By Tina Paymaster, PHASE IV Functional Nutrition & Health Specialist
Figuring out what diet and workout regimen is the best for you can often feel like searching for a diamond earring in the sand.
You may even know someone that said they lost 25lbs on the paleo diet and another person that said going vegan was the only way.
However, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can make all the difference between leading a good quality life or spending years in and out of doctor’s offices.
Unfortunately the United States isn’t setting a good example for the rest of the world. The latest statistics show that 31.8 percent of Americans are considered obese.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is “"rich in red meat, dairy products, processed and artificially sweetened foods, and salt, with minimal intake of fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, and whole grains."
In addition, research shows that the average American sits 13 out of 16 waking hours a day, and there are many health consequences that can arise as a result.
Luckily, we can look at some of the healthiest cultures around the world and dissect their diets and lifestyles to find out what makes them live longer, healthier and happier.
While the low-carb craze is still on overdrive here in the US, Brazilians are sticking to their traditional staple of rice and beans. Beans are a great low calorie source of fiber which helps to keep blood sugar levels in balance. In addition, the amino acids in rice and beans come together to form a complete protein. Another aspect of Brazilian lifestyle is having just three main meals a day: a light breakfast, substantial lunch and a slightly lighter dinner. Here in the US, many people have heavy breakfasts that can be harsh on the sensitive digestive system right after waking up. Lunch is often on-the-go or forgotten and dinner ends up being a large, food-coma inducing meal.
In Poland, eating out is a rare occurrence. In fact only 5% of a family’s budget is typically spent on eating out vs 12.5 percent for the average American. Cooking at home more means more reasonable portion sizes and more control over what ingredients go into your meals.
54% of Dutch bike owners use their bikes for getting to work and their day to day activities including shopping and going out to dinner. This means they are spending far more time being active throughout the day and much less time sitting in a car for hours on end. In addition, although the Scandinavian countries are the world’s larges coffee consumers, they skip the lattes and Frappuccinos for good ol’ black coffee, which saves a lot of calories.
The Norwegians are major fish-eaters, which helps to supply a daily doses of anti-inflammatory Omega-3s. Dinners are typically eaten as early as 4pm followed by something lighter around 8pm. Cooking and eating at home are also very common practices and eating out is typically saved for special occasions. Another interesting fact is that rest is seen as an important part of daily life. Offices rarely stay open after 4pm and people don’t usually work on weekends. Even though Norway has a cold and wet climate, Norwegians still make an effort to get outside and stay active. “Friluftsliv” is a Norwegian world that translates to “open air life.” They enjoy their time and nature and make an effort to embrace it as much as they can.
The French have long been looked at as stellar examples of how to live indulgent, yet healthy lives. While French cuisine is rich in butter, cream and bread, their habits around eating create balance. In fact, the French are shown to have some of the lowest levels of body fat! Meal time is not seen as a grab-and-go affair or a 10-minute break to scarf down your sandwich before your next meeting. They value meal time and often dine together, eating slowly while engaging in conversation. While one may think long meals may lead to overeating, some studies have shown that eating with other people can encourage you to eat more slowly and eat less because you’ll realize you’re full before you finish every last crumb on your plate. In addition, the French eat smaller meals and make their mid-day meal the largest of the day. While sugar is often condemned here in the US, the French allow themselves to indulge by having small desserts after their meals. Not depriving yourself and eating slowly can help to combat overindulging.
Greece and Italy
The Mediterranean diet is one of the most researched and praised diets out there. The diet mainly consists of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fish, seafood and olive oil. Poultry, eggs and dairy are eaten in moderation and red meat is rarely eaten. Sugar and processed foods are not common either. In addition, because of the climate, many, farm fresh produce is abundant in these regions making seasonal eating easy. People rarely go to large grocery stores to shop. Similar to France, countries like Greece, Italy and Spain make mealtime a social event full of conversation and slow eating.
Japanese people have some of the longest life expectancies in the world (87 years old for women and 80 years old for men). Their fresh, balanced diet, eating habits and active lifestyle may explain why. Miso soup is commonly eaten before meals. The fermented soy bean paste is full of gut-friendly probiotics and seaweed contains lot of vitamins and minerals including iodine, which is essential for thyroid health. Other diet staples include rice, cooked vegetables and small amounts of fish. Meat isn’t very common in traditional Japanese cuisine. Many Japanese also eat a colorful array of foods, making sure to include something red, blue-green, yellow, white and black at every meal. Green tea, another staple in Japanese culture, that has powerful antioxidants, is often sipped at meals. Warm fluids help to support digestion, whereas cold beverages often hinder it. Another common practice is to eat until you’re only 80% full.
South Korean women have a very long lifespan (82 years). Men on the other hand are much lower around 78 years, which may be due to the high tobacco smoking rates. However, we can learn a thing or two from Korean cuisine to keep our bodies healthy. Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, is eating at most meals. It is spicy (which helps to speed up the metabolism) and is rich in fiber and gut-healthy probiotics which help to support the immune system. Traditional Korean cuisine is made of rice, lots of cooked vegetables, spicy red pepper paste and small amounts of meat.
Indians have extremely low rates of Alzheimer’s disease and some researchers think it may have to do with all the spices in their cuisine, especially turmeric. The active compound in turmeric – curcumin – has been heavily researched and science has proven its efficacy in reducing inflammation and joint pain, supporting detoxication and cardiovascular health and boosting memory and cognitive function. It’s best to sauté spices in a little oil and then add vegetables or protein. This helps to activate them and bring out their healing potential even more. Experiment using spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander and fennel to flavor your meals instead of too much salt.
- Include fiber in every meal from vegetables, beans, legumes and/or whole grains
- Eat primarily fresh, whole foods that are in season and avoid packaged/processed foods
- Include small amounts of fermented foods such as miso, kimchi or sauerkraut daily
- Consider eating three meals a day vs six small meals a day
- Include sources of omega-3s into your diet such as fish, walnuts and flax seeds
- Reduce red meat and meat overall
- Cook with spices for flavor instead of too much salt, butter and oil
- Make lunch the main meal of the day and dinner a smaller meal
- Eat dinner earlier
- Cook at home more
- Skip the fancy coffee drinks and stick to black coffee or tea to save calories
- Make mealtime a social event with people you love
- Try riding a bike or walking to work or to run errands
- Take time to rest and recover from life and your workouts