Why is it that populations from specific geographical locations around the world thrive in terms of health and wellness while others do so poorly? Here are 15 secrets across the globe that may make you reconsider your approach to your daily routine.
Thai food is among the spiciest in the world. Past research suggested that spicing food with chilies can lower blood pressure in people with that condition, reduce blood cholesterol and ease the tendency for dangerous blood clots to form. Hot peppers raise your metabolism, and spicing up your daily diet with some red pepper can also curb appetite,especially for those who don’t normally eat the popular spice, according to research from Purdue University. The real benefit of food with a little zing is that it slows your eating, says James Hill, PhD, past president of the American Society for Nutrition. “Americans eat too fast,” he says. “By the time your body signals that it’s full, you’ve overeaten. Eating slower is a good weight-loss strategy, and making food spicier is an easy way to do it.”
2. CAMEROON, WEST AFRICA
In Cameroon, experts have concluded that the diet–which consists largely of fiber, fermented foods, wild greens and healthy fats, and rarely includes meat–is essential to cancer prevention. The reasons? Vegetables and other fiber-rich foods have been shown to positively affect colon cancer risk. Fermented foods like yogurt and pickles provide beneficial bacteria for the gut. Wild greens and healthy fats found in fish, nuts and unrefined cooking oil may also be protective.
This spice, a key ingredient in curries, grows wild in Malaysian jungles. One of its chief components is a substance called curcumin is a potent fat fighter and outperforms pharmaceuticals without side effects.
A recent Tufts University study found that mice fed a high-fat diet with small amounts of curcumin gained less weight than did other mice given similar but curcumin-free meals. Researchers think the ingredient suppresses the growth of fat tissue and increases fat-burning. Try some in your next stir-fry.
4. OKINAWA, JAPAN
Japan has relatively low rates of prostate and breast cancer. TheOkinawans practice calorie restriction, which has been linked to improved longevity. They also load up on in-season vegetables like bok choy, mustard greens and kale. They drink green tea rich inantioxidants, and get their fats and vitamin D from fish.
“Every meal in Japan looks like a piece of art. Food is so beautiful and so delicious and so simple,” says fitness expert Harley Pasternak.
Lessons from the Okinawans:
i. Develop a strong sense of purpose, called ikigai, or that which makes life worth living, by keeping family ties strong and maintaining close groups of friends. The Okinawans call these moais.
ii. Stay active, and maintain a vegetable garden. Not only do gardens provide natural sources of healthy foods, but also an outlet for daily physical activity. Because of the temperate climate, Okinawans can garden all year round and get plenty of bone-health promoting Vitamin D!
iii. Maintain an herb garden. People living in homes or apartments can grow and maintain herb gardens. Include ginger and turmeric to get the same health benefits as the Okinawans.
iv. Eat a plant-based diet. Use vegetables from your garden, a farmer’s market or even a grocery store. Okinawan centenarians consume soy products, such as antioxidant rich tofu for additional health benefits.
v. Hara hachi bu. This old agage, translates as “eat until you’re 80% full.” The Okinawans say this before every meal to remind them to eat moderate amounts of food.
The Swiss love their muesli. Muesli is a porridge or cereal made from oats, fruit, and nuts, each of which has been linked to better health and weight control. It was developed by a Swiss physician more than a hundred years ago to nourish hospital patients, but the Swiss eat it for breakfast or as a light evening dish.
Muesli’s fiber makes it slow to digest, keeping you feeling full longer. Read the label carefully, though: Sugar content can vary from 2 to 14 grams per serving.
6. IKARIA, GREECE
The Mediterranean is famed for its healthy cuisine, so it may come as no surprise that Grecians have fewer cases of heart disease. Staples, including virgin olive oil, greens like arugula and Swiss chard, carbohydrates like chickpeas, lentils and whole-grain bread, and herbs like oregano, parsley and chives, are great for heart health. The traditional diet also minimizes meat consumption with no more than one red meat dish per week. Ikarians eat a variation of the Mediterranean diet, which consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and a little fish. One key feature of the Ikarian diet are wild greens, many of which have ten times the level of antioxidants in green tea or red wine! They take regular naps which reduces their chance of cardiovascular disease by up to 35%. Their hilly land also lends itself well to burning calories. The Ikarians exercise without thinking about it just by walking to church or work.
The French excel at the leisurely family meal. On average, 92% of French families dine together nightly, compared with 28% of American families. The French diet is full of flavor and high in satisfaction. They don’t believe in low-fat, low-carb, low-taste, or low-calorie, but they do believe in enjoying their food, taking the time to eat at the table, knowing when to stop eating and educating their children about food.
“For the French, eating is the event of the day,” says Fred Pescatore, MD, president of the International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists. “For us, it’s something we do before heading out to do something else.”
Lengthy meals actually encourage less eating, Dr.Pescatore says: Conversation slows down the fork and gives you time to realize you’re full.
8. SARDINIA, ITALY
Sardinians maintain a positive attitude towards their elders and take time out of their days to stop and enjoy the simple beauty of their surroundings. They foster a sarcastic sense of humor, and a unique outlook and perspective on life. This attitude helps them shed stress and diffuse arguments before they start. You don’t need to run marathons to get and stay healthy! Sardinian centenarians walked long distances their entire lives and suffer from half as many fractures as their Italian counterparts. Men here work typically as shepherds, walking miles a day over the rough terrain with their flocks.
