Despite being #1 in overall Olympic medals won, the U.S. also has the dubious distinction of being the most obese country in North America, and the 12th in the world. We're also notorious for our constant cycle of diet trends, from the highly researched and very healthy Mediterranean and Dash Diet to controversial detox diets and cleanses. Meanwhile, other countries have obesity rates that are just a fraction of ours.
Outside the U.S., many countries have obesity rates that are just a fraction of ours. What's their secret? Hint: It's not crash diets. In most cases, it's simply eating the right foods, in the right amounts, prepared in the right way.
“The need for American families to incorporate a healthy eating pattern became a key theme in the recently released 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines,” states Becky Hand, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Sparkpeople.
The good news? You don't have to pack up and move abroad to reap the benefits of international diets. Let's explore what some of these countries are doing right, and then you can incorporate those healthy habits right here at home.
The Japanese island of Okinawa has one of the world's longest life expectancies. Could their secret be as simple as a potato? The Imo, a purple sweet potato chock full of vitamins, is the population's primary food staple. Okinawans also eat generous amounts of veggies and tofu, along with some fish and rice.
Is a potato-centric diet a healthy choice for us? "The key is to not eat too much, avoid eating them as French fries and don’t add unhealthy ingredients to them," says Tricia Silverman, a registered dietitian with NuTricia's Lifestyles. "I like to make a green salad and add pieces of potato that I may have roasted or baked the day before, or microwaved. I add protein such as beans, fish, tofu or chicken, and then top with my favorite salad dressing." Having trouble tracking down purple potatoes at your local supermarket? Use a sweet potato instead.
Another Okinawan food that's starting to gain a presence in the U.S. is the Daikon radish. Silverman suggests using it as an ingredient in a soup, or enjoying it as a raw vegetable in a salad. You can also steam it, bake it or use it in a stir-fry.
Silverman points out that it's not just about what the Okinawans are eating, but about how they're eating it. One of their local customs is Hara Hachi Bu, the practice of eating until you are only 80 percent full, which could be a factor in the health and longevity of the elders in Okinawa. "Hara Hachi Bu can be used as a mindful eating strategy for those looking to lose weight," Silverman says. "The way I describe it to my clients is that after you eat a plate of food and are debating whether to get seconds, realize that what you ate was probably enough to gently satisfy you without completely filling you up."
When you think of the pasta, bread and wine that is the hallmark of Italian cuisine, health may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the star ingredients of many Italian dishes—olive oil, garlic and tomatoes—are all incredibly healthy.
Cooked tomatoes aren't just delicious; they also help prevent cancer. The credit goes to lycopene, an antioxidant that gives red fruits their color. By attacking the free radicals that cause disease, lycopene reduces the risk of prostate, breast, stomach and lung cancers. This hardworking antioxidant may also promote cardiovascular healthy by cutting down on "bad" cholesterol.
Garlic may not be great for the breath, but it does wonders for the body. Silverman points out that the flavorful Italian herb may help to lower cholesterol. Numerous studies have also linked greater garlic consumption with a reduction in certain types of cancers.
Italians add a generous amount of olive oil to their dishes, which provides a big health boost. "The extra virgin olive oil in their diet has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer benefits, in addition to its heart-healthy properties," says Silverman. "It also helps the body to absorb nutrients."
DENMARK, NORWAY, SWEDEN & SWITZERLAND
What do these Scandinavian countries have in common? They all embrace the Nordic diet, which is heavy in fruit, whole grains, seasonal veggies and plenty of fish. There's a focus on fresh, homemade cooking, with fewer processed and packaged foods. Red meat, dairy and sweets are only consumed in small amounts, which is a big shift from typical U.S. eating habits.
Silverman is a proponent of the Nordic diet's benefits. "It’s a good idea to limit the amount of red meat (pork, beef and lamb) you eat in your diet, and replace it with protein sources that may contribute to longevity, such as beans and fish," she says. "When you do eat meat or cheese, consider eating it sparingly and treating it as a condiment instead of the main part of your meal."
Oily fish—both freshwater and saltwater—is a staple of the Norwegian diet. Salmon, herring, mackerel, haddock, trout and cod all make frequent appearances in dishes, and is eaten in raw, smoked or pickled form. Fish is gaining a strong reputation as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and arthritis, while also promoting optimal health of the brain, skin, bones, joints and lungs.
"To benefit from the Norwegian way of eating, start incorporating omega-3 rich fish into your diet twice per week," Silverman recommends. Get inspired with our healthy fish recipes.
In Vietnam, it's all about the vegetables, which is an area in which many Americans are sorely lacking. While we may eat them only for dinner, the Vietnamese typically include them in multiple meals, including breakfast. A veggie-rich diet is a cornerstone of optimal health and longevity. Check out these shortcuts to getting at least five servings of vegetables per day.
Bone broth has just recently become a health food trend in America, but the Vietnamese have been eating it for well over a century. They use it in their Pho, which is a popular noodle soup dish that many natives eat for breakfast. Packed with antioxidants, the rice noodles and rice broth serve as a delicious and nutritious foundation for chicken or beef, vegetables and fresh herbs.
Find a wide variety of Pho recipes here at SparkPeople.
