Obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates in the U.S. are among the world’s highest. Why? Well, one big reason for our collective girths is that over the past few decades the average American eating lifestyle has degraded into the Standard American Diet—stuffed with nutritionally degraded packaged foods and highly processed meats, and woefully short on whole foods such as fruits, legumes and vegetables.
On the flip side, researchers are discovering that certain food habits from cultures around the world have demonstrated healing properties. From Italy to India, many countries can still teach us a lot about healthy eating—and fortunately, a number of traditional eating habits from various nations can be easily implemented into our diets to give them a nutritional upgrade.
Take a cue from these cultures’ time-honored dietary strategies to learn how to be healthier than ever.
The Mediterranean Diet has emerged as a poster child for healthy eating, garnering praise for its reliance on whole foods and ease of adherence. Over the past few decades, a raft of studies have demonstrated that the Mediterranean Diet is a champion for heart health by reducing cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure numbers (Bertoia et al. 2014; Rees et al. 2013; Yang et al. 2014).
Scientists have also found many other important health perks. A 2014 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study reported that adherence to a Mediterranean way of eating can trim the waistline and improve blood sugar control (Lasa et al. 2014). Meanwhile, scientists at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center concluded that the edibles associated with the Mediterranean diet can slow cognitive decline, helping keep you sharp as a whip (Tangney et al. 2011). Another reason to break out the bottle of olive oil: A British Journal of Cancer study, involving nearly half a million subjects, reported that overall cancer risk was lower among people who adhered more closely to the Mediterranean way of eating (Couto et al. 2011).
What makes this diet so ridiculously healthy? It all comes down to traditional foods of the region that flood the body with a steady supply of disease-thwarting vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy unsaturated fatty acids and a plethora of antioxidants, including lycopene in tomato products, oleocanthal in olive oil and resveratrol in red wine.
The diet limits exposure to refined sugars and grains, trans fat, processed red meats and preservative-laden packaged foods. Meal and snack portions also tend to be scanty by North American standards, helping combat calorie overload.
Want to keep your ticker beating strongly? Try these Mediterranean eating practices:
Veg out. Strive for seven to 10 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables each day. This is one of the most important disease-prevention components of the Mediterranean Diet. Mediterranean cooks also make good use of herbs like oregano and basil, which deliver healthy amounts of disease-fighting compounds.
Don’t fear fat. The Mediterranean Diet includes a generous amount of dietary fat courtesy of healthy sources such as nuts and, of course, extra-virgin olive oil. Use olive oil for salad dressings, and sprinkle nutrient-dense nuts on cereal and yogurt.
Get on the grain train. Mediterranean eaters focus mostly on whole grains, which provide more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber than refined versions. Beyond whole-wheat bread and pasta, try experimenting with whole grains like farro, spelt, freekeh and barley.
Go fish. The Mediterranean Diet often includes two or more servings of seafood per week. Aim to swap out some of your chicken and beef with a catch of the day.
Shop close to home. Many Mediterranean kitchens are filled with foods grown close to home, maybe even in people’s own backyards. Foods that don’t have to travel hundreds or thou- sands of miles to make it to your dinner plate are likely plump with more nutrients. Buy more of your grub from a local farmers’ market.
Implementing some of the most cherished eating habits of the up-and-coming Nordic Diet—followed by nations such as Sweden and Denmark—could help us axe the fat and fend off coronary woes.
A 2014 study in the Annals of Medicine found that adherence to a Nordic style of eating, particularly high intakes of Nordic fruits and cereals, was associated with lower levels of a marker for internal inflammation (Kanerva et al. 2014). Inflammation has increasingly been linked to the progression of chronic ailments, including cardiovascular disease.
Also, good news for those battling the bulge: When Danish scientists placed people on a diet rich in traditional Nordic fare—such as local fruits, vegetables, fish and cereals— they enjoyed significant drops in body weight and blood pressure (Poulsen et al. 2014). More reasons to eat like a Viking: Data suggests adherence to a Nordic style of eating can cut the risk for colorectal cancer (Kyrø et al. 2013) and improve blood cholesterol numbers (Uusitupa et al. 2013).
Hoping to achieve a healthier body? Try these Nordic eating practices:
Get high on rye. Take a cue from the Scandinavians and sneak more whole- grain rye into your daily diet. A 2014 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that rye intake is associated with improved insulin sensitivity, which could slash the risk for diabetes (Magnusdottir et al. 2014). Its abundant fiber also has a satiating affect that can reduce overeating (Isaksson et al. 2012). Occasionally swap out your morning oats for rye flakes; top rye crackers with almond butter or smoked fish; and use high-fiber rye bread (brands made with whole-rye flour) for lunch sandwiches.
Seek seafood. The Nordic Diet gets high marks for including plenty of seafood that is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Try to consume omega-rich seafood such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines or herring about three times a week.
