Since the turn of the millennium, the percentage of people in the United States who are overweight or have obesity has risen consistently. In 2016, around 40 percent of adults had obesity and around 70 percent were overweight.
And these eye-opening statistics aren’t expected to decline anytime soon. Researchers predict that by 2030 about half of those living in the U.S. will have obesity, while most will have overweight.
The U.S. isn’t alone in these numbers. Indeed, nearly a third of the world’s population has a body mass index classified as overweight or obese. However, some countries have significantly lower levels of overweight and obesity.
Why the difference? Obesity is a complex issue. While scientists don’t yet fully understand all of the factors that lead to obesity, diet and lifestyle play a significant role, along with genetics, environment, and even gut microbial balance.
And while people come in all shapes and sizes, being overweight or having obesity puts people at higher risk for other diseases, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and premature death.
Let’s embark on a culinary health adventure to pick out some of the healthiest eating and lifestyle habits from countries with lower rates of obesity and chronic disease around the globe. By incorporating some of these habits into your lifestyle — while leaving some less-wholesome practices on foreign soil — you can reap the delicious benefits of global eating and perhaps pick up some of the health and weight management benefits along the way.
- Set the stage. One unexpected habit to adopt from Japan? The emphasis placed on food’s appearance. Small portions and colorful, seasonal vegetables make for a visually appealing — and healthy — plate. The small portions help keep calories in check, while veggies provide a range of healthy vitamins and minerals.
- Consider limiting. Best not to eat too much fish high in heavy metals. Mercury, an element that can cause nervous system damage, is particularly prevalent in tuna, king mackerel, and swordfish. Limit sushi such as maguro (tuna) and nama-saba (mackerel) and go for lower mercury options like sake (salmon), ebi (shrimp), and ika (squid) instead.
- Pick up sticks. Using chopsticks can help you eat slower, which usually means you’ll eat less. Plus, research suggests people who eat faster are more likely to have obesity and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Limit. Orange chicken (and other Americanized Chinese food). MSG isn’t the problem here — it’s eating meat slathered in sugary sauce (so that’s why it tastes so good). Opt for lo mein or stir-fry veggie options instead.
- Please your palate. One study found that while the French associate food with pleasure (as opposed to health), the country has lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease than the U.S. Ironically, Americans are more concerned with the how healthy their food is and they get less pleasure out of eating. So rather than eating a large portion of a “healthy” dessert like frozen yogurt, try a small portion of a treat you love (a rich, dark chocolate truffle fits the bill) and savor the sensory experience. And while you’re at it, make like the French and walk or bike where you need to go. People in France tend to be more physically active than those in the U.S. — in 2018, between 60 to 66 percent of adults in France met national physical activity requirements, while that same year only 54 percent of adults met the minimum for aerobic exercise and only 28 percent met the minimum for muscle strengthening activity in the U.S. While you can’t outrun your fork, that higher level of physical activity can certainly help keep the croissants from going to your hips.
- Limit. The daily pastry. A chocolate croissant, like many buttery breakfast pastries, is loaded with refined carbohydrates, sugar, and fat (not a great start to the day). Stick with more nutritious options like oatmeal or yogurt most days, and save the pastry for an occasional treat.
- Put teff to the test. Injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread made of teff flour, is high in fiber, vitamin C, and protein. Traditional Ethiopian cuisine emphasizes root vegetables, beans, and lentils, and it’s light on dairy and animal products. Try your hand at making injera at home, or cook teff grains in water as a substitute for rice.
- Limit. Serving family-style. The traditional Ethiopian diet consists of shared dishes scooped up with injera together. This style of eating makes it hard to control portions, so put individual servings on a plate to make it easier to visualize how much you’re eating.
- Spice it up. Indian cuisine features tons of spices, which add yummy flavor, appealing color, and surprising health benefits. Spices like turmeric, ginger, and red pepper may help to lower cholesterol. Frequently used aromatics like onions and garlic can also lower your risk of heart disease.
- Limit. Go easy on the creamy sauces. Many recipes are unexpectedly high in saturated fat thanks to ghee (aka clarified butter) and full fat coconut milk. If you’re trying to avoid or reduce your intake of saturated fat, limit the rich dishes. Sub in tandoori-grilled meats, “lite” coconut milk, and tomato-based curries instead.
- Love your lunch. Traditional Mexican culture includes almuerzo, a midday feast that’s the largest meal of the day. Recent research suggests that eating a big meal late in the evening could be a culprit behind gaining weight.
- Limit. Refried beans. Rich in protein, fiber, and vitamins, beans are an excellent, heart-healthy addition to your diet. However, frying them in lard or oil significantly ups the calories. Go for dried or low sodium canned beans for a healthier burrito.
- Wine and dine. Have a glass of wine, but don’t overdo it. Research has shown that moderate wine consumption — one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men — can reduce your risk for heart disease and extend your life.
- Limit. Pizza. If you’ve ever been to Napoli — the birthplace of pizza — you’ll know that traditional Italian pizza has a thin crust, is cooked in a brick oven (not a greasy pan), and may be topped with fresh tomato, garlic, basil and a few slices of mozzarella cheese — quite a bit different than the greasy, cheesy, fluffy crust, meaty topping-laden stuff we eat on this side of the pond. Pizza is a big source of calories, refined carbs, saturated fat, and sodium. When you decide to indulge, take inspo from the Neopolitans and make your pizza at home for a healthier pie.
- Practice (pro)portion control. The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are old news at this point. Traditional Mediterranean cuisine includes lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes (things we all could use more of in our diets), plus small amounts of meat, fish, dairy, and olive oil.
- Skip. Gyros. Most traditional Greek food is about as healthy as you can get. But gyros, those nommy pita sandwiches filled with seasoned beef and lamb cooked on a spit, are loaded with blood-pressure raising sodium – 714 milligrams in one gyro, to be exact.
- Try rye. Scandinavian cuisine tends to skimp on the veggies, but it still has several healthy elements. Rye bread is a staple — and it’s loaded with fiber, which helps keep you fuller longer. Try making a sandwich on rye for a fiber-rich alternative to white or whole-wheat bread.
- Limit. Go gentle on the salt, especially if you’re at risk for hypertension. Traditional Nordic foods, like smoked salmon, go heavy on the salt. As an alternative, try making smoked fish at home — it’s still tasty but allows you to keep the sodium under control.
- Go local. The “Standard American Diet” (SAD) is indeed sad, but some regional dietary patterns offer healthier alternatives. Look to San Francisco for inspiration. Bay Area residents are known for chowing down on locally grown food. Since fruits and veggies start to lose some of their nutrients after harvest — particularly antioxidants like vitamin C — produce grown nearby may be more nutritious than produce that must travel long distances from farm to table.
- Skip. Ingredients you can’t pronounce or have never heard of. Processed foods are loaded with chemicals designed to make them tastier, more shelf-stable, more colorful, or a certain consistency. Read nutrition labels carefully — in general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. Try to stick to whole foods and meals that you prepare yourself. And don’t forget that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh, but last longer and are often way more affordable. Look for low sodium canned vegetables and choose fruit packed in its own juice.
There isn’t one universally healthy (or unhealthy) diet. But the diets of countries with lower rates of chronic diseases tend to have a few things in common. All emphasize eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats, as well as savoring your meals.
Lifestyle factors, like greater physical activity, likely also play a role in lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.
Look to international cuisines for recipe inspiration, new flavors and ingredients, and different eating practices. Mix and match elements from these varied diets to create your own version of delicious, healthy eating.