Lessons from Sardinia:
i. Eat a plant-based, bean rich diet accented with pecorino (sheep cheese) and goat’s milk, using meat as an accent, rather than the main dish.
ii. Put family first. People who have strong family ties have lower rates of depression and stress.
iii. Respect and celebrate elders. Grandparents can help raise healthier, better adjusted children by providing love, wisdom and motivation.
iv. Take a walk. Sardinian shepherd walk 5 miles a day. Regular exercise can boost mood and benefits muscle and bone metabolism.
v. Drink a glass of red wine. Cannanau, a Sardinian red wine, has three times the level of antioxidants and flavonoids compared to other wines. This makes it particularly beneficial for heart health.
vi. Laugh with friends. The word, ‘sardonic,’ or wry sense of humor, originates in Sardinia. Gathering daily to laugh with friends is key to shedding daily stresses.
Hungarians like things pickled–and not just cucumbers but bell peppers, cabbage, and tomatoes. These tart treats can help keep you thin, because they enhance digestion through their fermented powers.
Growing evidence suggests that acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, helps reduce blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and the formation of fat. Pickles aren’t your thing? Swap your ranch salad dressing for oil and vinegar.
10. COSTA RICA
Many Nicoyan Costa Ricans are centenarians and feel needed through fostering a plan de vida, or reason to live. This sense of purpose often centers around spending time with and providing for their family. This often results in centenarians retaining an active lifestyle, reaping the benefits of physical activity and exposure to the sun. Like the Adventists, faith plays a strong role in the Nicoyan lifestyle. Relinquishing control of their life to God helps relieves stress and anxiety related to well-being. They, like those in the other Blue Zones, eat rich, colorful fruits. Themaronon, a red-orange fruit with more vitamin C than oranges and theanona, a pear-like fruit rich in antioxidants provide Nicoyans with nutrient dense, longevity foods. Their gardens flow rich with rice, beans and corn, all staples in the diet.
i. Have a plan de vida. Similar to Okinawans ikigai, Nicoyans always nurture their plan de vida, or reason to live, which encourages them to contribute to their community.
ii. Drink hard water. High amounts of calcium and magnesium, essential for bone and muscle strength, abound in Nicoya’s water. By drinking and cooking with this water, people here get their daily intake of calcium throughout their entire lives!
iii. Focus on your family and friends. Having a good relationship with their family and maintaining a strong social network contributes greatly to centenarian’s sense of purpose and well-being.
iv. Plan your meals. Nicoyans eat their biggest meal in the morning and their smallest meal at night.
v. Get some sun. Nicoyans enjoy healthy doses of daily sun, enriching their bodies with Vitamin D. Getting at least 15 minutes every day can decrease the risk for osteoporosis and heart disease.
11. SOUTH AFRICA
Enjoyed throughout the country, rooibos tea is more robust than green tea in South Africa, and because it’s naturally sweet, it needs no sugar. Ditching your daily Frappuccino for a cup of rooibos–Starbucks now sells it–could save you thousands of calories per month.
“Tea-drinking cultures generally have lower rates of obesity,” says Dr. Pescatore. “That may be from special compounds, such as catechins, that certain teas contain, or it may simply be that we often think we’re hungry when we’re really dehydrated.”
The Finns know a thing or two about staying in shape because nordic walking is one of their favorite outdoor activities. It’s not as exotic as it sounds: All that’s required is a pair of inexpensive, lightweight walking poles. Holding these in your hands aids balance, which is great if you’re older or if you’re on slippery terrain.
Even better: Because they make you use muscles in your shoulders, arms, and torso, the poles transform walking into a total-body workout that burns 20% more calories, according to a study at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. Winter or summer, it’s a simple way to derive more fat-reducing benefit from your regular walk. It is said that Finns practice some of the most active living lifestyles in the world.
The Dutch down about 85 million herring per year–raw. That’s about five for every person in the country (and five more than eaten here). They’re pickled, then served unadorned as snacks or in soft buns with onions and gherkins for lunch.
Oily fish like herring is slimming for a few reasons, says Dr. Pescatore, author of The Hamptons Diet. It contains lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol–and cortisol is known to increase the amount of fat deposited around your middle.
What’s more, lunching on herring or canned sardines guarantees you’ll ingest far fewer calories than you would if you eat a burger or even fish sticks. Just don’t forget the breath mints.
Are omega-3 fats essential to preventing depression? Iceland is a country known for its bleak winters but where depression rates are low. The Icelandic diet, which includes fish as a staple, is rich in omega-3 fats. Other sources of the healthy fats are pasture-raised lamb and wild game. To further support brain health, Icelanders also consume plenty of antioxidants in black tea, vegetables, wild berries and whole grains like barley and rye
15. COPPER CANYON, MEXICO
In this very remote region of Mexico, Miller sought out the Tarahumara Indians, who have impressively low blood sugar and cholesterol levels. After studying their traditional diet, experts found that Tarahumara benefited from a diet that emphasizes slow-release foods, sending sugar into the bloodstream at a much slower rate than other foods. Their staples include whole corn, beans, squash, jicama and cumin. While the Tarahumara have struggled with poverty-related malnutrition, the slow-releasing carbohydrates help prevent an overproduction of insulin and aid in maintaining blood sugar levels.
Mae Chan holds degrees in both physiology and nutritional sciences. She is also blogger and and technology enthusiast with a passion for disseminating information about health.