Health Library

Categories > Diet and Nutrition > Healthy eating

International food customs worth importing

How can the French eat so well and stay so thin? Why are heart disease and cancer almost unheard of in parts of the Far East? And what gives Greek men the longest life expectancy in the world today?

For answers, just check out their dinner tables. Less fat, fewer calories and better nutrition are always on the menu. Before you eat another meal, take this international cooking lesson. It’ll liven up your cuisine while bestowing health benefits from around the world.

French lessons

No diet is richer than the French, yet France’s heart disease rates are among the lowest in the world and its national obesity rate is about ten percent (in the U.S., it’s as much as 33 percent). What’s their secret?

For the most part, they eat differently than Americans—a light breakfast, a substantial lunch and a small dinner with red wine. As a result, they consume most of their calories before mid-afternoon and don’t go to bed digesting a huge meal. Lunch and dinner, while multicourse, consist of small servings featuring plenty of raw and cooked vegetables and salads. Bread is never buttered; in fact, butter is used only for cooking. Cheese and fresh fruit are common final courses, although sweet parfaits occasionally are served instead.

Another uncommon denominator: Snacking is completely foreign to the French. They view it as something that spoils the enjoyment of their regular meals. And rather than becoming more hungry by not snacking, studies find the French actually eat fewer calories thanks to not devouring a bag of chips late in the day.

Chinese health foods

There’s no mystery about why people in rural parts of China have cancer, diabetes and heart-disease rates that are nearly zero. The traditional Chinese diet is based almost entirely on plants, fish and low-fat poultry—all heart-healthy, cancer-foiling foods that only recently have become mainstream menu items in the West. In many ways the Chinese diet is almost entirely vegetarian—rice, soybeans, exotic vegetables, peppers, sweet potatoes—with red meat being used only for flavoring.

Studies of Chinese villagers show residents consume vast amounts of complex carbohydrates, some fish and poultry, and very little dairy, red meat or pork. Contrast that with the fatty, fried, meat-laden “Chinese restaurant” menu in the West. To get traditional Chinese meals, prepare (or order) bok choy, bean sprouts, kale, spinach and eggplant. Top sandwiches with shredded cabbage, carrots or greens. Limit low-fat meat servings to three ounces and enjoy fresh tropical fruit for dessert.

Eat like an Italian… or a Cretan

The Mediterranean diet, considered the healthiest of them all, is more reliant upon fish and fruits than most others. Nonetheless, its nutritional benefits are well established. Because it relies on heart-healthy olive, peanut and canola oils and stresses fish and citrus as dietary mainstays, the Mediterranean diet increases the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol in the blood. And in a major Italian study last year, researchers learned that this diet also protects against second heart attacks and high blood pressure.

No nation has lower heart disease or heart attack rates than the island of Crete, off Greece. The so-called Cretan diet consists of breakfast brimming with grains and fruits like melons, grapes, figs and pears and lunches and dinners primarily made from leafy green veggies, beans, lentils, peas, dried fruit, fish and nuts. Herbs and spices are used generously, but red meat and dairy products are rarely served. Desserts and snacks consist of additional servings of fruit. Finally, moderate amounts of red wine are served at the evening meal.

The Mediterranean and Chinese diets hit all the right health chords: More “good” cholesterol, loads of fiber, antioxidants and vitamins and scant animal or dairy fats. And the French method of taking meals while avoiding snacks is a no-fuss way to keep weight off. By choosing attributes of each of these healthful diets, you can develop your own nutritious eating regimen.