Did you know that India is the 3rd most obese country in the world, with Mexico leading the race? Sadly, the number isn’t dropping! It’s a pretty eye-opening statistic isn’t it, especially when compared with data from countries like Japan and China with Switzerland coming last? Well, this is a race we rather not win! Let’s borrow a few healthy eating habits from such ‘healthy’ countries around the world.
Have you seen how the Japanese present their food? It’s all in the presentation, isn’t it after all? We all know about the health benefits of seafood (omega-3s!) and veggies, right? 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.
Say no to! 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.
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.
Say no to! MSG → 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.
One study found that while the French associate food with pleasure the country has much lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease. 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 and savor the experience.
Say no to! A chocolate croissant, like many buttery breakfast pastries, is loaded with simple carbohydrates, sugar and fat. Stick with more nutritious options like oatmeal or yogurt for every day and save the pastry for an occasional treat.
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.
Say no to! 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.
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.
Say no to! Lots of 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.
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.
Say no to! Phyllo dough. Although dishes like 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 baklava can contain as much saturated fat as a bacon cheeseburger! Trade out the baklava for some honey-sweetened Greek yogurt as dessert
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.
Say no to! 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.
Traditional Mexican culture includes almuerzo, a midday feast that’s the largest meal of the day. Recent research suggests that eating a big meal in the evening could be a major culprit behind gaining weight.
Say no to! Beans have 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.
You can’t really isolate one meal that’s universally healthy or unhealthy. But the diets of countries we’ve spoken above have the same things in common. They all emphasize eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and healthy fats, as well as savoring meals. Take a leaf from them and lead a healthy, full life!!