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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!