Try game theory. Seasoned Nordic chefs make good use of game meats like reindeer and grouse. For an alternative to the same old chicken and beef, try sourcing local bison, pheasant, elk or venison. These meats are often leaner and richer in nutrients than industrially raised meat. Case in point: A recent study published in the journal Nutrition Research found that consuming bison results in less of a rise in blood trigyclerides, inflammation and other heart disease risk factors than eating beef (McDaniel et al. 2013). Differences in rearing methods and nutrition profiles may explain why.
Go wild on berries. Rich in disease-thwarting antioxidants and vitamins, berries are often eaten throughout the day by health-conscious Scandinavians. You probably don’t have access to Nordic cloudberries or lingonberries, but more-common blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are great alternatives.
Be honest. What is one of the first things that come to mind when you think of Indian cuisine? Okay, so it might be buttered chicken, but it should be spices. The traditional Indian diet is duly noted for its generous use of a dizzying range of spices, many of which are proving to have medicinal properties. Turmeric, a quintessential Indian spice, obtains its bright-yellow hue from the phytochemical curcumin, which has been shown to bolster brain health (Belviranlı, Okudan & Atalik 2013) and to alter lipid metabolism in a way that may reduce body fat gain and decrease cholesterol levels (Ejaz et al. 2009). India’s liberal use of spices such as cayenne, turmeric, ginger and coriander has been credited with contributing to the nation’s historically low rates of cancer (Rastogi et al. 2008).
While spices are omnipresent in Indian fare, red meat is not. Scientists at Harvard School of Public Health recently linked high intakes of red meat with type 2 diabetes risk (Pan et al. 2013). Many health experts believe the Standard American Diet is much too chummy with red meat, particularly the heavily processed kind. By contrast, India has among the lowest levels of meat consumption in the world, as its people gravitate toward a plant-based diet. Dahls and other dishes made with legumes are staples in many Indian households and contribute healthy amounts of dietary protein and fiber.
Want a tasty way to bolster health? Try these Indian eating practices:
Spice things up. When making everything from soups to oatmeal, make it a habit to give your spice rack a better workout. The added punch that spices lend dishes not only provides health-boosting properties but also delivers new taste sensations that can keep your diet tasting fresh.
Try meatless Mondays. Consider swapping out meat for beans or lentils once or more each week. You will trim your food budget and boost your intakes of valuable fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Approach probiotics. Many Indians regularly consume yogurt in the form of the minty yogurt dip raita or ultra-redressing lassi drinks. Follow their lead and you’ll up your intake of probiotics—friendly microbes linked to better digestive and immune health.
Start from scratch. Too much of our sustenance comes from beyond our own kitchens. Most good Indian cooks advocate for preparing meals from scratch. This means sparing your body the effects of nefarious ingredients like the chemical preservatives, excessive salt and sweeteners loaded into many packaged and restaurant foods.
In the Southern-most part of Japan lies an island that has gained worldwide attention for housing some of the world’s longest-living people. Researchers say the dietary lifestyle of the Okinawans is a major reason why more people here live to see triple digits than elsewhere on the planet (Willcox et al. 2014). Interestingly, when they eat a more modern, Western-style diet, Okinawans tend not to live as long or as healthy lives. Sadly, the younger Okinawan generation is moving away from eating a traditional diet (Miyagi et al. 2003).
This traditional diet is moderate in calories and anchored by “functional” plant-based fare such as soy (namely miso and tofu), sweet potatoes, sea vegetables, mushrooms and other indigenous vegetables. In contrast to people eating the typical American diet or popular diets like Paleo, Okinawans consume little in the way of red meat, eggs and poultry—instead focusing on fish and soy for their protein.
Want to eat your way to a century? Try these Okinawa eating practices:
Eat less of everything. Some of the longevity of Okinawans is thought to stem from their low-calorie diet (Willcox et al. 2007). They are known to practice a rule called “hara hachi bu,” meaning they eat only until 80% full. This is in contrast to many Americans, who stuff themselves silly at every meal.
Since our brains are about 15–20 minutes behind our stomachs, it usually turns out that when you think you’re 80% full, you’re actually really full. The result of living by this rule (and keeping active) is that Okinawans end up being slimmer, which goes a long way in stalling chronic disease.
Gather a crowd. Unlike Okinawans, Americans tend to wolf down their meals rather than enjoy them. Elders in Okinawa often turn to mealtimes as a social activity involving interaction with friends and family. Researchers believe that these communal meals are one reason why Okinawans eat more slowly and make more thoughtful (and healthy!) food choices.
Schedule teatime. Instead of drinking sugary sodas or chemical-laden diet versions, many Okinawans are sipping green tea. In recent years, green tea has gained recognition for containing a powerful dose of disease-fighting antioxidants. Researchers at Oregon State University found that antioxidants in green tea— such as epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or (less of a mouthful) EGCG—can rev up the immune system to keep your health in tiptop shape (Wong et al. 2011).
Reel in seaweed. Save for the occasional trip to a sushi joint, most Americans eat little seaweed. By contrast, items like kombu, nori and wakame are common types of sea vegetables regularly enjoyed in Okinawa, where they’re added to soups, rice and noodle dishes. Beyond being low in calories, sea vegetables soak up ocean-borne nutrients as they dance in the currents.