The Healthiest World Diets (and what we can learn from them)

As an avid world traveler and foodie, I have long been fascinated and delighted by international cuisines. I’ve sat in alleyways in Saigon, scarfing down spring rolls as big as my head. I’ve had love affair after love affair with foreign foods. Pupusas in El Salvador, nasi goreng in Indonesia, moussaka in Greece. Crayfish po boys in New Orleans and fry jacks in Belize. Italian gelato. Oh man, Italian gelato. Lists and memories abound of foods with names as evocative as their flavors. I’ve taken cooking classes. I’ve shopped local markets and even worked on local farms a few times.

                       Indonesian Nasi goreng. 

                      Indonesian Nasi goreng. 

This whole time, I’ve charted the way my body feels and changes as I indulge in these different diets. I’ve also begun integrating different components into my meals at home, and read about the perks of different cuisines.

So, with all of that in mind, I’d like to take you on a bit of a culinary world tour and discuss some of the healthier diets out there (and how to integrate them at home, too!)

Mediterranean

Ah, the Mediterranean. Gorgeous white sands, turquoise waters, and meandering alleyways. And some of the healthiest food in the world, while we’re at it.  This diet is rich in cereals, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. It includes moderate consumption of fish and dairy products, with a little bit of meat. Olive oil, which is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties, is also an important component. The Mediterranean diet has long been associated with improved health and reduced risk of chronic age-related diseases such as stroke, heart disease, dementia and Type 2 diabetes. It is also associated with better cognitive function and slower cognitive decline. Oh, you were thinking of catching a last minute flight to Athens? Doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Japanese

                        A healthy Japanese breakfast.

                       A healthy Japanese breakfast.

Our Canadian food guide (the one we all learned about in elementary school) was created in conjunction with our top agricultural industries and emphasizes consumption of foods that are produced locally (ie: a fair portion is dedicated to red meats and dairy products). The Japanese government issued a recommended food guide in 2005, that was a little bit different. This food guide encouraged the population to eat a diet that is low in processed foods and saturated fats and high in carbohydrates. Water and tea are common drinks, with sugary, processed drinks being much less popular. Researchers found that participants who adhered to this food guide were less likely to develop conditions linked to poor blood circulation and that these participants had a 15 percent lower mortality rate. Sounds good, right? I’m eating Japanese. I think I’m eating Japanese. I really think so.

Thai

Sitting on a children’s plastic stool on Khao San Road at 3 am, drinking 50 cent beer and eating meat on a stick, you might not expect Thailand to boast one of the healthier world diets. However, it does. Thai food is loaded with coriander, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and other immunity boosting and inflammation-fighting herbs and antioxidant-rich components. Popular dishes like Tom Yung Gung soup are shockingly good for you. In fact, a study in 2001, by Thailand's Kasetsart University and Japan's Kyoto and Kinki Universities, found that the ingredients in Tom Yum Gung soup are 100 times more effective in inhibiting cancerous tumor growth than other foods. Did I mention that it’s also just insanely delicious? Ok, good.

                 African chicken peanut stew.

                African chicken peanut stew.

West African

I have not yet made it to Africa, but I plan on it. Populations in Mali, Chad, Senegal, and Sierra Leone boast extremely nutrient-rich diets. Meals in these countries are abundant in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and other foods that are high in fiber and omega 3. Diets in West Africa can include dried and smoked fish, groundnut stews, yams, and many other nutrient dense foods across all sixteen countries.

Ok, so, how does one incorporate this newfound food wisdom into a fast-paced North American lifestyle?

  • Up your Omega 3 intake. Many of the healthiest diets on this list (and some not included) are rich in Omega 3, due to the inclusion of fresh fish and vegan- friendly components like olive oil.

  • FRESH IS BEST. An absence of factory farms and an emphasis on local farming and marketplaces yield foods that are fresher, less processed, and therefore much more nutrient dense. Consider hitting up that farmer’s market you’ve been talking about going to. We have fresh, local options here too if you know where to look.

  • Cut down on unhealthy fats and up your healthy fat intake. Due to the consumption of less processed foods, and the emphasis on freshness, many of these diets take in higher amounts of monounsaturated fats and lower consumption of saturated fats (found much more commonly in highly processed North American foods.)

