Some of the most interesting (to me) lessons from my nutrition education were those that explored the nutritional practices of various cultures throughout the world. I’m fascinated by the differences in the foods we consume, and I love that we can learn tried-and-true principles by comparing the health of millions of different people with such different practices.
While there is so much that Americans can learn from other cultures about improving our nutrition, I want to share my top 7 lessons with you today… (picture source)
- Increase your consumption of fish, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. You’ve probably heard of the popular “Mediterranean Diet,” and it’s popular for a reason. The balance of macronutrients and focus on heart-healthy foods like olive oil, produce, and fish make the Mediterranean Diet an incredibly healthy one. The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to have many benefits, like improved brain function, lower cancer risk, better cardiovascular and nervous system health, and lower inflammation.
- Still, consume everything in moderation. While the Mediterranean Diet focuses on the healthy staples I mentioned, they still consume almost everything in moderation. Wine, carbs, and dairy (considered “off-limits” by some fad American diets) are all very important parts of the Mediterranean Diet, and contribute to an overall balance and high satisfaction. (picture source)
- Enjoy your food. In most European cultures, food is savored and enjoyed, which limits the risk of mindless overeating and allows healthy focus on the food being consumed. When I studied in Spain in college, I was amazed by the fact that no one was eating while walking down the streets or driving in their cars; instead, meal times were always a time to relax and enjoy. Americans spend 30 minutes per day preparing food (the lowest in the OECD) and 74 minutes eating (the third lowest in the OECD), but I would venture to guess that many of us spend dramatically less than that – or are multi-tasking while eating.
- Stop before you are stuffed. One of my favorite lessons was a practice of the Okinawan Japanese called “hara hachi bu,” which means to stop eating when you are 80% full. It takes about 15 for your digestive system to send messages of fullness and satiety to your brain, which often leads us to over-consume and not realize how full we are until we leave the table. If we stop ourselves when we are 80% full, we can limit unnecessary feelings of bloating and fullness (and unneeded calories!). (picture source)
- Don’t be afraid of fats. Dr. Weston A. Price performed a famous, 10-year, comprehensive study of dozens of cultures throughout the world and their traditional eating habits. The results of his study are fascinating, and there are far more lessons than I’ll go through today. However, one that stands out is that all of the cultures deemed “healthy” by Price (based on the prevalence of disease, obesity, and several other factors) did consume a significant portion of fat. Fat consumption ranged between 30% and 80% of total calories, and came from a variety of sources. While “healthy fats” like nuts, avocados, and olive oil formed a basis of these calories, the healthy cultures did not stray away from saturated fats (like animal fats and coconuts), which are hotly debated and considered by many Americans to be “unhealthy.” The prevalence of polyunsaturated fats and trans fats, though, was consistently low, so we should continue to avoid these.
- If you don’t consume animal products, be cautious about several important nutrients. While the range of calories from animal sources was dramatic (between 10% and almost 100%), all of the “healthy” cultures Price observed did contain some animal products. In the United States today, we are fortunate have access to a variety of nutritional supplements, so I personally believe that you can follow a vegan diet (containing no animal products) and still be very healthy. However, if you are going to limit all meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products, you need to be cautious to keep your levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin D, cholesterol, Vitamin B12, and long-chain fatty acids (like EPA and DHA) well in balance, either through supplements or a careful balance of plant-based foods.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables!!! I know, I have already hit on this one in a few other points, but it is worth repeating. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that are critical to preventing so many diseases (and to keeping you energized, satisfied, and full), and so many Americans are skimping on these important food groups. In fact, a well-done (but depressing) study by Dr. David Katz showed that less than 1% of American adolescents, 2% of men, and 3.5% of women were consistently meeting dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption. And those miserable stats even include jelly and orange juice as fruits, and French fries and ketchup as vegetables!!! I truly believe that if we all consumed more fruits and vegetables, and less processed food, we would be a far healthier country. (picture source)
So tell me in the comments … what healthy tips have you learned from other cultures? Which of these tips do you follow regularly?