Why Women in Other Countries Live Longer than We Do

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I've been quite fortunate to have traveled quite a bit throughout my 20s. I studied French in the Loire Valley, where I learned to appreciate good wine and fine food. I was an English teacher in South Korea, where I taught junior high students how to write essays for standardized tests. My best friend and I visited Japan together, and I've taken several weeklong trips to Europe. (Next up is a trip to Turkey to visit a dear friend who's slowly circumnavigating the globe, but I digress!)

I brought back trinkets and photos, but I also brought back some healthy habits as well. These vacations abroad are not only a chance to see places and cultures unlike my own, they're also a great way for me to observe how other people balance the good life and daily life.

My host mother in France, Colette, frequently told me, "Il faut profiter de la vie." Basically, it means that you have to take advantage of all that life gives you.

Oh I profited from life, all right.

Living in France was the first time I gained weight. Her endless portions, free-flowing wine and nightly multi-course meals were definitely "the good life" for a sheltered 19-year-old from the Midwest, but I returned home in tight pants with an affinity for strong cheese and red wine.

Unfortunately, I hadn't yet learned the delicate art of balance and moderation. (Those seeds were planted during my time in Korea.)
This week, I came across an interesting article in Women's Health: Secrets of the World's Healthiest Women.
It had some pretty good tips, some of which I've learned through experience and others that were new to me.

The highlights:
  • Eat more garlic No Korean meal is complete without kimchi— a side dish that's heavy on raw garlic. The secret to its heart-protecting power is an enzyme in the garlic that prevents cholesterol from sticking to artery walls. But it's released only when the cloves are finely chopped or crushed, and heating weakens its effects. Top fish, pasta, or veggies with chopped fresh garlic just before serving, or get kimchi in the supermarket or online at koamart.com.

  • Go wild with greens "Diet is the most important factor when it comes to preventing colon cancer," says Daphne Miller, M. D., author of "The Jungle Effect: A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World." She found that most Cameroonian dishes call for folate-rich wild greens, which may slash colon cancer risk by 60 percent.

  • Cook more fish Despite long, dark winters, Iceland boasts low rates of seasonal affective disorder. Their recipe for happiness: Icelanders eat a hefty 225 pounds of cold-water fish per person per year—more than any people in the world, Miller says. "Eat two or more servings of fish a week and you'll reduce your risk of depression by 50 percent."

Read the entire article to find out in which countries women are the happiest, least likely to get colon cancer, rarely have a heart attack and more. (The U.S. and Canada aren't on any of those lists.)

Is there anything you've learned from other cultures than can help you in your own healthy lifestyle? Have you picked up any healthy habits while traveling?

How do you balance the good life and daily life? (Meaning, how do you stay on track while living life to its fullest?)

Photo: Me in Paris, 2007

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Really good ideas!! I know I love eating greens - I just don't always want to prepare them. Garlic is good too. I'll have to find some kimchi or try to make it. I like it at the restaurants. Report
I suspect shorter workweeks and more access to healthcare factors in as well. Report
I think it boils down to this. In the rest of the world, people work to live. In the US, we live to work. We constantly keep "busy, busy, busy" and don't take the time to live, eat well, or enjoy our lives. Maybe we should look more at attitudes and habits than foods.
I spent 3 weeks in Japan where I saw diets devoid of sugar and fat AND very small portions. Instead of french fries, a tiny new potato, boiled. Instead of a hamburger, a
2 oz. slice of grilled fish. Instead of an Orange Julius, 3 sections of a fresh orange. And no snacks. It is impolite to eat in public (other than a restaurant) in Japan. I lost 10 pounds in those 3 weeks due to walking more and eating Japanese meals. Taught me a lesson. Report
This is one of my favorite articles you've written as I've learned this info myself in the comfort of my home via the internet. I may have learned it cheaper, but you had a good time. Good for you, and thanks for sharing your well-travelled self. :) Report
This is a very important article for me, as I have done extensive travel and live with my boyfriend who is from Germany.

First of all, the food in restaurants may be rich, but they are of higher quality and you don't eat out multiple times a week like we do here. It is simply too expensive.

Secondly, snacking and home-cooked meals show the biggest difference in how Americans vs. Europeans treat food. Snacking, if at all, is veggie or fruit based. No extra sugars or fats. Home cooked meals always have salad and a small portion of whatever else (this was the case when I stayed with my bf's parents in Germany).

