From antioxidant-stuffed spices to midday Zs, every country has its own unique brand of staying healthy, happy, and fit. And it looks like we could learn a thing or two.
The life expectancy of the average American lags behind every industrialized nation on Earth except Qatar. North America is home to only 6 percent of the world's population, but accounts for 34 percent of the world's weight due to obesity, contributing to mounting stateside rates of diabetes and heart disease, according to research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
So how does the rest of the world keep their health in check? With simple, totally doable lifestyle habits. Here are 10 imports that will boost your health big time.
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It only takes one bite to realize why zing-lovers are so slim: Spicy food slows your eating, and requires a heck of a lot of water to wash down, says nutritionist Keri Glassman, RD, author of The New You and Improved Diet: 8 Rules to Lose Weight and Change Your Life Forever. What's more, spices are rich in antioxidants that can fight both fat and free radicals (Search: What are free radicals?). Capsaicin, found in red peppers, can tweak your metabolism and help you burn fat with very bite, while turmeric, a key ingredient in curries, contains curcumin, which might suppress the growth of fat tissue. A recent Tufts University study found that mice that ate a high-fat diet with small amounts of curcumin gained less weight than did mice that ate curcumin-free meals.
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Most Americans allow their bikes to collect more rust than ride time. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, bikes outnumber people. More than half of Dutch bike owners use their two-wheelers for daily activities, such as running errands and commuting to work. Try using your bike to commute one day or just for errands close to home. "Little bits of exercise really add up, says Tom Holland, M.S., C.S.C.S., owner of Team Holland in Darien, CT. Curbing car travel--one of the most sedentary activities around--could be as effective for weight loss as cutting calories, according to a recent research from University of Illinois. What's more, by getting your blood pumping from your legs clear up into your brain, that dose of exercise before work will actually help you work better throughout the day.
Need to buy a new bike? These affordable models are perfect for urban riding.
Do you have to loosen your belt after dinner? Then it's time to mix up your day's menu, Mexican style. Traditionally, Mexicans eat their largest meal between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Getting the bulk of your daily calories at breakfast and lunch can fuel a productive day, while eating less at night helps you wake up ready for a bigger breakfast. "Make lunch a really satisfying meal instead of an on-the-fly thing, and downsize your dinner to lunch-size portions," Glassman suggests. Eating a smaller dinner can also help prevent midnight acid reflux, which affects about one-third of Americans, according to the American Gastroenterological Association.
Related: 12 Ways to Make Mexican Food Healthy
Having strong social ties is as important to longevity as not smoking, according to research published in the journal PLoS Medicine. That may be one reason for the renowned good health of Brazilians, the social butterflies of the southern hemisphere. In a study of 1,477 people ages 70 to 79, Australian researchers found that people with the most friends had a seven-year-longer lease on life. Being around friends ups your production of oxytocin (the cuddle hormone), which calms the brain and could be to thank for friendship's ability to improve blood pressure and binge eating. One survey of 11 different countries--including the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia--found that Brazilians spend the most time with their families (an average of 74 hours per week) and had among of the lowest levels of stress.
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Poles spend about 5 percent of their budget on eating out. Meanwhile, the average American household spends 41 percent of its food dollars at restaurants and fast-food joints, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Sheesh.) And a 2006 study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that unhealthy restaurant foods contain an average of 642 more calories than people assume they do, making eating out a surefire way of letting out your waistline. Meanwhile, 75 percent of the average American's sodium intake (which is almost twice what it should be) comes from commercial foods, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. This raises your risk of heart disease, the number-one killer in America. Cooking your own meals allows you to control exactly what is going into your food, steer clear of the breadbasket, and skip dessert, Glassman adds.
Still want to eat out once in a while? No problem--just follow these tips for dining at restaurants without packing on pounds.
Knowing the difference between full and stuffed can mean the difference between healthy and sickly. Okinawans, who are known for their long life expectancy, eat until they are about 80 percent full. "Listen to your body and stop eating when you are slightly satisfied," says Glassman. On a scale from one to 10, one being famished and 10 being stuffed, you should stop eating at four, she advises. It takes time for your brain to tell your stomach it's full, so after you put your fork down you'll still feel like you are filling up. Eat slower to help you to recognize this feeling, avoid overeating, and in the end you'll even reduce your appetite.
Some of the healthiest foods you aren't eating come from Asian countries like Japan. Check them out.
Studies have linked regular meditation to a reduction in heart attacks, strokes, as well as symptoms of attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and major depression. Practicing integrative body-mind training (IBMT), a Chinese meditation technique based on the Taoist and Confucian concepts of harmony with nature, for a month and a minimum of 11 hours total can actually improve brain function, resulting healthier thinking and actions, according to Texas Tech University researchers. IBMT focuses on body relaxation, breath adjustment, mental imagery, and mindfulness training. "The mind-body connection is so influential to our overall health," says Holland, who recommends taking a few minutes to meditate each day. Doing so is especially important in people who spend days sitting at a desk, which can tighten the body, causing stress, pain, and muscular imbalances, he says.
You don't have to be a master of sitting quietly and cross-legged to benefit from meditation. Find your inner zen with these gentle moves.
In this West African nation, nuts replace meat to supply protein as part of the main meal, decreasing the risk of high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high cholesterol, unstable heart rhythms, and diabetes, according to Harvard Medical School. Studies have shown that people who eat nuts regularly, at least five times a week, reduce their risk of heart disease and heart attack by up to 50 percent. What's more, their high protein and fat content can promote feelings of satiety and weight loss--and a handful of nuts per day, one or two ounces, is enough to let nuts work their health magic. The trick is to use them as a meat substitute, not an add-on, otherwise your diet can end up too fatty. For instance, throw some almonds in a salad, or cashews in a stir-fry a few times per week, Glassman recommends.
Oh, the joys--and benefits--of the siesta. Besides giving you a better jolt than any java, naps reset the immune system, slash stress, and decrease inflammation. One study of Spaniards who took a 30-minute siesta after lunch at least three times a week had a 37 percent lower risk of heart attack. While naps do any body good, they are especially important if you are sleep deprived, as a lack of sleep causes higher blood pressure, inflammation, and hunger. If your office isn't power-nap-friendly, take a midday break by walking around and getting outside if possible. Getting your blood moving and soaking up a healthy dose of vitamin D can help you perk up.
Each year, the average Icelander eats 225 pounds of cold-water fish such as char, herring, and cod. Across the Atlantic, Americans put away a mere 48 pounds of fish. It turns out the scaly stuff is among the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids, which are touted for their ability to ward off weight gain, heart disease, and inflammation. Omega 3s are also one of 10 Super-Nutrients for a Flatter Belly. But they may also be to thank for so few Islanders suffering from the winter blues, despite the long, dark winters up north. Studies show that omega 3s also support healthy brain cell function, endorphin levels, and positive moods. Glassman recommends eating two to three servings a week of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines. If you're not a fish fan, take an omega 3 supplement to guarantee 220mg of DHA, an omega 3 which is especially vital to brain function, a day.