Think about some of the happiest moments of your life thus far. What would you give to add more years to your life? To have more opportunities to create new memories and experience new sensations? Who wouldn’t relish having the time and health to sail around the world, to take up mountain climbing, to eat sushi in Japan, or just watch the leaves change on a road trip to Vermont with your family? We all want to live longer and happier lives. To spend as many years filled with laughter and love as possible, to watch our children grow up, and follow our dreams to our fullest potential: these are ideals that everyone can relate to.
Yet, even with one of the most technologically advanced health-care systems in the world, America stands as a collection of preventable diseases that rob us of our precious years in gross proportions. How many people can you name that have had years shaved off their life because of diabetes, heart disease, or cancer? If you can think of one, it’s one too many. We are blessed with an opportunity to learn about how so many other countries have vastly longer life expectancies as well as shockingly lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
With that being said, let’s take a trip around the world and look at three of the most prevalent examples of healthy cultures. Whether you want to lose weight, lower your stress, fight off disease, or just live longer, you can easily apply these lessons to your daily lives. Each of these cultures’ dietary habits form the basis of a dietary theory that may be perfect for you to look great and feel amazing! If you would like to expand on any of the ideas here, set up an appointment for a free Health History consultation.
1. Asia (Japan, Okinawa, and traditional Chinese diet)
This region has been renowned for its longevity and incredibly low incidence of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Two major contributing lifestyle factors of the region: regular physical exercise and a predominance of vegetables and grains in the diet. Particularly on the island of Okinawa, the traditional diet consists of mainly whole grain, sea vegetables, and fresh seafood. Paired with regular light to moderate exercise, obesity and its related diseases are virtually non-existent. Within this framework of fresh, whole foods and exercise we have the foundation of the macrobiotic diet, which has been popularized by many celebrities for its apparent ability to reverse serious disease and improve overall wellness.
This long life diet is based on whole grains; vegetables and legumes are a side component, and animal products are used in small quantities. Locally grown, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seaweed, fermented soy products, fruit, fish, nuts and seeds are the principles of this diet. The easiest thing to take away from this diet is the focus on whole grains and vegetables. By making these foods the focus of your meals, and animal products an accompaniment, you may meet your body’s specific needs to look and feel its best for years to come.
Another important facet of the region’s relationship with food is portion control. A common measure for consumption is for people to eat until they are 80% full. By doing this with each meal they keep their calorie consumption under control, ease the stress on their digestive system, and place a lot of value on the experience of the meal. This technique is an easy one to try. See if eating until you are 80% full for a few days makes you feel better, and you may have a great way to lose weight while still enjoying your favorite foods.
2. Mediterranean (Italy, France, Greece)
The countries along the Mediterranean have long been known for their delicious cuisines, as well as their beautiful, and lean, natives. The seemingly contrary nature of diets filled with rich foods, high concentrations of fats and breads, and the apparently innate ability of their population to stay thin and healthy has been dubbed the French Paradox. If we examine the region’s dietary habits, we see some amazingly simple activities that could easily lend themselves to our daily search for a happier, leaner life.
One thing that is prevalent in this region’s customs surrounding food is an unwavering emphasis on fresh ingredients. It is common for shopping to be done daily, and not in a supermarket. Here, the butcher, the produce vendor, and the baker are not trite considerations so much as they are staples of daily life who base their reputations on the quality of the goods they sell. This dominance of fresh, healthy, and vibrant foods promotes a diet full of home cooked, non-processed meals. Any shift away from processed foods is one that will result in a healthier life. Another point worth noting is how the act of eating is not the rushed refueling we see daily in America. Across the Atlantic, eating is a social and mindful event. Studies have shown that eating with friends not only increases the enjoyment of the meal, but also has profound physiological effects, such as decreased blood pressure. The practice of mindfulness while eating increases enjoyment, satiety, and digestion of all our meals. Try breaking up your meal into different courses, with some time in between each to savour the meal’s impact on all your senses, and bring mindfulness to your dinner table.
The food choices in the region are another strong factor in their healthy lives. Again, the focus on fresh, unprocessed foods can not be understated. Also, the predominance of olive oil as a major source of fats, compared to butter or corn oil, is a major point of difference. They also enjoy fish regularly, eat in-season vegetables and fruits, consume dairy (a large portion of which is from goats), and enjoy eggs and wine almost every day. The collective result of their diet (of which this is only a rough outline, not a guide) is a much lower rate of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as a more slim and sexy body. This diet is also the basis of the anti-inflammatory diet that has received so much press.
In India, cancer, particularly of the digestive system, is almost non-existent. In a country where modern health-care is a new luxury available only to the rich, how can such a worldwide condition be so rare? The simplest answer is diet. For thousands of years, food has been used as medicine for everyone the country over. Through centuries of experience, a system of using food, body movement, breathing and herbs a system called Ayurveda came into existence.
Ayurveda is system that seeks to create balance within the mind, the body, and nature. By understanding ones body, and the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each individual, pragmatic and conscious choices can be made to maximize wellness, heal disease, and achieve balance.
The major factor in Indian diets that separates it from other diets the world over is the emphasis on spices. For thousands of years, the Indian people have been using spices like turmeric, cumin, peppers, and curries, and have reaped the benefits that modern science has recently only discovered. Turmeric (curcumin) has been shown to provide measurable benefits in the fight against cancer, particularly when paired with black pepper. If exotic spices like curry are too intimidating for you, don’t despair. Even adding spices as common as cinnamon to your everyday diet can lower blood pressure, as well as have profound effects on diabetes.
Also important in Indian diet is how much you eat and when. By eating at particular times, controlling the amounts specific to each meal, and eating for your body and the season, you can dramatically increase your control over your weight, seasonal afflictions, and chronic illness. Understanding your body type, and how Ayurveda can improve your life, is a wonderful and enlightening conversation. Schedule one here!
We have seen how three different regions have developed dietary theories that control weight, increase longevity, and help fight serious disease. An interesting corollary is that when the American diet was introduced to all of these cultures, the rates of chronic lifestyle disease increased exponentially. By increasing fresh foods, being mindful and social while eating, controlling portions, curbing animal products and processed foods, and increasing the spices in daily eating these cultures have created delicious and effective alternatives to starvation and bland, ineffective diets. Set up some time to explore these wonderful contributions to wellness from around the world. By creating a deeper understanding of your body, and a food profile specifically tailored to you, the body you dream of is within reach!