  • Control your portions. Certain diets include smaller portion sizes in meals. Consuming smaller meals at closer intervals through the day is proven to increase health and energy, and many countries throughout the world could attest to this.

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We have a lot to learn from the dietary choices and habits of other countries. This article is certainly not inclusive of all of the healthy diets out there and hasn’t even touched on probiotic- rich diets (I’ll write about my crush on kimchi another day). This is just a taste test of some of the healthier diets out there. I encourage you to explore, experiment and learn more about how to integrate international cuisines according to your unique biology and taste buds. There’s a whole world of healthy, delicious food out there - go get it!

How to Tackle PMS Mood Swings (in a healthy way)

This is something I research so often that I decided to just go ahead and write an article about it already. If you’re like me (and in this case I certainly hope that you’re not) you suffer from some pretty horrendous PMS mood swings. Like we’re talkin’ “who put my brain in a blender, told it Santa isn't real and then broke up with it all in one go?!” Ring a bell? Yes? No? If not then you may not need to read this article, but I encourage you to do some learning anyways, so as to better understand the rest of us poor, miserable souls.

For me, these mood swings roll around about ten days before my period starts and don’t really leave until midway through. So, you know, that’s like half the month swirling in a pool of seemingly unavoidable anxiety and depression.

Or is it avoidable? My family doctor has long attempted to get me on anti-depressants to combat this, which I have militantly refused so many times that she must be sick of my dumb, stubborn face by now.

In lieu of the anti- depressant route, I have, over the last year or so, been toying around with natural options for these nasty mood swings. I’ve taken part in a bit of an investigative process of elimination to see what helps and what doesn’t. Now I hope that my findings might help you out too.

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Here are some things that I have tried:

  • Removing coffee and alcohol from my life during PMS. This definitely helped to stop anxiety and depression from getting worse but let’s face it, this is totally unrealistic for a lot of young city-dwelling creative types. It’s hard enough to eliminate coffee without also being able to drink my sorrows away in whiskey over its loss. Also, eradicating these things doesn’t get to the root of the problem, but just basically serves to remove irritants. Efficacy: 5/10. Would recommend? If you are a saint, or a strikingly healthy person who makes strikingly healthy choices, than yes.

  • Exercise: Exercise releases those sweet, sweet brain drugs called endorphins. Endorphins work against any anxiety or depression you are experiencing. Plus, certain exercise can also alleviate pain from cramps, and tire you out. The trouble, of course, is getting off the couch to exercise when you are swathed in a cloak of pure human misery. But you can do it. You got this. Efficacy: 7/10. Would recommend? 10/10.

  • Supplements and herbs: You might be rolling your eyes here, but keep reading. Among the ones that I have tried are calcium, vitamin D, chaste berry and primrose oil. Out of these, I would say that calcium helped the most. Studies have in fact shown that women who take 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily during PMS show a 30- 50% reduction in symptoms. Furthermore, science has it that calcium taken in conjunction with magnesium can further alleviate symptoms. I haven't tried this yet but you can bet your bottom dollar I will. Efficacy: 8/10. Would recommend? 10/10.

  • Meditation: I have been meditating for six months now with Headspace. Meditation is a great way to recenter when you’re feeling blah. Breathing deeply seems to cure almost everything (after all, it is the most *human* thing we can do, isn’t it?) If you can manage to carve out 10 minutes in your crazy day of running around and forgetting to breathe, to breathe, then I would highly recommend this. Efficacy: 6.5/10. Would recommend? 10/10. Especially if you've poo- pooed meditation in the past. Try it, I dare you!

  • PMS diet: Even though our bodies ironically crave garbage food at this time of month, high sodium and sugar are hugely problematic. Focus your eating around nutrient dense foods (fruit, veggies, whole grains) and stay away from that vat of chocolate ice cream that is calling your name from the freezer. Again, this is a tip for those that can manage it, because who doesn't love drowning in Cheetos when they're feeling awful?! Efficacy: 6/10. Would recommend? 10/10, if you can do it.

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Honestly, I think the best approach to tackling beastly PMS symptoms can be two-pronged or three-pronged or seven-pronged or however many prongs suit you. There is no one size fits all solution because we all have different biology. You may love eliminating coffee and alcohol (who ARE you?) and not be so into the supplement idea, and that is A-ok.

