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According to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, obesity rates in Japan are among the lowest in the world, with only four per cent of the country's population considered obese. This could be because, when eating, the Japanese follow a philosophy called hara hachi bunme, which involves stopping eating when you are 80 per cent full. Claire Cronier, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and nutritionist and the founder of nutritionSage.com, says the lesson to be learned here is the importance of listening to your body's satiety cues.
As is done in most of Asia, the Japanese eat using chopsticks rather than a fork or spoon, and it just so happens that you tend to take smaller bites when using chopsticks, which is healthier for your digestion. The Japanese also serve their meals on multiple small plates, so that the flavours don't mix together, which tends to result in smaller portions.
Japanese meals are always colourful, and we all know that eating an array of colourful vegetables will give your body a good variety of nutrients, says Cronier. The traditional Japanese diet consists of rice, vegetables and tofu, and is also rich in fish, a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. While milk is not typically a part of their diet, the Japanese get calcium from the animal bones that provide flavour in their soups.
The traditional Chinese diet includes many healthy elements and is similar to the traditional Japanese diet in that rice, vegetables and soy-based foods are all common ingredients. While Chinese food can be deep-fried, lighter cooking practices, such as steaming meats and vegetables or stir-frying them in woks, are also common.
"Nutrients, especially the vitamins, are heat sensitive, and the longer you cook them, some of them will leech out and some will be destroyed by the heat," says Cronier. She suggests preserving vegetables’ nutrients by cooking them on high heat for a short amount of time or on low heat for a longer amount of time.
Garlic is used frequently in Chinese cooking – and also for medicinal purposes – as it is rich in allicin, a compound that has antibacterial and antioxidant properties and that can help control blood sugar and help prevent blood clots.
Green tea is a common Chinese beverage that is rich in antioxidants that help prevent cell damage as you age, and that may help prevent several cancers and heart disease.
While the French may not eat the healthiest foods, their food philosophy is one worth following. While we in Canada see food as fuel for our bodies, the French believe that food nourishes their bodies, minds and souls.
During dinner, the French spend a few hours sharing multiple courses of home-cooked food and spending time with family. Food is a part of their social interaction. They teach us that it’s important to not wolf down your food, and that you should take your time while eating – at least 20 minutes – so that your body’s fullness cues can alert you accordingly.
Plus, being happy while eating can affect your digestion, says Cronier, as some of the hormones that are secreted when you are stressed, such as cortisol, divert digestion. "Cortisol shuts down the digestive process because it's not important anymore," she explains. "If I keep doing that, I will not get all of the nutrients out of my diet."
Thanks to its nutrient-rich properties, the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest diets out there. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, beans, legumes and fish. Whole grains are usually eaten on their own or dipped in olive oil, which is rich in unsaturated fats that lower the risk of heart disease and help normalize blood clotting.
However, it's not just the foods they eat that make the Mediterranean people healthy – it’s their lifestyle, too. In Italy, there is an after-dinner ritual called la passeggiata, where young couples, families, teenagers and elders all take an after-dinner stroll and chat with their friends and neighbours. In Spain, the people regularly take short naps called siestas in the early afternoon. While it may not be reasonable to nap during the day here in Canada, studies have shown that getting enough sleep can affect our food choices.
It was the Swedish who came up with the term smörgasbord, a buffet offering a variety of different meats, salads, pickled items and more. Eating a variety of foods is important for obtaining the most nutrients possible, but it’s also important for satisfying different tastes and flavours.
Sweden is one of the top milk-drinking nations, with its residents drinking about 340 kilograms of milk per year. Studies show that if you consume a high amount of low-fat dairy products, the calcium stops your body from producing body fat.
Nordic diets are also reliant on ingredients found locally in the environment. "The less processed foods are the better way to go, with less added sugar, less added fat and less processing," says Cronier.
It's never too early to start teaching your kids about nutrition. Why not start with helping them pack their own healthy snacks? They can help lead the whole family with their healthy eating habits.