Healthy Food Habits from Around the World
Listen on the Go!
A couple of months ago Carlos and I curled up on the couch to watch the latest Michael Moore documentary "Where to Invade Next". A film which I can easily say is my favorite of all the ones he's done. This film has zero to do with war, and everything to do with looking at what other countries are doing amazingly well, in everything from education, politics, the prison system, the military, research, civil rights, worker's rights, women's rights, you name it, Michael Moore went there to study it, understand it, and potentially steal it and take it back to the US. It's the funniest, most eye opening and fun film he's ever done in my opinion, and it was so incredible to see how some countries are just getting it right and have found a system that works.
One of the areas that he explored in this film was of course food, especially when it comes to the food served in schools. Where did he go to to steal all those good eating habits? You guessed it.... the country I mention again and again, not because it's particularly a very plant-based centric cuisine (quite the opposite actually), but because their way of looking at and experiencing food is totally on point: France.
In the film, he shows French children taking hour long breaks for mealtime at school, no rushing, no waiting in lines. Real food, served on actual plates, through different courses. Children drinking water instead of soda, and yes, a very funny clip of these kids looking totally grossed out when they saw photos of what children were eating in school cafeterias in the US.
This immediately made me want to do a similar exercise and give you the lowdown on what different cultures around the world are doing right when it comes to their relationship with food and the act of eating. The great news is you can totally steal any of these healthy eating habits that sound good to you and start using them in your life.
Although I will be mentioning the presence of plant based foods in the following places, this post isn't about how vegan friendly a particular world cuisine is, this one's more about how people from around the world relate to food and making healthy choices.
I've had the pleasure of living in three countries with three very distinct ways of eating, Venezuela, The United States and Spain, and I'll do my best to share my personal experiences in these places, as well as in many others which I've been researching and learning about for years (and yes.. we'll be talking about France... yet again!).
So what would I steal from these cultures? Here's the lowdown:
Indian cuisine includes a very prominent use of aromatics and spices. Both of which add a ton of rich, bold flavors to the meal, and especially when heat in the form of chilis is added, spicy dishes help you feel fuller and more satisfied. It also allows you to use less salt since the herbs and spices used, provide a ton of flavor.
Another incredible tool that stems from Ayurveda, the ancient healing tradition of India, is the addition of every taste in every meal. In Ayurveda, in order to create balanced meals that are satisfying, and especially to help prevent cravings, a little sample of every taste is used. For example, including something sweet, something sour, something salty, something pungent and something astringent. A secret weapon for this is to include a little mango chutney with your meals which traditionally has a bit of each taste. When pressed for time, at least try to include a little sample of a sweet taste (think sweet potatoes on top of your veggie bowls or a little mango or peach in your salsa or salads).
Presentation, and small portions of different and very colorful components, with a huge emphasis on vegetables is such a large part of Japanese eating habits. This means, the visual aspect of food is just as important for them and it's a very sensory and pleasurable experience.
Beautiful presentation is key in their culture, and almost every single snack and meal in traditional Japanese cooking includes a steamed and a pickled vegetable. Mostly for the health benefits of both, a lightly steamed veggie that retains it's natural flavors and nutrients, and a pickle as a source of probiotics. I love the idea of having a little rule like this in which no matter what you're eating, even if it's something slightly naughty, you have to include some foods that provide at least some health giving components.
Bright colors, especially in the form of vegetables are very important. There's a huge importance placed on the brightness, color and general appearance of the plate, with small portions throughout. Their meals are much lower in refined sugars and processed foods, and a huge focus on vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, root vegetables like sweet potatoes, rice and many other very natural foods.
They also follow Washoku, the principle of the 5 colors, 5 flavors and 5 cooking methods in a meal to infuse flavor and texture variations, reduce cravings and use the most out of the vegetables they grow. This goes hand in hand with the principle of Kansha, in which there is a focus on feeling gratitude for what nature provides as well as a focus on how we can really take advantage of ingredients. For example, using the leaves, the root, the peel, using the food fully, and preventing waste.
Chopsticks! Granted, chopsticks are a standard in most Asian cuisines, and not only do they make eating much more fun in my opinion, but they help you slow down while eating, eat smaller bites and make the meal last longer.
In China, foods are normally eaten at regular times, and they focus on eating a good breakfast, a full lunch and a light dinner. Something I strive to do and you'll see as a very recurring pattern as we move down our list.
Soup, especially broth style soups with lots of green leafy vegetables are served with the meal or after the meal. In the first case reducing the need to have sugary drinks with your food, and in the latter ensuring your feeling of fullness and as a way to round out the meal. Many people in China also take a slow leisurely walk after a meal to facilitate digestion.
Mexico, Venezuela and other Latin Cultures
Although no two Latin American cuisines are alike, I've put them in one category because many share some of the same principles when it comes to the experience of eating. Here I'm including my native country of Venezuela of course!
In these countries lunch is normally the largest meal of the day, with dinner being a lighter fare serving smaller and simpler meals at night.
