What is the healthiest diet in the world? It’s a contentious question amongst ‘experts’ who debate this topic with a certain amount of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ generally quoting data that backs up their beliefs or dietary leaning (and if anything goes against their beliefs, they generally diss the study by focussing their attention its flaws). I recently read a comment from a long term paleo enthusiast who after studying ‘health longevity’ had begun to question that he was indeed, on the right track. He was concerned that some of the longest (and healthiest) living communities ate very little meat (he claimed that pasture raised meat formed more than 50% of his diet), that many ate grain, dairy and all ate legumes and lots of vegetables. He asked if anyone could offer an example of a long living, healthy culture where meat, featured heavily in their diet. The backlash was not pretty, lots of ‘cognitive dissonance’ but no answers to his concern.
So upon reading this debate, I thought I might share my thoughts on what I believe the ‘healthiest diets’ have in common. Food culture is a topic that has long interested me, I think there is a lot to learn about the power of food from investigating this topic. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many countries in my lifetime and immersing myself in their way of eating has been one of my life’s great pleasures. I’m not a traveller that seeks out health cafes, instead preferring to eat the way the locals do (the exception to this may be travelling the more Westernised countries)!
There are vast differences when you compare traditional ‘healthy’ diets from around the world; the Japanese fare well on a diet of rice, soy, seafood and seaweed (sans wheat and dairy). The Mediterranean countries thrive on a diet of fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, nuts, cheese, bread and olive oil. Then there’s the French Paradox which really has nutrition ‘experts’ scratching their heads. Despite the rich foods they eat (lots of butter, dairy, bread), the French have some of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world. Having said that, I have visited France 12 years apart and couldn’t believe how much it had changed (so many more franchises/fast food eateries) had popped up so I’m predicting this may change.
So here are a few of my observations of what the diets of people living in the healthiest, longest living countries and communities have in common…
They eat lots and lots of seasonal vegetables. We know they are good, we all need to eat more.
They practice portion control
This is definitely one of the reasons the French are able to maintain a healthy waistline. They don’t snack and they don’t overeat the way most Western cultures do. Healthy cultures practice ‘genuine’ moderation – I have to add that so many people fool themselves into believing they practice moderation (especially when it comes to sweet stuff) so it’s a word I try to avoid, but couldn’t find a better way to express myself here.
They eat seasonally and locally
This is a given in the many longest living, remote communities, but even the French and many other industrialised ‘healthy’ countries shop only at their local market or fresh produce store. Such a simple way to ensure good health – Local – Seasonal.
No processed crap
They don’t eat highly-processed ‘sterile’ foods. It is fascinating that when a culture ventures away from their roots and replaces an unprocessed diet with processed, how their health and longevity declines. There are many, many historical examples of this.
Share the pure pleasure
Most healthy eating cultures make meals an event. They stop and share and enjoy food together as a family or community, instead of scoffing a bowl of cereal at the kitchen bench or in front of the telly, calling it dinner. There have been many studies that have demonstrated the importance of community and relationships on both mental and physical health. Again, so simple!
Don’t ignore genes
They eat according to their culture. We are all individual and I can not stress enough that a ‘one diet’ fits all approach is not healthy. Remember, most of the popular diets and food fads interests are firmly fixed upon making money so they will always and passionately plug ‘their way’ as the only way. This is simply not the case. For example; I used to see this a lot with Asian patients – they really didn’t thrive on a Western wheat dominated diet, a gluten-free rice-based diet suited them way better.
They don’t eat heaps of meat. Most cultures with good longevity certainly don’t eat meat every day. They do well combining vegetarian sources of protein, but animal sources are often only eaten as part of a celebration or significant event.
They are never ‘on a diet’
They don’t deprive themselves or exclude basic food groups. I’ve written about food stress and why it just won’t serve you here. Food restriction and the stress associated with it is a very vicious circle.
Move it or loose it
They move, gently and often – they don’t hit the gym twice a week, instead making movement part of their everyday life.
Pretty simple huh? Sadly, since there are no money-making opportunities and no glamour attached to anything this straight forward, you are not likely to hear about basic nutrition from the ‘health’ promoters, whose livelihoods depends on many people following the ‘hype’.