The United States doesn’t have the highest obesity rate in the Americas (that dubious honor goes to Mexico), but over one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and that number isn’t dropping. It’s a pretty eye-opening statistic, especially when compared with data from countries like Japan and India, where obesity rates fall below 5 percent.

Why the difference? Many factors affect obesity rates, but at it all boils down to what people eat and how they eat it. The good news is that everyone can borrow healthy eating habits from countries around the world—and leave some less-wholesome practices on foreign soil. 

1. Japan

Woman Eating Sushi

2. China

Lo Mein

3. France

Macaroon

4. Ethiopia

Injera Bread
  • 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.
  • Skip: Serving family-style. The traditional Ethiopian diet consists of shared dishes scooped up with injera. 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. 

5. India

Indian Food
  • 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. Dietary spices as beneficial modulators of lipid profile in conditions of metabolic disorders and diseases. Srinivasan K. Food & function, 2013, Jan.;4(4):2042-650X.
  • Skip: Creamy sauces. Many recipes are unexpectedly high in saturated fat thanks to ghee (a.k.a. clarified butter) and full-fat coconut milk. Those looking to avoid or reduce saturated fat in their diets should take it easy on the rich dishes. Sub in tandoori-grilled meats and tomato-based curries instead.

6. Mexico

Tacos
  • 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 in the evening could be a major culprit behind gaining weight. Circadian disruption leads to insulin resistance and obesity. Shi SQ, Ansari TS, McGuinness OP. Current biology : CB, 2013, Feb.;23(5):1879-0445. 
  • Skip: Refried beans. Beans have high levels of protein, fiber, and vitamins. However, frying them in lard or oil significantly ups the calories. Go for dried or low-sodium canned beans for a healthier burrito.

7. Italy

Wine

8. Greece

Falafel
  • Practice (pro)portion control: The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are old news at this point. Mediterranean diet and metabolic diseases. Giugliano D, Esposito K. Current opinion in lipidology, 2008, Apr.;19(1):0957-9672. Traditional Mediterranean cuisine includes lots of fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes, plus small amounts of meat, fish, dairy, and olive oil. 
  • Skip: Phyllo dough. We know, we know spanakopita is full of spinach, but the buttery pastry is full of refined carbohydrates. A typical entrée-size portion of spanakopita can contain as much saturated fat as a bacon cheeseburger

9. Sweden

Rye Bread
  • Try rye: Scandinavian cuisine doesn't use many veggies, but it still has several healthy elements. Rye bread is a staple—and it comes with tons of fiber to keep you fuller longer. Try making a sandwich on rye for a fiber-rich alternative to white or whole-wheat bread.
  • Skip: Salt, especially if you're at risk for hypertension. Traditional Nordic foods, like smoked salmon, go heavy on the salt. Salt intake in young Swedish men. Hulthén L, Aurell M, Klingberg S. Public health nutrition, 2009, Dec.;13(5):1475-2727. As an alternative, try making smoked fish at home—it’s still tasty but allows you to keep the sodium under control.

10. United States

Farmers Market

The Takeaway

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.

Look to international cuisines for recipe inspiration, new flavors and ingredients, and different eating practices. Mix-and-match elements from these different diets to create your own version of healthy eating. 

Originally published October 2013. Updated March 2017.