"MY GOD, LOOK AT ALL THOSE CARBS!!"
That's a common reaction to the first almuerzo (lunch) set in front of new visitors here. The amazing amount of carbohydrates consumed by Cuenca's citizenry is a huge surprise. A typical lunch may contain rice, potatoes, AND hominy corn. Wow! Papas fritas (french fries) are found on menus and sold by street vendors all over town, and it's common to see folks enjoying ice cream and other sweet treats throughout the day.
Equally surprising is that against all logic, obesity is virtually nonexistent. Coming here from Las Vegas, recently named "America's Fattest City" (sir, madam--step away from the buffet), it's remarkable to be in the midst of normal sized (although somewhat shorter) people every day.
"Oh, well, there's a lot more walking here" is the common reasoning for this phenomenon, and that for sure is a partial explanation. While visiting pedestrian-oriented places like Manhattan we've observed a similarly disproportionate slim populace. But the hundreds of buses and zillions of taxis in Cuenca are far from empty, and the number of cars on the roads has increased dramatically just in the year we've lived here. A lot of folks aren't walking any more here than their much heftier counterparts in the States.
So what's going on? Is Cuenca some kind of weight loss Nirvana where you really can have your cake and eat it too?
It turns out there's some solid science to explain the diet instinctively eaten here. Cuenca sits at 8400 feet above sea level. Because we're in a valley surrounded by mountains it's easy to forget how high this city really is. Well, guess what. An excellent article called "High-altitude Eating" published by Roehampton University in London reports that experts have learned at high altitudes the body has a decreased "use of fat as an energy source together with an increased reliance on carbohydrates. It's thought that this shift makes it easier for oxygen to dissolve into the blood. Thus, there's a need for an even higher carbohydrate intake than usual."
Consumption of liquids is also addressed. The article reminds that "extra fluid intake continues to be crucially important. The higher the altitude the lower the humidity and the quicker sweat evaporates from the skin. This can lead you to think that you're sweating less than usual - whatever you do, don' t drink less than usual!" It's further recommended to cut back on caffeine and alcohol since these encourage fluid loss.
Many gringos happily report unexpected weight loss in their early months in Cuenca. Better eating and more walking are assumed to be the catalysts, but again science plays a part. It has been discovered that "basal metabolic rate or BMR, the amount of energy used to just keep your body ticking, appears to increase during the first days at altitude. With time, the increase in BMR subsides but does not appear to return completely to baseline values. A continued elevation in BMR at high altitude would lead to an increase in overall average daily metabolic rate. If such an increase is not matched by an adequate rise in energy intake you will lose weight."
Heads up, first-time visitors to Cuenca. In addition to your flights, hotel reservations, and things-to-do list, here's a preparation tip well worth considering to maximize your enjoyment of our beautiful city. Di you know one in three people are susceptible to changes in altitude, with symptoms ranging from headaches and lethargy to breathlessness and loss of coordination? Several days before your departure, purposely increase your calorie and fluid intake, especially eating foods with a high carbohydrate content and restricting alcohol and caffeine consumption. This type of "carbo-loading," a common training technique before strenuous athletic events, can possibly minimize your body's adverse reaction to our higher altitude.
As we say in the South, "Praise the Lord and pass the potatoes."