Health has been a passion of mine for quite some time. Another passion of mine also happens to be traveling the world and experiencing different cultures.
One thing you’ll quickly notice once you get out of the typical North-American culture is that people around the world have vastly different diets from one another.
At the same time, different cultures also experience different levels of health. So today we’ll be taking a look into the specifics of several of the most notable cultures around the world and see how their food choices contribute to their health, for better or for worse.
Keep in mind that many of those cultures are becoming more and more Americanized, for better and for worse. However, we’ll look at the traditional element of each diet, which tends to predominate culturally in spite of the westernization of the planet.
Much to the confusion of traditional wisdom from most nutritionist of today, in France people traditionally tend to eat a diet rich in high-fat foods that most people would consider unhealthy, yet they experience much lower rates of heart disease and stroke than most other countries in Europe and North America, as well as smaller waist lines.
The notion of butter and croissants equating to lower rates of heart disease has been deemed, “The French Paradox”.
But taking a closer look at not just the diet, but the overall lifestyle as well may be the key to understanding their good health.
Despite a diet rich in butter and cream, the French also have several cultural practices that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. For example, the typical French breakfast is something light like coffee, fresh fruit, and a small croissant.
The lighter breakfast, and for some French people, entirely skipping their morning meal, allows the body to spend more time detoxifying without being burdened by a heavy breakfast first thing in the morning. And while the verdict is still out, there may be something to the antioxidants in the moderate amounts of red wine the French regularly drink with meals too.
Another thing you will notice in France is that people walk everywhere, and consistent low-level activity is just a part of their daily lives. Add that to a healthy dose of quality fresh fruits and vegetables available to and consumed by the locals, you definitely have a big improvement over the typical Western diet and lifestyle. But with the average life expectancy of 82, France doesn’t take the prize for the healthiest culture just yet.
Thailand is a country that I have a fair bit of experience traveling in. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the more affluent the Thai people get, the more money they have to spend on Western foods like ice cream and fast food.
As with any culture, when this happens you’ll always notice their waistlines expand and health deteriorate. But overall, the typical Thai diet is pretty healthy.
Fresh fruits and vegetables play a big role in the traditional Thai diet. Most of the fruits and vegetables eaten by Thai people are purchased from the market on a daily basis. In most cases, the fruits and vegetables were picked just that morning too.
When it comes to actual mealtime, they are big on carbohydrate-rich foods like rice and rice noodles. I’ve seen Thai people carrying bowls of rice so big that you would assume that it’s for their entire family, but they sit down and eat the whole thing themselves with some stir-fried veggies and soy sauce! Many Thai people eat meat, but it’s treated more like a condiment. For example, they will have a few slices of beef or pork on top of their rice and vegetables, or a small piece of fish. Meat is certainly not the focus of a meal as is common in the West.
People tend to think that carbohydrates are fattening, yet some of the leanest cultures in the world eat a diet where carbohydrates predominate.
Almost no dairy foods are traditionally consumed, and instead things like coconut milk are more prevalent in Thai cooking.
Traditional Thai people tend to be lean and fit as well. But they also tend to be very heavy on the vegetable oil with much of their cooking, and eating fried street food is the norm for many Thais.
I’ve frequently noticed Thai people having varying degrees of skin problems too, which may be attributed to the excess of oil and fried food in the diet. It also may be genetics, or the fact that so many Thai people smoke cigarettes too. In spite of this, the average Thai does live to 74, not too far behind many Western countries.
“The Mediterranean Diet” is something that has been highly popularized in the diet scene. There are many countries in the Mediterranean region, and their foods and culture do vary a bit, but there are several countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, and Croatia that all experience good health and have a similarly healthy diet.
The focus of diets in the Mediterranean region is on primarily whole plant foods like whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits, vegetables, and pastas. Things like lean poultry and seafood are also included. Most of the fat in their diet comes from plant sources, namely olive oil, olives, and the fats found in nuts and seeds.
The Mediterranean regions also attribute much of their good health to their daily lifestyle. People mostly walk from place to place and post-meal walks with family are common.
There is also an emphasis on communal eating with good friends and family that creates a happy and relaxed environment. Anyone who’s experienced losing their appetite when they are stressed out, or getting a sour stomach upon becoming upset shortly after eating, can attest to how important it is to eat in a relaxed atmosphere.
This active and relaxed lifestyle combined with the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Mediterranean region certainly contributes much of the area’s good health. Italy and Spain’s average life expectancy clocks high on the list at 82 years, while Greece ranks just behind at 81.
Traditional Indian food has a lot going for it in terms of health: generous doses of antioxidant-rich spices like turmeric, a base of healthy carbohydrates coming from rice and whole-wheat roti bread, and a plethora of vegetable-heavy dishes using cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes, and all sorts of greens. Not a bad start.
When put into practice however, it’s easy to turn otherwise healthy food into something not-so-healthy thanks to plenty of oil and ghee (clarified butter common in Indian cooking).