Third, the culture of food is different; my bf didn't even know what a Little Debbie snack was when he got here. He had never had Ranch dressing. He also didn't understand that for a country that doesn't have much history in food (the US) why we eat so much. France and Italy are KNOWN for their food, yet people don't scarf down fried objects like there was no tomorrow.

Last, exercise is treated differently. I think in the US its viewed as something horrible that we feel we need to do in order to not feel guilty about that Dominos pizza we just inhaled. In other places, exercise is built in to the lifestyle- walking to the metro, walking to school/work, hiking on the weekends, swimming in lakes, skiing. How we view moving our bodies is completely different across the globe.

For those who say that they are tired of hearing about how badly Americans eat and how supposedly good the rest of the world eats.. well, isn't it true? Sad fact of the matter is that the US has more obesity, disease, and cancer than anywhere else. A lot of this is stemmed from poor nutrition and just not getting up off our butts. The differences are huge.

Europeans pay more for food than we do, and thus have better quality. The US spends a considerably lesser percentage of their paychecks on groceries than Europeans do. We want good food but don't want to shell out the bucks for it. Europeans are used to high prices on everything anyways, but also demand a higher quality.

Ok off my soap box. Report
This issue is debatable. I lived in Germany(1970-1975) and saw plenty of heavy people. Although this article may have some truth to it, the data is flawed.. Report
Having traveled extensively overseas I dispute your statistics. No one has been able to substantiate such numbers. When I first traveled to Japan and China for work in the early 80's I was told their average work day was 12 hours at least, found out their government counts the commute! All of this putting the US down is soooooooooooooooo tiring. Get a grip on life. Further, the 'euthanasia' of over 14,000 older people in France due their 'month off' in 2003 would appear to corroborate my view rather than yours. The 14k is per the French --" In France, 14,802 people—mostly elderly—died from heat, according to the French National Institute of Health in 2003. Many people I know thought the number was much higher, above 20k Report
The French are prepared to pay more for good food, and this is partly what makes the difference. Here in the UK we have an obsession for cheap food which does us no favours.

Also, a Frenchman once commented to me that the British (and probably Americans too from what I can see) "never stop eating". When I thought about it, I could see what he meant - half the supermarket is taken up with snack foods. And then a friend at work who was slightly over weight lost it. When I asked her how she did it, she said she just stopped eating between meals. Sometimes a snack is needed to keep up blood sugar levels, but a lot of the time we just eat for the sake of eating. Report
I don't know about all the other countries etc., but I have learned from my parents that portion sizes used to be roughly the size of a dessert plate. So when I eat a meal, (other than a huge plate of salad), I use a dessert plate. I've also learned to pile on the veggies. Mind you, I do have to have meat and carbs at each meal for my hypoglycemia to remain okay. Report
Here in England our portion sizes are a lot smaller than in the US

Spain has a very healthy diet.

The French eat too much bread but the women stay enviably slender

Germany and Austria has a varied diet with lots of exercise

I lost weight when I lived in Germany (surprising, given the plethora of fresh cheese, breads and pasteries). Why?

Snacks were healthy; like cut up veggies (no dip), or cheese and crackers. Almost everything was made fresh - I think we had take-out/delivery once in 6 months? MAYBE twice? For fun on the weekends, we'd go the Schwimbad - big indoor water centers, and burn lots of calories in the water. Everyone takes the bus and the trains rather than driving. And the delicous bread we ate? All of it was whole grain.

Trying to get back to that...though it's hard. Report
I have a twin sister who traveled quite a bit in Europe. She has always maintained her weight. I believe it is partly because of all she learned about eating while being abroad. Report
Hang on - that article referenced says women in Italy and Japan don't get fat. Hmmm...well, I've travelled in both countries extensively and it's simply not true!

Sure, they don't grow to the size you see in the US - but then, not many other countries, if any, do!!

