To research his 2010 book The 5 Factor World Diet, celebrity trainer and nutritionist Harley Pasternak traveled to the healthiest countries around the world to learn more about what made their meals extra nourishing.
He noted that Japanese people eat a wonderful variety of seaweeds, and that Chinese people tried to incorporate at least five different colors in every meal. But Pasternak also came away with some valuable observations about how different the North American way of life was compared to many other countries.
For starters, we eat much bigger portions than people in other countries. We don’t prioritize eating seasonally or locally, and we also add lots of salt, sugar and thickening agents to our foods, explained Pasternak in a phone interview with HuffPost. Contrast that to the healthy Mediterranean, Nordic and Okinawan diets listed below. They all seem to hew closely to an ethos of regional, seasonal produce.
Most other healthy eating cultures also make meals an event — say, multiple courses around the family table, or a glass or two of red wine at a long lunch — as opposed to hastily scarfing fistfuls of cereal above the kitchen sink and calling it dinner (you know, just for example).
Each one has its own unique quirks (reindeer meat! green tea!), and it’s good to remember that because of the incredible diversity of lifestyles around the world, it’s clear there isn’t one single path to weight loss or health. But Pasternak did take note of one unifying factor in all of the healthy societies he observed.
“The only overlapping feature in most of these healthy countries around the world is that they all walk way more than the average American,” said Pasternak. “So really, regardless of what you’re eating, if someone’s walking four miles more than you each day, they’re going to be a lot thinner and live a lot longer than you.”
What it is: A traditional Mediterranean diet, eaten by people in Greece, Italy and Spain, emphasizes seasonality, local produce and traditional preparations. Meals are often community or family events.
Signature foods: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and olive oil are the stars of the show. Fish, poultry and red wine make moderate appearances, while red meat, salt and sugar are bit players.
What the research says: Where to start with this one. The benefits of a Mediterranean diet have been studied since the ’70s, and researchers have found that olive oil can help people lose weight, lower their cardiovascular disease risk and reverse diabetes. As for ease of adherence, U.S. News & World Report ranked it third (out of 35 considered diets) and called it “eminently sensible.”
New Nordic Diet
What it is: Scientists designed this diet to contain 35 percent less meat than the average Danish diet, more whole grains and locally sourced produce, and more than 75 percent organic produce.
Called the New Nordic diet, it’s similar to the Mediterranean diet in that there is a big emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, eggs, oil and seafood, while foods like meat, dairy, dessert and alcohol are eaten sparingly. It’s different from the Mediterranean diet in that the Nordic diet uses rapeseed oil instead of olive oil, and the produce is native to the Nordic countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
Signature foods: Whole grain cereals like oats and rye; local fruits and berries like rose hip, lingonberries and bilberries; cruciferous and root vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, turnips, parsnips and beets; rapeseed oil, vegetable-oil-based margarine; and low-fat dairy like milk, fermented milk and cheese. Meats include beef, pork, lamb and reindeer, while seafood includes herring, mackerel and salmon. The few desserts in the diet include baked goods made with oat bran, or jam for putting on top of cereal. Herbs include parsley, dill, mustard, horseradish and chives.
What the research says: A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a healthy Nordic diet seemed to have an impact on genes in abdominal fat, turning off genes related to inflammation. It’s also helped study participants lose weight (while still providing “higher satisfaction” than the average Danish diet), and cut down on type 2 diabetes risk. Scientists are also praising it for its ecological and socioeconomic benefits, as it cuts down on meat production and long-distance imported foods.
Traditional Okinawa Diet
What it is: This low-calorie yet nutrition-dense diet is big on fruits and vegetables but sparse when it comes to meat, refined grains, sugar, salt and full-fat dairy. This diet came about in a very specific historical context: Its practitioners lived on Okinawa Island in Japan, which was one of the poorest regions in the country before World War II. Consequently, Confucian ideals like eating only enough food to feel 80 percent full played a big role in the island’s eating culture, as did sharing as much as one could with one’s neighbor.
Signature foods: Sweet potatoes, rice (although not as much as mainland Japanese people ate), green leafy vegetables, green and yellow vegetables like bitter melon, soybean-based foods like tofu and soy sauce. Okinawa residents only ate modest amounts of seafood, lean meat, fruit and tea.
What the research says: Modern-day Okinawans are catching up economically with their mainland cousins, which means rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease are rising as well. But the people who grew up eating traditionally are still alive and clinging to their culinary traditions. In fact, the island is home to one of the largest populations of centenarians in the world. These super-seniors are living active lives largely free of disease and disability, and are said to age slowly. Some researchers believe that the practice of long-term calorie restriction may play a large role in their longevity.
Traditional Asian Diet
Description: There isn’t really one traditional Asian diet, but a group of international nutritionists collaborated together in the ’90s to come up with an Asian Food Pyramid. It prioritizes rice, noodles and whole grains, as well as fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts as the most-eaten food groups. Fish and shellfish are optional daily choices, while eggs and poultry should be eaten weekly. Note that recommended servings of red meat are smaller and less frequent (monthly) than even sweets (weekly)!
Signature foods: There are many different countries whose traditional ways of eating follow this model, but they all seem to have white rice as a staple.
What the research says: Asian countries have less incidences of obesity, cardiovascular disease and metabolic diseases like diabetes than Western countries, although that seems to be slowly changing thanks to rising economies and urbanization. One Harvard nutrition researcher notes that high-carb, high-glycemic aspects of a traditional Chinese diet are colliding with an increasingly urbanized, inactive lifestyle to create an “emerging public health dilemma.”
‘French Paradox’ Diet
Description: Scientists are kind of scratching their heads at this one. The French have some of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world and highest life expectancies, despite the rich food they eat. What gives?
Signature foods: Full-fat cheese and yogurt, butter, bread, and small but regular amounts of cheese and chocolate are some of the hallmarks of this rich diet.
What the research says: Some researchers think that the so-called “French Paradox” has more to do with lifestyle than anything French people eat. For instance, their portions are small, they don’t snack, they walk everywhere and they eat very, very slowly. Yet other scientists believe that the role of moderate red wine consumption and the positive effects of moldy cheese may account for France’s health stats. If you want to play it safe, maybe try adopting how French people eat, instead of what they eat, if you want to get healthier in the new year.
An earlier version of this article appeared in January 2015.