Got a fridge stocked with grapefruit? How about a lock on the bread box? Instead of depriving yourself, researchers say it's better to look at cultures and regions around the world where diets are not just healthy, but also have highly protective qualities against scourges like cancer, depression, diabetes and heart disease. From Mexico's remote Copper Canyon to Okinawa, Japan, there are time-tested diets that promise to protect us from this range of diseases. The key is knowing why they work and how the average American can practice them at home -- guilt-free.
Looking for Answers Elsewhere Researchers have long tried to understand why some regions are much healthier than others. Epidemiological studies have looked at disease rates in conjunction with environmental and eating patterns in order to understand which factors are the most influential. This started in earnest in the 1980s, when researchers began studying the Mediterranean diet and found that it had significant health benefits. The Caveat Dr. Steven Jonas, co-author of 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines, says that while diets from around the globe offer useful lessons, they must also be accompanied by routine and rigorous exercise. Switching to whole grains or eliminating meat from your diet is a good start, but the body also needs muscle strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness for peak performance.
Principles to Live By In her book The Jungle Effect, Dr. Daphne Miller visited five countries in search of the world's diet secrets. Though the diets were vastly different, they did point to a list of universal principles: Eat fresh food; follow traditions like communal eating; get sugar from whole foods like fruits and whole grains; get salt from natural and unprocessed sources like fish; eat naturally raised meat and dairy; incorporate fats from whole nuts, seeds and grains; use fermented and pickled foods; and use spices when possible.
Okinawa, Japan Miller traveled to Japan to better understand why levels of breast and prostate cancer were low and discovered that the traditional diet promoted excellent health. The Okinawans practice calorie restriction, which has been linked to improved longevity. They also load up on in-season vegetables like bok choy, mustard greens and kale. They drink green tea rich in antioxidants, eat whole soy like tofu and miso and get their fats and vitamin D from fish. Cameroon, West Africa In Cameroon, Miller wanted to explain the country's low colon cancer rate. She concluded that the diet--which consists largely of fiber, fermented foods, wild greens and healthy fats, and rarely includes meat--is essential to cancer prevention. The reasons? Whole grains, vegetables and other fiber-rich foods have been shown to positively affect colon cancer risk. Fermented foods like yogurt and pickles provide beneficial bacteria for the gut. Wild greens and healthy fats found in fish, nuts and unrefined cooking oil may also be protective.
Iceland Are omega-3 fats essential to preventing depression? That's what Miller concluded when she visited Iceland, a country known for its bleak winters but where depression rates are low. The Icelandic diet, which includes fish as a staple, is rich in omega-3 fats. Other sources of the healthy fats are pasture-raised lamb and wild game. To further support brain health, Icelanders also consume plenty of antioxidants in black tea, vegetables, wild berries and whole grains like barley and rye. Crete, Greece The Mediterranean is famed for its healthy cuisine, so it may come as no surprise that Grecians have fewer cases of heart disease. When Miller set out to learn why, she found that staples, including virgin olive oil, greens like arugula and Swiss chard, carbohydrates like chickpeas, lentils and whole-grain bread, and herbs like oregano, parsley and chives, are great for heart health. The traditional diet also minimizes meat consumption with no more than one red meat dish per week.
Copper Canyon, Mexico In this very remote region of Mexico, Miller sought out the Tarahumara Indians, who have impressively low blood sugar and cholesterol levels. After studying their traditional diet, Miller found that Tarahumara benefited from a diet that emphasizes slow-release foods, sending sugar into the bloodstream at a much slower rate than other foods. Their staples include whole corn, beans, squash, jicama and cumin. While the Tarahumara have struggled with poverty-related malnutrition, Miller says that the slow-releasing carbohydrates help prevent an overproduction of insulin and aid in maintaining blood sugar levels.
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