Eating Healthy: Lessons From Serbia

I recently had the opportunity to take an impromptu one week trip to Belgrade, Serbia. Prior to leaving I knew nothing about Serbia aside from it being directly north of Macedonia, the country my maternal grandma was born. As a dietitian and professional food connoisseur, of course I wondered what the food would be like. I was also curious about the chronic health issues typical of the country. Were they experiencing diseases associated with obesity, such as type two diabetes and heart disease, as frequently as the USA? Surely not. 

Turns out I was right. During my stay I was able to pick the brain of several Serbians, specifically doctors! They told me overall their food is processed with very few additives. There are no GMOs (genetically modified organisms); in fact, they are “against” them. The use of herbicides and pesticides is very minimal, and only when absolutely necessary. They are extremely proud of their country and culture, and pride themselves on eating high quality, authentic food (though albeit, a lot of it!), especially meat and cheese. They do have fast food, including multiple McDonald’s within Belgrade, but it is not a regular part of their diet as it is seen as unhealthy and lower quality. These thoughts definitely correlated with my own experience and observations. Although bread and potatoes were often served with the meal, additional simple carbohydrates such as pasta, corn or rice, were uncommon. Beans, mayo-free coleslaw, grilled vegetables and cucumber-tomato salad were common alternatives. 

We quickly learned how uncommon it was to see an overweight Serbian (or one shorter than 5’5” for that matter), and joked that if we did see someone overweight, they were probably American. 

I recently read a statistic stating 117 million Americans (about half of American adults) have one or more preventable chronic disease, and over 71% are overweight or obese. It is evident the disconnect is multifactorial — culture, lack of education or awareness, stress, minimal access to healthy food, or the “well I’ve got to die of something” non-caring mentality, all play a part. 

The United States is starting to suffer the consequences of this impending obesity epidemic through obscene health care debt, decreased quality of life, and a growing population that are non-contributing members of society, despite being of working age.

Nutrition and health can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve heard the following quote many times, and I think it summarizes basic dietary advice well. In the words of journalist Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  

The following are some of my favorite resources and local organizations I personally use that you may find inspiring to help stay motivated at whatever point you may be on your health journey:

  • Cleveland Roots: Offers free gardening and cooking classes.¬† Also has a community garden and weekly food stand. I’ve been to them — they are excellent!
  • North Union Farmers Market: Farmer’s Markets around the Cleveland Area
  • Joyous Health Blog: For excellent recipes!
  • VA Whole Health Library: Great handouts on a variety of nutrition topics¬†
  • The MindBody app: View all the different fitness and wellness resources in your area. Also shows when the businesses are having a promotion
  • The Blue Zones: Book on the commonalities of the “Blue Zones” of the world, or areas with the largest number of centenarians

You can also refer to my Resources page for a more comprehensive list.

What wellness resources have you found that have been helpful for you? Share below!