. Sprint Once in a While
Unfortunately, I did not experience any sprinting first hand, or come across any CrossFit-like studios, where ‘sprinting’ and maximum effort interval training was observed. However, I think the overall increase in popularity for High Intensity Interval Training will catch on in Europe. I think is a very good thing, as it deemphasizes long bouts of cardio, which can have negative effects on metabolism and lead to injuries.
6. Get Plenty of Sleep
While I wasn't able to go door to door inquiring about people's sleep patterns, I did notice a few things that I think indicate that Europeans get plenty of sleep. First, as I walked by houses, I noticed a general lack of ginormous TV screens in the windows. I found that a large portion of locals spend their evenings outside in the public parks playing frisbee, walking their dogs, or drinking wine (allowable in most cities, why does America criminalize public alcohol?). This natural routine ensures that our circadian rhythm is honored, since there is a lack of digital stimulation and artificial light in the evening hours to keep our cortisol levels elevated.
I’ll add an additional assumption here, although I don’t have any evidence to prove it, that since most Europeans live close to where they work, they don’t have to wake up quite as early to spend an hour or more commuting. I would happily spend that extra time in bed if I were them!
Walking through the public spaces in Europe was one of my favorite activities. You would see people doing all kinds of activities, from walking the dog, playing bocce ball, frisbee, parkour, croquet, one-club golf, even twirling flaming batons!
Play helps us tap into our competitive spirit and stimulates our brain in new ways, as we are firing on different pathways when we are having fun and using our bodies in varied ways. I even noticed a difference with children’s playgrounds in Europe. Every residential community we walked past had plenty of play areas for children just steps from their home. These play areas were not always the obvious slide, swing, or monkey bars, but were ropes, beams, giant rocks, and other things that challenge children to use their imaginations to play.
8. Get Plenty of Sunlight
I found it crazy that at all times of the day, the city streets and parks were packed. Yes, there are probably a lot of tourists in Europe over the summer and people taking advantage of the weather, but I could tell there were a ton of locals and they had made being outside part of their daily work routine. Whether they were taking a quick siesta, extended lunch or coffee break, people seemed very relaxed and happy, a stark contrast to what the Chicago loop looks like at lunch time. Now that being said, I’d like to go back during winter and see if that holds up!
9. Avoid Stupid Mistakes
From my personal experience, I believe that people tend to make a lot of stupid mistakes when they are stressed out or tired. When you are stressed out and not thinking clearly, you might not think through all your options and end up making a decision based on a knee-jerk reaction. The elevated cortisol coursing through your veins kicks your mood and emotions into high gear, leading to emotion-driven decision making instead of rational decision making.
From an outsider’s perspective, Europeans don’t seem overwhelmingly stressed. Walking paces are slower. Eating is more relaxed. Coffee is enjoyed in glass mugs at the coffee shop. I also noticed one of the primary ways that I observed Europeans avoiding stress from a ‘rat race’ lifestyle was by tapping into the calming effects of nature. Unhooking from the tether of modern life allows your body to slow down and rejoin the natural pace of life. If you’ve ever enjoyed closing your eyes in a park while basking in the sun, running your toes through the grass or listening to the sounds of birds or trees rustling in the wind, you know what I’m talking about.
10. Use Your Brain
I am a firm believer that being a creator leads to more fulfillment and happiness than being a consumer. Living a life where you consume all day through television, social media, etc. will keep your mind occupied, but I argue that it will provide little value to your long term happiness or sense of fulfillment. I can speak from personal experience that, in the past, I would often turn to these forms of consumption to avoid thinking or doing something important, or something that I dreaded doing.
In Europe, I observed many people engaged in conversation over their ritualistic afternoon coffee. Overhearing conversations in English, I would hear about creative ideas or healthy debate over interesting topics. People were talking face to face instead of being stuck in their computers with headphones on, which is the typical scene at a local Starbucks in the US. Of course, there were still countless people stuck in their phone screens, but I was encouraged by the mindfulness and ‘live in the moment’ mentality that I observed.
Europe shares many positive aspects of the primal blueprint lifestyle but, there are still plenty of improvements that could be made. From my travels, I realized that no society is perfect and that we can all learn from each other.
Arriving back in my home city of Chicago allowed me to see new beauty and positive aspects of the city I have known for 25 years. Taking a bike ride through a new neighborhood I found a new outdoor gym. Walking by the Chicago River, I explored the expanded river walk with plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy the skyline view, sip a glass of wine, and enjoy a conversation. Trust me, no one stared at their cell phone screen with a beautiful sunset in front of them reflecting off the buildings! I think a lot of it depends on your perspective and whether you consciously focus on finding the positives or negatives in life.