The ultimate end goal is to get you feeling better and able to tackle your life more effectively through natural and healthy adjustments to lifestyle. I may seem like a totally sarcastic, sassy so and so, but really I've got your best interests at heart, and uterus.

Give some of these tips a go, and if any work for you, let me know. Also, feel free to leave any other mood swing slaying tips in the comments. Thanks for tuning in, now go tell your PMS what's up!!!

The App that Saved my Life

         Ok, so, confession time. I used to think that meditation was just a tad too new agey to be taken seriously. I had only ever stumbled upon recordings with random gong sounds, chimes and chirping birds, and occasionally the voice of a very, very old woman walking me through excruciatingly long breathing exercises. At the time in my life when I first looked into meditation, I was extremely anxious. The type of jittery that makes reading one page of a book difficult, let alone sitting still and simply *breathing* for 10 minutes. Who has time to *breathe* in this mad, mad world?!

         In the last few years, my anxiety became worse, and was coupled with bouts of week long insomnia and depression (fun, right?) I refused sleeping pills and antidepressants, determined to find a healthy, non chemical and holistic option that got to the root of the problem. It was at that time that a dear friend introduced me to the app Headspace.

         Now, before I tell you about my Headspace journey, let me assure you that they are not paying me…. It’s just that I like the app enough to write a generous endorsement of it, in the hopes that it might help you.

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             Let’s start with the design. The app logo is a simple and imperfect orange dot on a white background. The shade of orange is joyful and quirky, whereas the imperfection of the dot makes the app feel subtly and instantly accessible to all of us imperfect humans (at least to this one). The dot, with its imperfect edges, seems to almost appear to be moving, or better yet, breathing.

          Headspace ushers you in with colourful doodles of peaceful and fun creatures. It’s almost like a children’s book, for stressed out adults. You are welcomed into some intro videos and a beginner pack of 10 meditations. The meditations are led by the creator, Andi Puddicombe, who I swear sounds like a much more relaxed John Oliver. (And trust me, it cracks me up every time I listen and picture myself being led in meditation by a sharp tongued, sarcastic English political comedian). Everything about the app is accessible, from the cutesy doodles, to the simple instructions, quirky videos, and even the minimalist layout. Long gone are the days of feeling like you should be wearing elephant pants and sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean, to do meditation. This app is the epitome of *meditation for the masses*. In a good way.

          After ten sessions, I was sold, so I bought the year long subscription as a Christmas present to myself, which cost me $7.99 a month. The whole package opened up a bunch of new meditation options, falling under categories like “Foundation”, “Health”, “Brave” and “Happiness”. My favourite so far has been the “Anxiety” package, but I am looking forward to delving into the others. I love the irony of buying myself a Christmas present that is literally the antithesis of materialism, and all about cultivating a healthy and happy inner life.

         Guys, I have been doing Headspace on and off for 5 months now, and I am, well and truly, a changed woman. And I don’t even do it daily, like I’m supposed to. Shhh, don’t tell Andi! My favourite part of the app is the introductory video to each package that teach different skills and ways of viewing meditation as a whole. One thing that has truly stuck with me is the concept of the mind, in its most ideal form, as a blue sky. Thoughts and feelings, then, are clouds passing by, and anxious or depressive thoughts and feelings are storm clouds, specifically.

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          The app suggests that if you do the meditations frequently, you will be able to bring a calmer head space into your daily life. That you will essentially, over time, be able to step back and observe negative thought patterns, just as if they were storm clouds, rather than being embroiled in the eye of the storm itself. So far, I can attest that this is true. I am about 40% calmer at all times, thanks to this app. At times when I feel negative or anxious thoughts creeping in, I am able to identify them, the way I would identify some other hazard to my well being. Once I have identified them, I am now able to kindly, and ever so politely, show them the door.

         That’s right, I’ve been telling my anxious and depressive thoughts to get out of dodge for the last few months, and it’s actually working. They slink off, and when they come back, they are far less scary than before, because they know who’s boss, and I do too. And I’ve got a super doodly, cute, highly accessible and un- new-agey app to thank for that. Thanks Headspace. You’ve changed my head! And my space!