Is your mouth watering just thinking about corned beef and cabbage? Are you a burger and fries guy or do you prefer your grandmother’s Italian pasta recipes passed down from generation to generation? Our heritage often dictates our eating habits, and with the American diet under so much scrutiny and obesity on the rise, it makes sense that we would look to our ancestry for wisdom and advice.
According to an often-cited 2000 report by the World Health Organization, countries were ranked according to information such as diet, life expectancy and obesity rates. Japan topped the list with a 1.5% obesity rate (for men) and an 82-year life expectancy versus a 36.5% obesity rate and a 78-year life expectancy in the United States. South Korea, China and Singapore also did well. France made the list with a 6.6% obesity rate and an 81-year life expectancy. Italy, Spain and Greece were on par with France.
What virtually all these countries have in common are low-fat diets rich in fish, lean protein, vegetables, fruits and beans. Plant-based diets can reduce cholesterol levels, while fruits and vegetables also contain antioxidants that may protect against cancer. Consumption of certain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may reduce heart disease risk. Many of the traditional diets only include small amounts of red and processed and salt-cured meats, whose consumption may increase risk of colorectal and stomach cancers. Most of the countries in question also practice portion control. Although they indulge in high-fat cheeses, cured pork and condensed milk coffee drinks, their portion sizes are far smaller than the average American portions.
There is a reason why Americans struggle with their weight while people in Japan, France, Italy and Greece, seem to stay slimmer and healthier.
The French Diet – How is it that the French are eating Brie, butter, cream and pastries and they have one of the highest intakes of saturated fat, and yet their rates of heart disease are lower and they’re slim?
There are number of theories. It could be the red wine since it’s high in antioxidants and resveratrol that can keep the heart healthy. However, they drink wine in moderation and with meals, so that’s probably only partly to do with it. They also use olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat. It probably doesn’t offset the saturated fat in the butter and the Brie but they do include those “good” fats in their diet. But most likely, it is more to do with how the French eat that makes the biggest difference. They eat small portions, three meals a day and don’t snack. They don’t skip meals and they don’t leave healthy food on their plates just so they can have dessert. They eat slowly and enjoy their meals.
The Asian Diet – Rice and rice products are a staple of this diet, and if you look at people living in rural areas of Asian countries, the diet consists of minimally processed grains, not instant white rice.
The diet is also high in vegetables. If you look at some of the vegetables they eat, they are full of compounds called cruciferous chemicals that studies have shown can actually help reduce the risk of cancer by affecting the enzymes in our liver that detoxify cancer-causing substances. Soy is also the main legume and protein in their diet. They use plant-based beverages every day: green tea, saké, even beer. It’s really a low-fat diet that’s almost vegetarian with minimal to no processed foods.
The Mediterranean Diet – Another healthy diet is the Mediterranean Diet, which is based on the dietary traditions of Crete, the rest of Greece and southern Italy back in the 1960s.
Those populations have had some of the lowest rates of chronic disease in the world and a high adult life expectancy rate. The base of the diet is grain foods: pasta, whole grain breads, rice, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and beans. They also use monounsaturated fat (olive oil). Even though the diet provides about 25 to 35 percent of fat calories, it’s very low in saturated fat. Their protein foods include fish, chicken and eggs weekly and red meat just once a month
It is time for Americans to examine our eating habits closely. In a nation where super-sizing, processed foods and convenience are the norm, it is no wonder we are facing a nationwide epidemic of obesity and heart disease. Instead of joining the ranks of Americans battling the bulge, we can choose to learn from our roots and sow the seeds of our ancestors, one meal at a time.