Lots of legumes are part of these cuisines which as you know improve feelings of fullness, and a focus on combining both sweet and savory tastes in dishes is consistent throughout many Latin American food traditions.
Someone once asked me how I would describe Venezuelan food to someone who had never had it before, and the first thing that came to mind was: it's the perfect balance of savory and sweet in every bite. It also has the presence of the most beautiful chili I've ever tasted and have been unable to find anywhere else: the aji dulce. A both sweet and very aromatic chili that gives Venezuelan cuisine its magic. As I mentioned before, including a slight sweet note to dishes helps prevent sweet cravings after the meal, and together with the heat and spice typically found in Mexican dishes, these two things are a straight path to feeling full and satisfied.
Very important is the focus on meals shared with family. People sit down to eat and share a good meal together. Families eat together, and food is always synonymous with a sense of community, even in traditions involving the cooking and preparing of the food.
Italy and Greece (yes! The Mediterranean Diet at its finest!)
I think few cultures (other than the French which we'll get to soon), have such a huge love of food and the act of eating. This is so important when it comes to your relationship with food and finding balance with your meals. Food is all about pleasure, and there's little to no concern over calories, grams of fat or carbs (hello?! Pasta!).
There is a focus on really fresh, locally grown products that are at their peak in flavor. People eat and cook at home and get together for meals, and their eating habits go hand in hand with a very stress-free lifestyle, also a component that is essential to healthy eating.
People enjoy food, life, they only work to live, they take long holidays, and indulge in down time and a healthy dose of good food with lots of vegetables, nuts, legumes and yes... pasta!
Also a great example of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and my home base, Spain is also a place in which enjoyment, relaxation and taking plenty of time to rest and eat are a constant. The magical siesta or afternoon nap is a must, and such a part of the culture that many traditional shops are closed at this hour.
Although very meat centric, Spain is also extremely proud of it's agricultural production, one of its biggest exports, including wine, olive oil and many other vegetable and fruit products. This means a simple salad of tomatoes, olives and onions can actually be a religious experience. There's nothing like the flavors of the vegetables and fruits in Spain.
People are active, they walk, run, ride their bikes, and enjoy leisurely time outside moving. There's such a big focus on enjoying life, travel, it isn't a work centered society and in all these activities people indulge in and enjoy food without feeling guilty.
Finally we get to France. If you've read this blog before you know I have studied and admire the French tremendously. Their very high use of animal products aside, they have what in my opinion is a perfect relationship with food. As you know, mindful eating is one of the core concepts we teach you here at Brownble and especially in our online program, and the French have mastered it without it necessarily giving it the same name.
Food is such an important part of the culture and the focus placed on it is solely enjoyment and pleasure, not an obsession with health or dieting. From very early on kids learn how to eat a wide range of foods, at the table, without distractions, with real forks, knives and plates, even at school.
Portions are small (hence the term French portions), and they eat very slowly. Meals can last hours in France over several courses, helping them practice mindful eating like total pros, and boosting that sense of being present with your meal.
Lunch is once again the largest meal of the day, and they do little to no snacking, especially when it comes to processed foods or junk food.
The French walk everywhere, and the traditional gym and hardcore workouts are absent from most people's lives. In spite of the fact that their food is very rich and heavy in calories, their smaller portions and their very healthy focus on how to eat, not so much what to eat, has led them to have one of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world.
Through all of these places, and countless others I'm leaving for another time, you can see a few things that are a kind of common thread. There is a marked decrease in the obsession over food, body, restriction, dieting and control. No 24 hour gyms, your current workout or meal plan is not a part of your conversation or social interactions. People eat when they're hungry, they eat real food, and they stop when they're full, enjoying food as one of life's greatest pleasures along the way.
Many of these diets also include olive oil, pasta, rice, sweet potatoes and other starchy carbs regularly. This to me is a sign of how none of these foods are the devil, nor should we idolize them and eat nothing but. These healthy habits that are so engrained in other cultures all play a part in people's eating choices. They are all important little pieces of their eating jigsaw puzzle, and the good news is you can steal these habits and traditions and make them fit your life. There is no magic pill, no perfect or magical way of eating. All of our bodies are different, but we can improve our habits little by little and we can definitely learn from cultures out there which have stayed true to their roots and see health as an all-encompassing thing. It's not just about the food, it also includes relaxation, sleep, social connections, being able to live your life without obsessing over food or dieting, being active and yes... enjoying food to the fullest.
Is there a food tradition in your culture that you'd like to share? Leave it in the comments, and don't forget to share this post with all those awesome food lovers in your life who are looking to incorporate saner eating habits into their lives.
Need support in learning how to cook delicious plant based dishes and improve your relationship with food? Meet our online program:
We teach you how to cook amazing vegan food, and help you on that ongoing quest of finding balance. You'll learn how to indulge in your favorites and still prioritize your health, creating healthy habits that last you a lifetime.
In and out of the kitchen.
...and there's so much more. You can check out all the details here.