Why Can I Eat Endless Bread and Gelato in Europe and Never Feel Bloated?
We tapped experts to weigh in on the raging TikTok debate.
What sets a European apart from her American counterpart is her flair for doing a lot and suffering very little: She saunters down to her local market, fresh cheese and baguette in tow, and sits down to enjoy her (legit) pain quotidien like it's nothing—or at least that’s how the story goes. And lately, it’s a narrative a lot of US TikTokers are adopting—after discovering that their gluten and dairy intolerances seem to vanish when dining in countries like Italy and France.
As travel to Europe continues to skyrocket, this pesky little snippet of carbohydrate-fueled discourse prevails. The TikTok scripts from the sensitivity-no-more camp go a little something like this: “You get to eat as much bread as you want in Europe because it’s not poisonous”; “Look how much weight I’m losing in Italy!”; “This is how you know something’s up with America.” Non-believers, on the other hand, tend to respond with, “Maybe it’s just because you’re walking more on vacation.”
Naturally, Gen-Z’s renewed interest in the alleged magical powers of bread and cheese overseas begs the question: Is it really possible to stuff your face with all the pasta and gelato you want while abroad, not suffer from any indigestion or bloating, and maybe even lose weight in the process? In the name of journalism, we turned to experts to find out if there’s really something special about the chemical makeup of cacio e pepe on European shores.
Does gluten affect people differently in Europe?
First thing’s first: Celiac disease is not an American phenomenon. According to research foundation Beyond Celiac, “Plenty of Europeans have celiac disease—in fact, the incidence of celiac disease in Europe in the last 50 years has been increasing at a rate similar to that of the United States.” Europeans with celiac disease avoid gluten in their own countries, and as such, a robust market for gluten-free products exists over there, too.
If you suffer from celiac disease, you should never consume gluten, whether you’re at home in the US or on your grand European tour. “Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s the same protein found in American wheat as in European wheat,” reports Beyond Celiac. “Even accounting for regional differences in variety and overall gluten content, no matter where wheat, barley, or rye is grown, it contains gluten at a threshold higher than is safe for people with celiac disease.”
But if you deal with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (a.k.a. NCGS), you’ve got a little more room to experiment—and you even might notice a few differences when consuming European wheat. “The gluten content of wheat grown in the US is higher than wheat grown in the EU,” says physician and registered dietitian Dr. Amy Burkhart, MD, RD. “It may be that people with NCGS can tolerate the smaller amounts of gluten contained in European wheat.”
In general, gluten-rich foods in the US also contain more preservatives, additives, colorings, and pesticides compared to European products. “It is known that these compounds can affect the gut microbiome and create more of a ‘leaky gut,’ which can lead to inflammation and symptoms,” Burkhart adds.
How does European dairy affect lactose intolerant travelers?
If you plan on washing down your preservative-free croissant with a cafe au lait, there’s a chance you’ll skip the stomach ache there, too. While there are many reasons why it might be easier to digest dairy in Europe, one of the most significant is the prevalence of A2 milk.
“A2 is a beta-casein milk protein, and it's found in all mammals’ milk,” says Alec Jaffe, founder and CEO of A2 ice cream brand, Alec’s. “A long time ago, cows started producing a variant of that protein called an A1 protein, which has been linked to a lot of dairy sensitivities.”
A1 is the protein most commonly found in dairy produced in the US, and likely comes from Holstein cows—those black-and-white guys on the Horizon label—a breed favored by American dairy farmers for their higher milk output. But the A2 protein, which often comes from European heritage breeds like Jersey, Guernsey, Dutch Holstein, and German Fleckvieh, is naturally occurring, and as such, could lead to less stomach aches.
But A2 dairy is not entirely foolproof, Jaffe notes. “A2 milk doesn't necessarily mean lactose-free,” he says. “A2 milk has lactose in it, unless someone adds a lactase enzyme and actively takes out the lactose. So if you are truly sensitive to lactose, then you would need a lactose-free ice cream.” If you’re merely sensitive to dairy, however, it’s worth giving A2 a try.
There’s also a theory related to the difference in processing methods. “In Europe, the milk is pasteurized through an ultra-high temperature process to kill all bacteria,” says Burkhart. “This differs from the US pasteurization process, which is done at a lower temperature and kills only some bacteria.” But Burkhart notes that this process difference does not change milk’s lactose content, which is what ultimately causes most dairy-related GI symptoms.
Lastly, there is some talk about the unwanted presence of rBGH, or Bovine Growth Hormone, in American milk, which some studies have linked to the development of certain cancers. However, as Burkhart notes, “the adverse effects of rGBH are thought to be long-term and not likely to [change] on vacation.”
So why are people losing weight when traveling outside the US?
If you find that your pants are fitting looser while gallivanting around Europe, there’s one obvious explanation: Whether you’re making loops around the Louvre or ascending the inclines of Lisbon, you’re getting your steps in. “Walking is culturally a more common practice in Europe compared to the US,” says Burkhart. “This exercise helps promote weight loss not only by shedding calories but also by improving digestion and lowering inflammation.” Simply moving around, she explains, can lead to fewer GI issues.
The distinct way in which Europeans enjoy their meals also plays a role. The portions are generally smaller than US standards, and they’re typically eaten in a relaxed, unrushed fashion. As Burkhart points out, “You rarely see Europeans slamming a burger while sitting in traffic.” An average lunch break in Spain—siesta included—can last three hours. In many European countries, dinners are often multi-course affairs, treated as a reason to gather and connect rather than just another opportunity to refuel. All of these factors can put less stress on the digestive system.
What else could be contributing to overall health improvements abroad?
Even if gluten and dairy differ slightly from one continent to the next, it’s also very possible that all the TikTok chatter could be leading to a placebo effect. “Some research reveals that people who suspect that they have gluten sensitivity are not able to differentiate a gluten trial from placebo,” Beyond Celiac notes. And according to Burkhart, almost everything about the art of vacationing in Europe is conducive to lowering inflammation.
We tend to sleep more while out of office, thanks to fewer responsibilities and obligations, and adequate sleep can also lead to improved gut function. We’re also, on the whole, much happier, which gives our stress hormones a break. “If you’re eating foods that work better in your system, and that's causing less inflammation, you’ll start to feel better and become more active,” adds Jaffe. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about that mind-body connection. Now pass the pain au chocolat.