At this time of the year we see a lot of our clients go off to Europe or America for their mid-year holidays. When they return, they will usually be in one of these three states:
- Anxious to get back to training after gaining a few kilos through a bit too much of the good stuff and not enough activity (usually an American syndrome);
- Feeling good about more or less maintaining their weight thanks to lots of walking and enjoying the local cuisine without overindulging (usually seen post-European adventure);
- Inspired to incorporate cooking and lifestyle features of the country they visited into their everyday lives.
I know that one of my favourite parts of travelling is the sticky-beak element of learning about how other people live.
So, what can we learn from the way the world’s healthiest people eat?
Traditional Mediterranean diet
Many dietitians, including the fabulous Dr Joanna McMillan whose nutritional advice we follow at New Image, recommend the basic principles of the Mediterranean diet as a guideline for a really healthy way to eat. This style of eating has been proven to prevent heart attacks, reduce the risk of a slew of cancers and help ward off diabetes.
When we talk about the Mediterranean diet, I’m not referring to yiros, souvlaki and mountains of pasta, which are really celebration foods for the traditional cultures that follow the diet.
Dietitian Associate Professor Catherine Itsiopoulous, an expert in the Mediterranean diet who has conducted many studies in the area, says the features of the true Mediterranean diet are:
- Extra virgin olive oil is the main source of added fat
- Vegetables are eaten with every meal
- Two serves of legumes are eaten a week
- At least two serves of fish, including oily fish, are eaten each week
- Smaller portions of red meat and no more than twice a week
- Fresh fruit every day and fruit and nuts for snacks or dessert
- Yoghurt every day and cheese in moderation
- Wholegrain bread and cereals eaten daily
- Wine is consumed in moderation, always with meals and never to excess
- Sweets are saved exclusively for special occasions
This diet is actually based upon the way that rural men on the Greek Island of Crete ate in the 1950’s and 60’s, and these men were fantastic examples of the health benefits of the diet, many living to over 100. Their rates of chronic disease were the lowest in the world and they had the highest life expectancy, as found in the famousSeven Countries Study, the first study to link lifestyle factors to cardiovascular disease.
The Okinawan diet
According to the UN, Japanese people are more likely to make it to 100 than anyone in the world, and the highest proportion of the country’s centenarians live in the Okinawan islands.
American researcher Dr Craig Willcox, who penned the book The Okinawa Program, says the Okinawans have a very low risk of arteriosclerosis, diabetes and cancer. The features of their diet include:
- At least 3 servings of fish a week
- Lots of vegetables
- Traditional soy products like tofu (not like the way soy is used in processed Western foods)
- Wholegrains, especially rice
- Teas like jasmine and turmeric that have anti-cancer protective properties.
The creep of western lifestyle
Unfortunately, as in most of the Western world, a culture of convenience has crept into the countries bordering the Mediterranean and Japan. Supermarkets and processed convenience foods are now commonplace and heavily marketed, and the younger generations follow traditional diets less and less.
And of course, like the rest of us, Greeks and Italians have increasingly sedentary jobs. The result?Increasing obesity rates and more of the lifestyle diseases suffered by the Western world.
“Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants”
That famous line from Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” rings true when we look for a common thread between the world’s healthiest diets. Cultures where real, unprocessed foods predominate, and where preparing food from scratch is ritualised, are the healthiest. Eating real, single ingredient foods, not to excess, with an emphasis on plant food, is a simple guideline we can all incorporate into our lives.
How the world’s healthiest people live
Apart from their diets, we can also take a lot from the healthy holistic lifestyle habits of these cultures. Take note, here are their secrets to health and happiness:
- Have purpose – The Okinawans know the importance of having a purpose-filled life. As they enter their later years they can articulate their roles and responsibilities that imbue their lives with a feeling of being needed.
- Be active – The traditional Cretan had an active life, with his daily tasks including heavy labour. We can emulate this in our everyday lives by taking every opportunity to increase incidental exercise.
- Make every meal an occasion – No more eating on the run. Mealtimes enjoyed with friends and family are important in both Okinawan and Mediterranean cultures. Take the time to enjoy your food slowly and use the occasion to connect with family. Relationships are key to happiness and health.
- Practise hara hachi bu – Eat until you’re 80% full. If we all embraced this one food rule, and pulled up our eating well before being stuffed full, our rates of obesity would be far lower.
If you are really interested in lifestyle factors that impact health and which countries seem to hold the key to a higher quality, longer life, I recommend you visit bluezones.com.