Just to state the obvious, Americans have one of the worst diets in the world. We eat an enormous amount of red meat and are quick to pick up for the processed foods that are filled with added sugar and saturated fats. While there has been evidence of a slight turn toward the better for the American diet, we still have a long way to go. In our efforts to change our dietary path and subsequent health, we are looking to some of the healthiest and longest living societies. What specifically are they eating, but more importantly, what are their dietary patterns, the underlying common factors that are keeping these people so healthy?
A few of the world’s healthiest diets:
- Mediterranean Diet: This diet consists of multiple different cultures and diets – Italian, Spanish, Greek – but they all have similar foundations. They stick to seasonal grains and vegetables, and olive oil is the primary foundation for everything. They drink red wine every day and have a form of seafood multiple times throughout the week. With a small intake of red meat (think like once every few weeks) and a moderation of dairy, these Europeans have a much lower rate of heart disease, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
- The New Nordic Diet: Scientists re-evaluated the Danish diet and incorporated modeling many aspects of the mediterranean lifestyle into this new diet. Meat consumption is cut down, and there is more of an emphasis on locally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains. The biggest difference between the two diets is that the Nordic diet uses rapeseed oil rather than olive oil.
- Okinawa Diet: The Japanese boast some of the oldest living people in the world, with some of its citizens living to be 116 years old. The diet revolves around lower calorie but nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, soy products, tofu, and seaweed. The Japanese drink tea daily, consume fish around 3 times a week, barely have any dairy or red meat in their diet. They approach food with the mantra, “hara hachi bu.” In other words, you eat until you’re 8/10 full – satisfied and comfortable.
- French Paradox Diet: The French are known for their delicious and heavy foods – bread, butter, cheese, etc. – but they also the lowest obesity rate and highest life expectancy. What is their secret? Moderation, small portions, and walking. Unlike Americans, the French have mastered portion control, they make an event out of their meals and eat very slowly, and they walk everywhere. They get the nutrients that they need and know how to properly enjoy the foods that they love.
So, what are some of the common denominators among all of these different cultures and diets? While the specific foods are different, each diet emphasizes locally and seasonally grown produce. This cuts down on any processing and packaging that may tamper with the food’s natural nutrients. Each of the diets hits all of the necessary food groups, stocking up on grains and vegetables, while moderating the animal products. The diets go beyond just the specific foods though. Each culture emphasizes meal time festivities, where the food is celebrated and really savored. Rather than plan their meals around their day, many of these cultures plan their day around their meals. While most Americans have made it a competition to see who can down their fast food lunch the fastest, the healthier societies of the world take the time to sit down and savor their meals. Also, many of these countries are more prone to walking than we are. The American dream may be real, but it requires speedy transit and sitting in a chair at least 7 hours a day. Many of these other countries walk upwards of 4 miles a day. Just this makes their overall health and longevity much higher than our own.
There isn’t just one diet that is the healthiest, and there isn’t a quick fix when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Moral of the story? Let’s all reenact Renoir’s scene and buy local foods, walk around, and enjoy the time spent preparing and eating your meals with the people you love.