10 November 2015 Tapas: Portion Control and Sociability in One

Since moving back to Colorado after a year of living abroad in Seville, friends ask me what I miss the most about Spain. In addition to seeing colorful trees with branches full of bright oranges in November, I miss the “tapas culture”. Whether a delicious snack, appetizer, finger food, or just a small plate of a local delicacy, tapas mean sociability with family and friends while standing at a local bar or restaurant and is at the heart of Spanish cuisine and culture.

History of Tapas

Tapas provide portion control and sociability all in one! Though there are many legends as to the origins of tapas, one theory is that in the 13th century when King Alfonso the 10th was extremely ill, he slowly regained his strength by drinking wine and eating small amounts of food many times during the day. Consequently, he made a law that every bar had to serve food with their drinks. Today still in some parts of Spain, one tapa is given for free with each drink that you buy. Since a “tapa” is the Spanish word for lid, another theory is that a small piece of bread or a small plate was placed on top of a glass to prevent insects or dust from entering the drink. People then ate the bread or food on the small plate with their drink. Since Spain has such a colorful history and each culture brought their own provisions, tapas in Spain encompass a variety of foods. The Romans brought the olives. The Moors from Africa invaded in 711 and brought almonds, citrus fruits and various spices. Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492 brought back tomatoes, corn, potatoes, beans and peppers. With tapas, the focus is on variety not portion size.

Three ways that tapas help with weight control

1. Tapas come on small plates.

As Dr. Brian Wansink, a researcher from Cornell University, has shown in many studies, the size of the plates we eat on have a large influence on the quantity of food that we eat. In one study just by decreasing the plate size by 2 inches, from 12 inches to 10 inches, decreased the amount of food eaten by 22%. If a person normally eats 800 calories at dinner, over a period of a year this would help a person lose 18 pounds. Especially since many of us have been taught to clean our plates, by choosing smaller plates, we will be eating less food.

Consequently, eating a meat and cheese tapa in Spain on a small 6-inch plate filled with thinly sliced manchego cheese, jamon Iberico (cured ham from pigs only fed acorns for two years) with quince jelly and apple slices provides a natural method of portion control.

2. Order a few tapas, and if you are hungry order a few more.

Research has shown that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to realize that your stomach is full. Thus, the Spanish tradition of ordering just a few tapas, allows for this “pause” and time to actually determine whether one is actually hungry or whether one is eating just because it is on the table. Tapas allow time for that signal to reach the brain. Stopping and listening to hunger cues can help a person lose weight.

3. Tapas focus on the conversation, not on the meal.

Since in Spain, there are not large amounts of foods on individual dinner plates for each person, the focus of the meal is on the sociability and interaction with those people at the table. With tapas, people tend to mix and match and eat less than at a formal sit-down meal. Tapas are set in the middle of the table family style and shared and passed to friends and family.

To assist with portion control which supports weight loss, try one meal per week “tapa style” or create your next holiday party with a tapas potluck.

5 Tapas Ideas

  • Mussels and clams. Steam these with white wine or herbs and serve them in a chunky tomato sauce. The protein makes you feel full and opening the shell slows down the eating process.
  • Green olives and almonds. Put these in two small bowls for nibbling.
  • Gazpacho Soup. This is a tomato based soup which is served cold. It is nutritious and light. Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidants of vitamin A, vitamin C and lycopene.
  • Fresh fish. Grill or sear and add a salad and boiled small new potatoes on the side.
  • Salads. Layering lettuce, tomatoes, chickpeas, and tuna, one can create a delicious simple salad.
  • Garbanzos and spinach. Heat and mix together with cumin and paprika.

In a world where bigger is better, it’s often difficult to figure out a healthy portion size. Even though portion sizes in Spain are smaller than in America, the serving sizes are perfectly adequate to fill our stomachs. Thus, use the latest food trend to lose weight – eat tapas which are healthy, fun and delicious!

Buen provecho! It’s time for me to “tapear”! Since eating tapas is such an integral part of the Spanish cuisine, there is even a Spanish verb “tapear” which means to go out and eat tapas.

Martha Henze

MS, RD, Traveling Taste Buds, LLC

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


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