Understanding what it means to eat healthy isn't the easiest task. Every day we receive numerous conflicting messages about what foods we should and shouldn't put in our bodies. This can lead to a lot of confusion. One way we can better figure out what it means to eat in a way that advances our health is to take a lesson from other parts of the world, where the diets of different groups of people have been shown to enhance their longevity and wellness.
Let's take a deeper dive into areas of our planet where healthy eating is a norm and look at what foods are dished out on those plates globally. We'll keep in mind that the idea of The Blue Zones, which are areas in the world where people have the least amount of illness and live the longest, has helped us learn even more about what foods contribute to health.
Well known for being a country that exemplifies the Mediterranean Diet, a typical Greek meal is rich in vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil, while being light on meat and dairy. They eat many casseroles, which makes cooking Greek food easier than you might anticipate. Foods like fish, whole grains, and vegetables are the basis for their meals, and ingredients like sugar are used sparsely, more as a special treat rather than a daily indulgence. Commonly used Greek ingredients include olives, tomatoes, honey, lemon, and garlic.
It's the focus on local, whole foods that leads the Nordic Diet to help prevent diabetes and high cholesterol. Norwegians eat some foods we might not be familiar with, such as fermented fish. They also pile their plates high with produce and whole grains. They don't eat much sugar, and few processed foods. For bread, they enjoy one called rugbrød, which is a dense, fermented rye loaf that almost resembles a cracker. Norwegians eat lots of antioxidant laden berries, as well as wild fish, which have a high Omega-3 content.
When deciding where to eat, sushi is frequently a suggestion for diners looking for a lighter meal. That's because traditional sushi features vinegared rice and nutrient dense fish. A Japanese meal doesn't have to involve sushi, though; the Japanese diet is full of whole food ingredients like sweet potatoes, soybeans, seaweed, pickled vegetables, and bitter melon. Their style of eating small, nutritious dishes is known as washoku, and dishes highlight the natural flavors of ingredients rather than covering them in sauces.
On the Nicoya Peninsula, where people often live to 100 or beyond, Costa Ricans eat a diet full of the ingredient staples we associate with Central American food. They eat black beans daily, which are high in the antioxidant anthocyanin--that's where their dark color comes from. Their plates are also filled with plantains, homemade corn tortillas, papaya, squash, and bananas, and rice. They make ceviche from the local fish, and employ fiber filled cabbage for salads.
The region of West Africa is not known for how healthy its local diet is because so many people in Sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished. However, that is an issue caused by a lack of access to food, not by the food eaten. In fact, a West African diet is quite healthful. Senegalese meals, which are often eaten in a communal fashion, consist of legumes, whole grains, lean meats, and vegetables. Senegalese cooks make flavorful meat and vegetable stews with many spices, which are served over couscous or rice, or with bread. They make fresh juices from fruit such as baobab, mango, and ginger, and cook with ingredients such as peanuts, lentils, lamb, and garlic.
Most famous for Kim Chi, the regular consumption of fermented vegetables in Korea contributes to the health value of their plates. Dishes such as bibimbap, which is made from an assortment of vegetables prepared over rice, offer light fare, and heavier dishes include many types of noodles and barbecued meats. Koreans use whole food ingredients like tofu, eel, spinach and eggplant. They use fermented vegetables in many dishes as well as the fermented chili sauce known as gochujang.
The traditional Eastern medicine practice known as Ayurveda stems from India, and Indian cuisine uses many ingredients that promote wellness and healing. Western cultures have adopted many of India's holistic food practices, such as the turmeric drink we call golden milk. Indian cuisine involves a large array of spices, usually ground fresh in combinations for each dish, and the dishes are often stews focusing on lean protein, legumes, and/or vegetables. For a staple fat they use clarified butter, called ghee, which offers the health benefits of butter without whey.
This North African country uses a plethora of vibrant ingredients, such as preserved lemons, that contribute to their flavorful, heavily spiced dishes. Their main starch is couscous, and proteins often consist of lamb or chicken. They employ slow cooking methods such as a tagine, and add dried fruits like apricots and dates to vegetable or meat stews. Because they use so many different spices, Moroccan food is varied in taste, and dishes include flavorings such as saffron, cinnamon, mint, and cumin.
The Global Takeaway
The foods of these countries vary immensely in taste, but cuisines from Senegal to Japan to Norway all have a few things in common. They fill their plates with fresh, local, and unprocessed ingredients. They eat all food groups, and include vegetables regularly. They utilize fermented foods, in forms ranging from chili paste to yogurt. Legumes and whole grains are staples, and healthy fats, including olive oil and ghee, are used generously. Sugar is eaten as a treat, not used as a flavoring agent, and processed foods are kept to a minimum.
No matter what foods and flavors you love, you can understand more about how to eat healthy by looking at these international plates. When choosing your meals and snacks, if you want to eat healthily take a cue from these countries by choosing as many fresh, local ingredients as you can. Moreover, spices promote wellness while adding flavor, so experimenting with those is always a win-win.
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