We hear a lot about the Western diet not being good for us and how we’ve become dependent on processed and convenience foods that are made readily available to us and require little thought or preparation. A Western diet that is high in processed foods such as salty snacks, sugar, meat and high in calories has been linked to a multitude of diseases including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer. What can we learn from the traditional diets of some of the healthiest nations and can we incorporate any of it into our modern way of life?
The Japanese have a history of being the longest living nation on earth with low incidence of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia. The traditional Japanese diet consists mostly of plants, fish, vegetables, soy and some grains, is low in saturated fats, processed foods and devoid of dairy products. On the Japanese island of Okinawa they’ve been known to have the most centenarians which prompted a study into why they live so long. The findings show that the people of Okinawa had a low calorie diet with their meals consisting mainly of seaweed and fish. Sweet potato, turmeric and jasmine tea also featured prominently in their diet. This type of low calorie diet has been linked to longer lifespans and lower BMI. The Japanese have a great expression concerning healthy eating habits called ‘Hara hachi bu’ which means “Eat until 80% full” (literally meaning, stomach 80%). They also lead quite active lifestyles and tend to walk or cycle for transport and practice Tai chi.
The French are known for their style and also for their lean physiques! The phenomenon known as the "French paradox", where women are slim in a land of delicious pastries. There is a relatively low rate of heart disease and obesity despite a high dietary intake of cholesterol and saturated fat in France as compared with other Western countries. When it comes to purchasing food, fresh and local is always best for the French. They favour quality over quantity and enjoy simple, wholesome home-cooked meals.
Savouring and sharing food in a leisurely fashion is an important part of their dining experience– they never wolf down their meals. In fact new research is emerging around the benefits of mindful eating and its beneficial effect on healthy weight levels and general well being.
French meals tend to be light and the portions small, with heavier dishes eaten occasionally. They prefer to have the real thing (e.g. butter, sugar, full cream) but in small portions - you won’t find artificial sweetener or low fat cheese on the table and they favour water in place of a soft drink. A small glass of red wine is enjoyed with a meal. Resveratrol and other antioxidant flavonoids found in red wine promote heart health by inhibiting the formation of inflammatory factors that trigger cardiovascular diseases. The French tend to walk a lot and practice portion control, with French women using yogurt to manage their hunger.
The Mediterranean diet has been listed as one of the healthiest in the world for demonstrating beneficial and protective effects on heart health. It is also associated with reduced incidences of cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. One in three people from the Greek island of Ikaria live to the ripe old age of 90. Interestingly their diet is predominantly vegetarian, again with the theme of seasonal and locally sourced or foraged vegetables. This includes fennel, dandelion greens, and many other greens growing in their gardens. A variety of herbal teas that are rich in antioxidants are consumed, along with plenty of olive oil, fresh vegetables and little meat or dairy. Goat’s milk (which is easier to digest) is used instead of cow’s milk. Again, walking was a prominent activity and mode of transport – as was napping and a little red wine consumed with meals.
So there’s some food for thought! These are just some examples of healthy eating habits from around the world. Take a little from each, whether it be practising Hara hachi bu by eating until only 80% full like the Japanese, shopping for local seasonal produce at the markets like the French or using olive oil as if you’re living in the Mediterranean!
Yours in natural health,
Always consult your healthcare professional before commencing a new dietary or exercise regime, before using any supplements and before making any changes to prescribed medications.