Italian women definitely become overweight in mid-life; and Japan has one of the fastest growing rates of obesity in the world...the next generation coming through in Japan is BIG...one guess why...:) Report
I've never been outside the U.S. so I really have nothing to compare. I did read the book, "Why French Women Don't Get Fat" which basically emphasized portion control and talks a lot about the French eating customs. Report
When I've been overseas, I've nearly always found that the food is much richer, but the lifestyle is much more active! That was true in France, Germany, Greece ... though my time there was shorter, business-oriented, I'd guess that the culture of behavior is a key element of what you're observing. I'll be interested in reading the article and the study you're mentioning. Very relevant in these days of health insurance reform! Report
I must agree that we Americans "SUPER SIZE" everything and have the growing waist line to prove it. I too have lived overseas, thanks to Uncle Sam, and have noticed how other cultures manage to stay thin. When we lived in Korea, there weren't many fast food restaurants in the area where we lived. You had to go and sit down and actually enjoy your food. Also, the portion sizes were enough to satisfy your hunger not allow you to pig out. I miss those days because it taught me alot about portion sizes and really enjoying meals. Now, it is back to fast food and growing waist lines, so I have to learn to moderate and regulate what goes in my mouth which can be difficult some days. Report
I absolutely loved this article!

Is it possible for SP to start featuring some type of European/Mediterranean way of life article each week or month with perhaps a recipe from whatever country is being discussed and more tips like the ones outlined above?

Thank you! SparkPeople is awesome! Report
Is there anything you've learned from other cultures than can help you in your own healthy lifestyle? I lived in Germany for four years (1988-1992) and noticed that the Germans walk and bike everywhere. They also shop for fresh foods daily; their fridges are tiny compared to Americans'. Their portion sizes are normal, compared to ours.

SHEILA1505, I also read "French Women Don't Get Fat," and I'm surprised, Steph, that you gained weight in France! But I liked the main premise of the book, which is that French women eat only a few bites of each course, and then they walk everywhere. It would make sense if we made smaller meals and served less on the plate.

I also read a book that talked about our dinner plate size, which has grown from 8" to 12" over the past 50 years! Do you know, I measured my lunch plates and my dinner plates, and the LUNCH PLATE was 8"!! I tried serving dinner on the lunch plates for a few nights, and my family was in an UPROAR! You would think I was serving them less food (I wasn't), but they were NOT HAPPY. It's very interesting, IMO.

I went back to serving on the dinner plates (which BTW are indeed 12"), but I still give the same size portions. My kids now think I'm giving them LESS FOOD, when in reality I am not. It's all in our perception.

On another note, I LOVED hearing that eating more fish decreases depression. I suffer from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) every fall and winter, and I LOVE fish. Too bad my family doesn't. I might have to cook fish for myself more often, when they are having red meat, pork, or chicken for dinner. Thanks for the info! Report
I was lucky to grow up in a 1/2 Russian home where food was cooked from scratch every day, 3 times a day. Eating out was a rarity, fast food a total anomaly. I've visited Russia, Jugoslavia, China, Taiwan, and Japan - in each country, meals were made from scratch to be shared with family and friends. Marketing was done daily, ingredients were fresh, and vegetables dominant. I've adopted the Chinese way of thinking - meat is not the centerpiece, it's a condiment! Report
We're added more fish and more garlic into our meals over the past couple of months and will continue to do so. Report
I've lived in Japan, France, Germany and some other European countries, US and now the UK. I found it hardest to shop for fresh, healthy food in the US (without going to a delicatessen). Sadly, the UK is heading in the same direction, and even now in autumn there is so little local fruit and veg in the supermarkets! Even my children noticed that the food in France and Switzerland is tastier than the UK. And in France, with all the cheese, pate, chocolate and wine I was having, I was still slimmer than now that I am back in the UK (although I always cook the same at home and eat out even less frequently than I used to in France). Report
Thanks for great article and many great comments Report
We Americans work too many hours; are too tired to go home and prepare fresh whole foods; are hooked on junk food and therefore don't want good healthy food when we can get it. Do you know what a fresh ripe naturally sweet and flavorful piece of fruit tastes like? Probably not. Do you know that Orange drinks don't taste like real, natural orange flavor at all? Do you know what fresh coconut tastes like? Not whats bought in the bag at the grocery store! I don't know what that flavor in the bag comes from but its not fresh coconut. This is just the tip of the iceberg in nutrition. European nations that don't have the stressful lifestyle we do, nor the money we do(did?) have to eat fresh, whole foods they prepare themselves. They don't have access to the adulterated artificial world of foods that we do, and they are healthier for it. Homemade has always been healthier. Report
i didn't know that about fish. Report
I fare better in countries with potatoes as their base instead of corn. I think all that corn syrup, high frutose corn syrup that creeps into all our manufactured food is destructive to the health as well as the waistlines in this country. Report
I traveled to Europe and was there for 8months. The meals were always smaller than American meals. I ate deserts and drank wine every evening and was my thinnest ever! We walked everywhere.. Report
I think American woman also are expected to do to much and after being at work 9 hours a day, who wants to have to go home and cook a meal for their family. Thank goodness I was able to be a stay-at-home mom when my kids were little and I had a meal on the table when my husband came home. My daughters aren't so lucky. They have to work to help pay the bills. One works regular hours, one works 12 hr. shifts and the other works different hours every day. To all you single parents out there, I want you to now that I pray for you often. After seeing what my two youngest daughters go through, being single parents. I don't know how you do it! Shoot, I sort of got off track and off the subject! Report
I found that many, many other countries' citizens do not eat dinner until very late--say 9 or 10 at night, but aren't obese as a population. Yet, here, we operate under a "rule" that we should eat earlier in the evening, say by 6-7. What's up with that? After reading this article, I conclude (and remember) that in other countries, people are generally more active and more balanced in WHAT and HOW MUCH they eat.

