The United States doesn’t have the highest obesity rate in the Americas (that dubious honor goes to Mexico), but over one-third of US adults are currently obese, and that number isn’t dropping. It’s a pretty eye-opening statistic, especially when compared with data from countries like Japan and India, where obesity rates fall below five percent.
Why the difference? While national obesity rates depend on many factors, they probably have a lot to do with lifestyle and culture, including what people eat and how they eat it. The good news is that everyone can borrow healthy eating habits from countries around the world — and leave some less-wholesome practices on foreign soil. Keep in mind that these habits come from traditional diets found in these countries — with globalization, some foods and eating habits have migrated around the world (for better or for worse). For example, les steaks hachés sounds like a typical French food, but it’s actually the meaty part of Le Big Mac (and hardly part of traditional cuisine).
- Set the stage: It’s all in the presentation. We all know about the health benefits of seafood (omega-3s!) and veggies. One unexpected habit to steal from Japanese eating culture is the emphasis placed on food’s appearance. Small portions and colorful, seasonal vegetables make for a visually appealing — and healthy — plate. The small portions may help to keep calories in check, while bright veggies provide a range of healthy vitamins and minerals.
- Skip: Fish high in heavy metals. Mercury, an element that can cause nervous system damage, is particularly prevalent in predatory species like tuna, king mackerel, and swordfish. Avoid sushi such as maguro (tuna) and nama-saba (mackerel) and go for safer options like sake (salmon), ebi (shrimp), and ika (squid) instead. Check out this list before stepping up to the sushi bar.
- Pick up sticks: Chowing down with chopsticks can help slow eating speed, which may ultimately decrease the amount of food eaten. Research has shown slower eating may lead to reduced caloric intake, and one Japanese study found that the odds for being obese and having cardiovascular disease were higher among people who ate faster.
- Skip: MSG (though maybe not for everyone). Monosodium Glutamate has been linked with a number of negative health effects, including headaches and numbness, in certain people. Though the research is still somewhat inconclusive, avoid the unpleasant side effects by preparing Chinese food at home or ordering from restaurants that don’t use MSG.
- Please your palate: One study found that while the French associate food with pleasure (as opposed to health), the country has lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease than the US. Ironically, Americans are more concerned with the health aspects of food and get less pleasure out of it. So rather than eating a large portion of a “healthy” dessert like frozen yogurt, try a small portion of a treat you love (a rich, dark chocolate truffle fits the bill) and savor the sensory experience.
- Skip: The daily pastry. A chocolate croissant, like many buttery breakfast pastries, is loaded with simple carbohydrates, sugar, and fat (aka not a great start to the day). Stick with more nutritious options like oatmeal or yogurt for everyday, and save the pastry for an occasional treat.
- Put teff to the test: Injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread made of teff flour, is high in fiber, vitamin C, and protein. Traditional Ethiopian cuisine emphasizes root vegetables, beans, and lentils and it’s light on dairy and animal products. Try your hand at making injera at home, or cook teff grains in water and substitute for rice.
- Skip: Family-style meals. The traditional Ethiopian diet consists of shared dishes scooped up with injera. This style of eating makes it hard to control portions, so put individual servings on a plate to make it easier to visualize how much you’re eating.
- Spice it up: Indian cuisine features tons of spices, which add yummy flavor, appealing color, and surprising health benefits. Spices like turmeric, ginger, and red pepper may help to lower cholesterol. Frequently used aromatics like onions and garlic can lower lipid levels in blood, which could lower risk of heart disease.
- Skip: Creamy sauces, but only if you're limiting saturated fat. Many recipes are unexpectedly high in saturated fat thanks to ghee (aka clarified butter) and full-fat coconut milk. Those looking to avoid or reduce saturated fat in their diets should take it easy on the rich dishes. Sub in tandoori-grilled meats and tomato-based curries instead.
- Love your lunch: Traditional Mexican culture includes almuerzo, a mid-day feast that’s the largest meal of the day. Recent research suggests that the body is less responsive to insulin at night, so eating late in the day could cause weight gain, even if calories are the same. A simpler explanation for why we should start lunching large? Eating a big, nutritious midday meal may help to curb overeating later.
- Skip: Refried beans. Beans definitely deserve the title of “superfood” due to their high levels of protein, fiber, and vitamins. However, frying them in lard or oil significantly ups the calories. Go for dried or low-sodium canned beans for a healthier burrito.
- Wine and dine: Have a glass of wine, but don’t overdo it. Research has shown that moderate wine consumption — one glass of wine per day for women and two glasses per day for men — can actually increase longevity and reduce risk for cardiovascular disease. Just make sure to stick to wine with meals, because drinking outside of mealtime may raise risk for heart disease.
- Skip: Lotsa pasta. A pasta-heavy diet has been shown to increase cardiovascular risk and blood glucose in otherwise healthy Italians. Give Italian night a healthy makeover by subbing spaghetti squash for regular noodles and top with a veggie-rich sauce.
- Practice proportion control: The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are old news at this point. Although Mediterranean dishes usually contain some olive oil, cheese, and meat, these caloric ingredients are used in moderation. Traditional Mediterranean cuisine focuses on lots of plants (fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes) with only small amounts of meat, dairy, and olive oil. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids round out the nutritious profile of this traditional diet.
- Skip: Phyllo dough. Although dishes like spanakopita and baklava contain some healthy ingredients (like spinach and nuts), the buttery pastry provides quite a bit of refined carbohydrates. A typical entrée-sized portion of spanakopita can contain as much saturated fat as a bacon cheeseburger! Try a phyllo-less version of spanakopita for a healthier alternative and trade out the baklava for some honey-sweetened Greek yogurt as dessert.
- Try rye: Although veggies don’t play a starring role, Scandinavian cuisine still has several healthy elements. In addition to plenty of omega-3-rich fish, rye bread is a staple of the traditional Swedish diet. Whole-wheat bread gets attention for its health benefits, but whole-grain rye flour is just as nutritionally impressive. Rye has tons of fiber, and the strong-flavored loaves have been shown to keep people fuller longer than regular wheat bread. Try using rye on a sandwich for a fiber-rich alternative to white or whole-wheat bread.
- Skip: Sodium, especially if you're at risk for hypertension and eat a diet low in potassium. Traditional Nordic foods such as smoked salmon have very high salt levels. Try making smoked fish at home instead — it’s still tasty but lets you keep the sodium under control.
10. United States
- Go local: The “Standard American Diet” (SAD) is indeed sad, but some regional dietary patterns offer healthier alternatives. Look to San Francisco for inspiration — Frisco residents are known for chowing down on locally grown food. Fruits and veggies grown nearby often contain more nutrients and fewer pesticides than produce that must travel long distances from farm to table.
- Skip: Chemicals you're unsure of. Pizza, cheeseburgers, and French fries are obvious “skip” foods, but there are a number of potentially harmful chemicals in American food. Read nutrition labels carefully — in general, the shorter the ingredient list, the fewer chemicals and additives in a given food.
While every geographic region and cultural group around the world has its own pattern of eating, there is no one, universally “healthy” (or “unhealthy”) diet. Regardless, the traditional diets of countries with lower rates of chronic diseases tend to have a few standout elements in common. All of these diets emphasize eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats, as well as simply savoring meals. Look to international cuisines for recipe inspiration, new flavors and ingredients, and different eating practices. Mix-and-match elements from these different diets to create your own personalized version of healthy eating.
Tell us — what’s an internationally-inspired healthy eating tip that you incorporate into your diet?