In Spain, most dishes are heavily influenced by the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fish, fruits, veggies, pulses and nuts. The country's native almonds have been linked to lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk of heart disease.
"Nuts are a longevity food, and are common in cultures where people are known for living long lives full of robust health," says Silverman. "They are chock full of micronutrients that are important for your bones." She recommends eating a variety of nuts in either raw or dry-roasted form. Find dozens of nut recipes at SparkRecipes.
In addition, many Mediterranean dishes are cooked and flavored with heart-healthy olive oil. Try replacing margarine, butter or salad dressing with this beneficial oil.
A focus on fresh fish makes Iceland one of the world's healthiest-eating countries. Haddock, herring, shrimp, halibut and plaice are just a few of the seafood selections that star in Icelandic recipes, along with some choice cuts of meat.
Want to reap the benefits of fresh fish, but not sure how to work it into your meal plan? Silverman offers some tips: "To flavor fish, I like to mix canola oil, Dijon mustard, white vinegar, agave nectar, basil, oregano, garlic, onion, oregano, sumac (optional) and pepper with a small pinch of salt. I mix these ingredients and a little water if necessary, then pour over the fish. Flip the fish a few times to help spread the dressing, and then bake in the oven. This adds a nice flavor to chicken as well." Find more fish recipes.
Typical Chinese meals are made up of four food groups: meat, fruit, vegetables and grains. Most meals are served fresh, with very little processed, canned or frozen foods. Instead of traditional dairy, most people in China eat tofu and soy milk. Desserts and sweets are reserved for special occasions, and fried foods are also uncommon.
Leafy green bok choy is a popular culinary choice in China, offering plenty of calcium, vitamins and cancer-fighting antioxidants. "The gluten-free grain millet is popular in China," says Silverman. "They eat it as a breakfast porridge base and add other ingredients such as chicken, eggs, onions or honey."
The prevalence of chopsticks means that meals are eaten slower in China, resulting in lower caloric intake. Even without chopsticks, you can practice mindful eating to ensure that you stop when you're full and prevent overindulging.
When it comes to French cuisine, the focus is on quality over quantity. Most people enjoy smaller portions of rich foods, savoring each bite. Some staples of French meals are fruit, fish, lean meat and plenty of vegetables, including whole grain cereals, beans and pulses. Extra virgin olive oil adds flavor and "good" fat.
"Take a lesson from the French and pay more attention to the quality of your food," Silverman recommends. "Do a side-by-side taste testing of organic versus conventional strawberries, and it will become very hard to keep buying the conventional. The organic strawberries are bursting with flavor. The same goes for high quality chocolate and other foods that don't contain artificial sugars, flavors, colors and additives that you can’t find in nature."
Good fats prevail in Greece, where the health-boosting Mediterranean diet is again popular. "While Americans have been trying to restrict their fat for many years, the Greeks have been enjoying fat as a healthy part of their diet, primarily in the form of extra virgin olive oil," Silverman says.
Greek cuisine is heavy in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, and not a lot of dairy or meat. Fava beans provide generous amounts of fiber, vitamins, protein and folate. Fish is also part of their diet, serving as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.
The Greek also consume a lot of Feta cheese, which adds flavor to salads, rice and vegetables. In Ikaria, a Greek island renowned for its longevity, roasted chickpeas are a popular, fiber-rich snack. Try our recipe to make your own.
The benefits of berries is one of Mother Nature's best gifts to us, and the Swedes don't take them for granted. In addition to fighting disease with their antioxidants, berries can even help improve memory, balance and coordination. The typical Swedish diet is high in antioxidant-rich berries, as well as fish and rye bread.
"It's easy to add a variety of berries to your diet," Silverman says. "Put them over salads, yogurt, oatmeal, cereal and in smoothies." Discover more recipes with berries.
The Ethiopian diet is mainly plant-based, emphasizing root vegetables, beans and lentils with only a rare appearance of animal products or dairy. "Lentils are quick-cooking beans that do not have to be soaked first before cooking," says Silverman. "They taste great flavored with Berebere spice, a tasty and aromatic Ethiopian spice mixture." Explore our 10 easy lentil recipes. Ethiopians also enjoy injera, a flatbread that's rich in protein, vitamins and fiber.
Spices have been linked to a host of health benefits, including cancer prevention, pain relief, improved heart health and overall longevity. Those in the Indian culture take full advantage of spices, including onions and garlic (both of which have been linked to reduced heart disease) and turmeric, a popular Indian spice that has been shown to prevent Alzheimer's disease due to its high antioxidant content.
"Garam Masala is a fragrant and delicious Indian spice blend that is wonderful in Indian soups and other dishes," Silverman says. "I love the flavor it imparts to rice, beans and vegetables."
Hungry Planet: What the World Eats
SparkPeople dietitian Becky Hand has always been fascinated by the diversity of food availability, food selection and family dining habits throughout the world. To see these variations in picture form, she recommends checking out the thought-provoking and mesmerizing food project, Hungry Planet, which showcases the weekly food selection of families in 24 countries.
This article has been reviewed and approved by Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Becky Hand.
What are your thoughts on these international diets? Are there any others you'd add to the list?