Similarly, the Italians, the French, and many South American teens are allowed to stay out without curfews (until 2-4 AM), yet seem to be stable, "normal" young people who commit fewer crimes than ours. What's up with that? I think it has something to do with many issues: the culture itself, self-responsibility, family life, accountability, balance, moderation,etc. Report
In Cambodia, I learned that most households cook their own meals and that they eat dinner before 6pm. Report
When I was in Japan last year I lost 4kg despite all the REALLY GOOD food that I enjoyed. The food tasted great and their portions are always well controlled, just enough for you to feel satisfied. When I was in China for half a year earlier this year I gained 6kg and felt so sick about all the food because of the oil and salt and large portion. 6kg! Oh boy was I traumatized. Chinese cooking can be really healthy, but most vendors are not doing it right. Report
Wow, what an interesting article and comments. My husband was transferred to Sao Paulo, Brazil and we have been here two years and will be here two more. I've learned alot about a different culture - it has been a great (and frustrating) experience. As far as food goes, Brazilians love to eat but meals are usually part of a social and family time. They eat a large lunch but most will stroll afterwards. Also, fruits and vegetables are excellent and there are always fresh choices in the market. There are fast food places but these are considered to be special and I haven't met anyone (and I teach 8 year olds!) who eats there very often. My favorite style restaurant is a kilo-style place. There are many types of food but you pay for what you take by weight. As far as other cultural differences, I have observed that Brazilians love their bodies and aren't so upset by imperfections in themselves or others. Thanks for this blog! I'm learning so much about a different part of the world and enjoyed sharing. Report
I spent a month in France in the Loire Valley in 1999, even with all the eating we did--four hour long lunches, dinner very late at night, lots of wine cheese and desserts, I lost 10 lbs. We did walk a lot, but we also were traveling by car. Report
Trips to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Africa, Bali, and Italy taught me to value and seek out fresh, seasonal food instead of the overly processed stuff that's easier to get here in the US. (England not so much, but it was winter, and the food WAS better than I expected!) Having a garden this year has been incredible for meeting that goal, learning a lot, and having more fun than I would have imagined! Report
I think one of the biggest differences I have encountered from friends of foreign countries is that "fast food" doesn't equal "bad for you and greasy food". I grew up in Mexico, there "fast food" was really the daily special that includes usually a soup (broth based), a side of rice, veggies and some meat - it is also pretty similar in Dominca (and most Hispanic countries). In Hong Kong is a stir fry (fast!) kind of dish, mostly veggies, not greasy at all. Just because is fast for who is picking it up doesn't mean it has to be bad.