Particularly in the northern regions of India, where ghee, paneer cheeses, yogurt, meat, and fried food is consumed much more regularly and in higher quantities, type 2 Diabetes is among the most prevalent in the world. In the southern parts of India, rice and vegetable-based meals are the focus, and most of the dairy in cooking is replaced with coconut milk.
This results in more vegetarian and vegan-friendly cuisine, and coincidentally lower rates of disease than the ghee-slinging parts of North India.
While the diet of most people in India is an improvement over the junk-food-filled standard Western diet, the average Indian still only lives to 65 years. This may be due to other factors, such as hygiene and poverty levels.
California Beach Diet
Worth mentioning as well is the diet of the stereotypical California health/fitness fanatic, as California has always been a major hub for the health movement.
The focus is on preferably locally sourced sources of lean protein like fish and poultry, fresh local fruits and vegetables, “good carbs” like quinoa and brown rice, and “good fats” like avocados and nut and seeds. This results in a diet moderate in fat and carbs and low in processed, refined junk foods.
In terms of staying fit and looking good, this approach obviously works well as many fitness models and actors and actresses abide by a regimen like this.
As far as life expectancy, they aren’t lacking in this department either. The average Californian lives to 80.8 years, in the top three for states in the United States.
There’s been plenty of talk about the Japanese and Okinawans and their sweet potato and rice-based diets fueling the longest life expectancy in the world.
The average Japanese man lives to 79 while the average woman lives to 86, resulting in the world’s highest average life expectancy of 83.
But what’s so special about the Japanese diet? Is there one secret ingredient that allows them to live so long? Not so much one specific thing, more so the culmination of more than a few things working in their favor.
The Japanese and Okinawans are known for consuming a plant-based diet with rice, rice noodles, and Japanese sweet potatoes being the base. Moderate amounts of fish and seafood are regularly consumed as well.
In addition to the seafood consumed, generous amounts of seaweed, common in soups and sushi, are consumed regularly and contribute to a diet particularly high in the mineral iodine.
Ample amounts of soy products are regularly eaten, including tofu and edamame, as well as traditionally fermented soy foods like super-salty miso (miso soup anyone?), soy sauce, tamari, and tempeh.
Green tea is sipped with and in-between meals, adding a huge dose of antioxidants to the Japanese diet. Adding another mini-paradox to this mix is the amount of sodium consumed via foods like miso, tamari, and soy sauce: The average American consumes 3,500mg. of sodium per day while the average Japanese consumes 4,650mg. or more per day, yet the Japanese experience significantly lower rates of heart disease.
What can we learn from observing the health and food choices of different cultures from around the world?
Most of them consume a plant-based diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and avoid or minimize the consumption of overly processed junk foods like candy and other packaged foods.
But perhaps just as important is the lifestyle that these people live. Regular low-level activity like walking, communal meals enjoyed with good friends and family in a relaxed environment, and an overall low-stress lifestyle all contributes to the health and longevity of the world’s healthiest cultures.
French Diet: Personally, I think that the primary factor that results in the French’s superior health is their overall low-stress and less chaotic lifestyle (compared to those of us in the West) combined with a good dose of fresh produce and regular activity, like walking and biking. While I’m not going to argue in favor of drenching everything you eat in Hollandaise sauce, there is something to be said about easing up and just enjoying your life instead of stressing out about every little aspect.
Thai Diet: I think that the Thais certainly have a leg-up over the competition, considering they follow a predominately plant based diet focused on healthy carb foods. But when it comes down to how most Thais actually prepare the food, there’s far too much oil and fried, greasy food to be considered a truly healthy diet.
Mediterranean Diet: The bounty of amazing quality fresh fruits and vegetables is a big boon to the Mediterranean-style diet. And just like the French, relaxing and regular activity certainly plays a key role in their good health. Despite what marketers might want you to think however, you’re not going to magically get healthy by pouring olive oil all over everything you’re already eating!
Indian Diet: Like the Thai diet, the Indian diet has a good start with plenty of vegetables and healthy carbs like rice and other whole grains. But the slew of ghee and other high-fat dairy foods so common in Northern Indian cooking just ends up bogging down otherwise healthy food. If you had the choice, I would opt for a diet more similar to that of southern India: lower in fat and higher in plant foods.
California Beach Diet: The lower fat diet and abundance of fresh produce is a great start. But realistically, how many times per week can someone eat bland skinless chicken breast, salad, and a bit of quinoa? Not very many people, unless they are ultra-motivated to fit into that size two dress for their upcoming movie. So while it’s a good start, I don’t think it’s a great long-term diet for most people.
Japanese Diet: The Japanese have a lot going right in terms of their diet: high in carbs and vegetables, a cultural norm of eating until you are satisfied vs. overstuffed, and quality traditional foods that have been consumed by them for centuries, like natto. All are things that I definitely approve of.
But while the Japanese might experience the best health of any other place in the world, you don’t have to pick just one culture or practice to abide by. Why not take the best qualities of each?