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.
- Set the stage: One unexpected habit to steal from Japanese? The emphasis placed on food’s appearance. Small portions and colorful, seasonal vegetables make for a visually appealing—and healthy—plate. The small portions help keep calories in check, while veggies provide a range of healthy vitamins and minerals. Effects on hunger and satiety, perceived portion size and pleasantness of taste of varying the portion size of foods: a brief review of selected studies. Kral TV. Appetite, 2005, Nov.;46(1):0195-6663.
- Skip: Fish high in heavy metals. Mercury, an element that can cause nervous system damage, is particularly prevalent in tuna, king mackerel, and swordfish. Low dose mercury toxicity and human health. Zahir F, Rizwi SJ, Haq SK. Environmental toxicology and pharmacology, 2012, Oct.;20(2):1382-6689. Avoid sushi such as maguro (tuna) and nama-saba (mackerel) and go for safer options like sake (salmon), ebi (shrimp), and ika (squid) instead.
- Pick up sticks: Using chopsticks can help you eat slower, which usually means you'll eat less. Plus, research has shown people who eat faster are more likely to be obese and have cardiovascular disease. Impact of eating rate on obesity and cardiovascular risk factors according to glucose tolerance status: the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry and the Hisayama Study. Ohkuma T, Fujii H, Iwase M. Diabetologia, 2012, Oct.;56(1):1432-0428.
- Skip: Orange chicken (and other Americanized Chinese food). MSG isn't the problem here—it's eating meat slathered in sugary sauce (so that's why it tastes so good). Opt for lo mein or stir-fry options instead.
- MSG (though maybe not for everyone).
- Please your palate: One study found that while the French associate food with pleasure (as opposed to health), the country has lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease than the U.S. Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the U.S.A., Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: possible implications for the diet-health debate. Rozin P, Fischler C, Imada S. Appetite, 1999, Nov.;33(2):0195-6663. Ironically, Americans are more concerned with the how healthy their food is, and they get less pleasure out eating. So rather than eating a large portion of a “healthy” dessert like frozen yogurt, try a small portion of a treat you love (a rich, dark chocolate truffle fits the bill) and savor the sensory experience. Broad+themes+of+difference+between+French+and+American+attitudes+to+food+and+other+life+domains:+personal+versus+communal+values,+quantity+versus+quality,+and+comforts+versus+joys.+Rozin+P,+Remik+AK,+Fischler+C.+Department+of+Psychology,+University+of+Pennsylvania,+Philadelphia,+PA,+USA.+Frontiers+in+Cultural+Psychology.+2011;+2:177.
- Skip: The daily pastry. A chocolate croissant, like many buttery breakfast pastries, is loaded with simple carbohydrates, sugar, and fat (a.k.a. not a great start to the day). Stick with more nutritious options like oatmeal or yogurt most days, and save the pastry for an occasional treat.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wine and dine: Have a glass of wine, but don’t overdo it. Research has shown that moderate wine consumption—one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men—can reduce your risk for heart disease and extend your life. Alcohol, heart disease, and mortality: a review. Vogel RA. Reviews in cardiovascular medicine, 2003, Feb.;3(1):1530-6550.
Cancer prevention in Europe: the Mediterranean diet as a protective choice. Giacosa A, Barale R, Bavaresco L. European journal of cancer prevention : the official journal of the European Cancer Prevention Organisation (ECP), 2013, Sep.;22(1):1473-5709.
- Skip: Plates of pasta. A pasta-heavy diet has been shown to increase cardiovascular risk in otherwise healthy Italians. Dietary patterns, cardiovascular risk factors and C-reactive protein in a healthy Italian population. Centritto F, Iacoviello L, di Giuseppe R. Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD, 2009, Mar.;19(10):1590-3729. Give Italian night a healthy makeover by subbing spaghetti squash for regular noodles and top with a veggie-rich sauce.
- 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!
- 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
- Go local: The “Standard American Diet” (SAD) is indeed sad, but some regional dietary patterns offer healthier alternatives. Look to San Francisco for inspiration. Bay Area residents are known for chowing down on locally grown food. Fruits and veggies grown nearby often contain more nutrients and fewer pesticides than produce that must travel long distances from farm to table. Salad and raw vegetable consumption and nutritional status in the adult US population: results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Su LJ, Arab L. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2006, Oct.;106(9):0002-8223.
- Skip: Ingredients you can't pronounce or have never heard of. Pizza, cheeseburgers, and French fries are obvious foods to save for special occasions, but there are plenty of seemingly healthy foods, like milk or chicken, that have been pumped with harmful chemicals. Read nutrition labels carefully—in general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better.
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.