I feel bad when I go to a foreign country that wasn't familiar with American Fast food (burgers, fries, fried chicken, etc) and I find one there and worst yet becoming popular in those countries. I feel like we interfere with their culture, plant something (bad!) and then leave them to deal with problems that will arise from that "new" diet that was introduced to them... sad! Report
Very interesting. A friend of mine just visited Paris. I haven't had the opportunity. Thanks for sharing! Report
Great Blog! But too much emphasis on the Lifestyle of other Countries. At home in America it is all about Perserverence. Just because we have fast-food joints all around us,etc, it comes down to one thing, Choices. I lost, and still am losing,40 pounds. I choose to use my Support of SparkPeople, I choose to eat Healthy, I choose Healthy Portions, I choose to walk,exercise,etc, and I choose to be a Healthy Role Model to my child and husband whom have adapted to avoiding the Fast Food Nation and now exercise on a regular basis. You may experience many different ways other countries live there lifestyles, and that is Historical in itself. But again like the people in other countries are just like us, they make and choose to be Healthier just like me and anyone who chooses to. Report
I've never traveled, but am truly open to living a different way. This article was good because it reminded me how I'm always piling more and more activities so I rush, and don't take time to walk & fix meals like I should. I could learn alot from others. Report
I wonder how much of our food additives are to blame. Great article. Report
I didn't have to travel to Paris to gain weight, I just traveled to my
mother-in-law's house! When she cooked everybody ate. And if you
reject her food, she does not lay off until you eat a little something of
her cooking! She is a great cook, but portions are not quite equal!
We travel to a local Chinese restaurant for some healthy food and equal
portions. My family or I have never traveled outside the country! So we try
to eat at local authentic restaurants when we do, which is not to often! Report
One of the things I notices in Italy was that the locals made a 'night' ou of dinner, while my husband and I were shoveling the food in and off to the next thing. I suspect that they consumed far fewer calories lingering over dinner and had a much better time of it.

So ... we are slowing down :)
I've spent time in Spain, France, and Ireland. While healthy eating plays a part, I believe people there have a clearer understanding of the expectations put upon them. Most of us here lack the contentment of knowing we are fulfilling our expected roles. I saw an inner peace there that I do not see here. No wonder we stress eat! Report
When travelling in Iceland I learned that I could eat sensibly, balance it with exercise and enjoy everything more. They eat freshly prepared foods, not prepackaged that is healthier and tastier. Report
I have to tell you that my family and I had the luxury of living in Turkey my senior year of high school, and while I was angry that my last year of school would be away from all my friends, I am so glad I was able to live there. A lot of the food has a very Mediterranean feel, and I do miss the fresh food markets all over the place or the apple vendor that would push his cart past our school and wait for us to run out and pick one apple each. I loved ekmek (bread) and cai (pronounced chai, which in Turkey is a delicious hot cider-like tea that is served in very small glasses in which several sugar cubes are then dissolved). I am hopeful that I can find a way to convince my husband that we need to take our boys over there some day, so they can see where mommy graduated from high school. I regularly encourage friends and co-workers who are looking for an affordable, international vacation to give Turkey some thought. The people are, on the whole, very kind, warm people who are ecstatic if you even attempt to speak their language at all. Enjoy your time there. Report
Packaged food is such an industry here in the U.S. That is the problem, for sure! People in other parts of the world seem to take the time to prepare food themselves and definitely incorporate more fresh fruits and veggies into their meals. Report

It's not just about food. It's about the emphasis that our society/culture puts upon work/making money/spending money/and being in such a hurry to do so. We stress ourselves out working far too many hours, sleeping far too few, not having time for exercise, family, social gatherings, or individual pursuits. Often we're doing it just to make ends meet, and are then stressed out financially. But even the wealthy can and do accrue big debts. We, as a nation, have been living beyond our means for a long time and it's finally starting to take a toll. We are so lucky to live here in this free country where most things are so abundant; yet we've not yet realized that it's not "things" that will make us happy. Report
Excellent post! I think it would be fun if ya'll focused some posts on areas around the world and their healthy habits. We can all learn a lot from each other. I've learned some new things just from reading the responses to your post.

I love how broad minded and diverse Sparkpeople.com is! Report
Another reason: women in Europe and Canada have medical treatment available to all of them. It is not just the rich and the welfare recipients and the insured that get annual checkups and pre-natal services and mamograms and pap tests, etc. Everyone has them. And that makes a difference in the number of years lived and enjoyed. Report
in South Korea, the mountains were right there - hiking was so easy (and popular!) In Taiwan, the spas are popular and reasonable and often located in locales of hiking. (relaxing is part of a healthy life and balance is great for resisting all the American excesses) In Germany, more biking and walking and I was shocked at first to find that I couldn't buy every fruit or vegetable I wanted (but what I could buy was FRESH not stored from last year...) Report
I am an American who is now living in Sicily. What a life style difference! Lots of walking! Lots of fresh veggies! and very big on fish! In the area where I live there are NO McDonalds at all. Fast food is (in my opinion) the worst thing that was every intruduced to the United States. They have gotten terrible, on every corner you will find one. Not helping anyone get healthier at all. Report
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