10 diet tips from around the world

Want to obtain or maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of disease and increase longevity? Stop eating like a typical North American.

That seems to be the message we’re getting from health experts as more research points the finger at our unhealthy eating habits as the culprit behind a growing number of health issues — like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke (to name a few). Our love of junk food, lack of exercise and preference for quantity over quality can have detrimental effects on our well being.

Meanwhile, people in other countries and cultures have lower rates of disease, healthier weights and better health. It’s no surprise we often hear advice like “diet like the French” (according to trendy books) or “eat a Mediterranean diet” (according to a growing body of research). When it comes to living well and eating well, “looking elsewhere” may be our best option.

To that end, many researchers like Dr. Daphne Miller, author of The Jungle Effect, have set out to discover the dietary secrets of regions of the world that have especially low rates of disease (such as Okinawa, Japan where cancer rates are down and longevity is up, and Iceland, where a diet of fish could be behind low rates of depression).

Should we adopt their habits? Not necessarily. Some experts warn we shouldn’t be too quick to adopt dietary habits from other places. There’s a lot of diversity within a culture or country, and genetics, environmental factors, income and lifestyle also play a role. In other words, some international diet “secrets” won’t work for everyone.

However, some smart habits do apply to our diet and lifestyle. Here are ten strategies we can borrow from other countries and cultures:

Take pleasure in food. It’s simple advice, but one of the biggest mistakes we make is rushing our meals. Experts note that in many European cultures, people linger over their meals — for as long as two hours in some cases — yet on average they consume less than many Americans. Why? It takes at least 20 minutes for the brain to get the message that the stomach is satisfied, but by that time people who eat quickly have already over-eaten. Feeling “stuffed” has replaced feeling “full”, says nutritionist Samantha Heller in an article on WebMD.

In other words, we aren’t doing ourselves any favours when we hurry through a meal or grab a bite on the run. Experts recommend to slow down and savour our food. For example, take a full half-hour for lunch and try breaking up your dinner into small courses. Make any meal an occasion by using the good dishes, eating by candlelight or playing some relaxing music.

Use quality ingredients. Fresh, in-season and local ingredients are the hallmark of many tasty cuisines around the world — and it’s one area where we tend to compromise. We often choose less nutritious and processed forms of foods for the sake of convenience — and we enjoy our out-of-season and imported treats. However, paying more attention to quality means we’ll enjoy our food more, and receive more nutrition from it.

Quality is also a good yardstick for consumption. You only get 1800-2200 calories a day so make every food choice count. It’s okay to admit an entrée or dessert isn’t worth a third of your daily allowance.

Watch the portion size. How can people in other cultures enjoy rich foods and not get fat? The answer is the serving size. Experts acknowledge that portions are much smaller in other countries, including France. After all, it’s common sense — less food on the plate means fewer calories consumed. Besides, people are more likely to stick to a healthy eating plan that doesn’t deprive them of their favourite foods and allows small indulgences (like chocolate).

Snack small (or don’t snack at all). The problems with our snacking style? Experts warn that we reach for the wrong foods like sugary and salty convenience foods, and snacks take on meal-sized proportions. Many people in Europe, Africa and Asia don’t snack at all — and thereby avoid all those empty calories — or they “take the edge off” their hunger with small portions of healthy foods like nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Embrace healthy fats. Going for “fat-free” sounds like good advice for dieters, but dietitians know it’s the wrong strategy. When we’re told to cut back our fats, it’s usually the “bad” ones like transfats and saturated fats we should be worried about.

The truth is we need a few unsaturated fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) each day. These healthy fats are found in foods like nuts, seeds, olives and avocados, and oils such as olive oil and canola oil — which are major components of the Mediterranean diet (along with many other diets from around the world).

Go nuts. Nuts are a component of the widely-touted Mediterranean diet, but they’re also a mainstay of the healthy diet of countries like Gambia. There, for instance, peanuts are used instead of meat to supply protein as part of the main meal. The trick is to use nuts as a meat substitute, not an add-on. For instance, throw some almonds in a salad, or cashews in a stir fry.

Eat less meat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, North Americans eat more meat than most continents. We often let meat take centre stage, but many international cuisines — like traditional Mexican and Asian — use it as a garnish or accent. Vegetables and grains are the focus instead, and fish and legumes are the main source of protein in the diet. Here in Canada, dietitians even recommend that we get our protein from plant-based sources at least three times a week. (For more information, see Six keys to healthy eating.)

While poultry and fish are more widely recommended than red meat, that doesn’t mean you have to give up your beef. The trick: choose leaner cuts from grass-fed sources. According to WebMD, Argentinians eat more beef than Americans on average, but since their cattle are grass-fed the beef itself is lower in fat than grain-fed cows.

Eat more vegetables. Yes, we’re sick of hearing this advice, but it’s another thing that some of the healthiest diets around the world have in common — and another failing of North American diets. In non-vegetarian diets, vegetables usually don’t rank above side dish status even though they should dominate our plates. There’s no getting around our need for leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower), legumes, root vegetables and the bright array of coloured vegetables that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants.

Don’t drink alone. Much has been written about the potential benefits of wine, but take a cue from the French and enjoy it with a meal. Drinking without food can cause a drop in blood sugar — leading to a case of the “munchies”. Add that to a loss of inhibitions and you could find yourself giving into the temptation of unhealthy foods.

If you’re not a wine drinker, enjoy some red grapes instead. Experts note that this popular European dessert offers many of the benefits of wine, but in a “whole food” form.

Learn to cook authentic food. Simply eating international cuisine at your local restaurant isn’t the way to take advantage of the health benefits of international cuisine. Restaurant foods are notoriously high in salt and calories, and many so-called ethnic foods have been “Americanized” in unhealthy ways (like piling on the cheese and greasy meats). Mastering the recipes and techniques to prepare authentic foods may take some time, but they’re worth the time and effort.

Essentially, you can’t go wrong by eating a variety of healthy foods, keeping portion sizes under control and taking the time to truly enjoy food. It may sound easy — but these are often the toughest habits we have to break.

Sources: WebMD, USDA.gov, Forbes.com

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Carlos Fierro

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