American waistlines expand while Parisians enjoy decadent Brie, and Asian nations feast on carbs while their citizens stay slim and live longer. You can stomp your feet and call it unfair, or take a tip from healthy plates around the globe. When it comes to countries with the lowest rates of obesity, heart disease, and cancer, they have a few culinary commonalities, says Steven Jonas, MD, a professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University and co-author of 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines. The world's healthiest diets include complex carbohydrates, plenty of vegetables, healthy fats, low meat consumption, and small portions. To incorporate these international eating habits into your meals, take cues from these model nations.
You won't find diet wreckers like General Tso's chicken, chow mein, and fried pork in traditional Chinese cuisine. Outside of the country's urban areas, the key to fending off cancer and type 2 diabetes while keeping meals low in calories is balancing rice and grain-based noodles with small amounts of fat and protein, and plenty of cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, bok choy, and broccoli, says Jonas. Complex carbohydrates like rice are low in fat, high in fiber, and provide sustenance for fewer calories than meat. But don't take your chopsticks to just any rice. Pick brown rice over white to reap the health benefits of whole grains.
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The Land of the Rising Sun relies on a diet that's low in fat and high in fish. Per capita fish consumption in the islands nation is about three times that of the United States. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, fish could help explain why the Japanese are known for longevity, with a life expectancy of 82 years (it's 78 in the United States). Research suggests that omega-3s improve brain function, aid weight loss, and fend off cardiovascular disease. But you don't need to eat an ocean's worth to reel in the rewards. A Circulation review concluded that your chances of dying from coronary heart disease can be reduced by eating fish just once a week.
Legendary for its fiery flavors, Southeast Asian cuisine does more than put your taste buds to the test--spicing things up can actually help you slim down. Studies suggest that capsaicin, a compound found in the chili peppers that provide heat in many Thai dishes, can raise core body temperature and help ignite your metabolism. Another feisty favorite: turmeric. The classic Thai curry spice contains curcumin, which may help suppress the growth of fat tissue and boost the body's fat-burning ability, according to research from Tufts University. When dining out, the trick is to pick a spicy stir-fry entrée packed with veggies and lean protein and flavored with lemon grass, lime, curry, chili, or fish sauce. Steer clear of crispy noodles, fried dishes, or those made with coconut or peanut sauce (restaurant pad Thai can pack close to 1,000 calories!).
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The tiny country in Western Africa boasts some of the lowest cancer rates in the world. The secret? Gambians eat a plant-based diet and fill up on spicy stews, packing multiple servings of veggies into a single bowl. Stews can be lightly flavored with meat, but peanuts are a more common protein source in the Gambian diet. "Nuts are a healthy source of protein because the balance between protein and fat in nuts is on the higher end of the protein equation," says Jonas. In addition to protein, healthy fats, B vitamins, iron, fiber, and vitamin E, peanuts contain a compound called beta-sitosterol, which may inhibit cancer growth.
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Traditional Mediterranean cuisine is rich in healthy monounsaturated fat, in addition to plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. "Olive oil is the basis of cooking," says Jonas. "It has a higher proportion of healthy fat then unhealthy [saturated] fat." Research shows that replacing foods high in saturated fats, like red meat and butter, with those containing good fats, like olive oil, almonds, and avocado, can reduce heart disease risk, ward off cancer, and help you lose weight by eating less. Just don't drizzle it on everything--olive oil packs 120 calories per tablespoon.
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Parisians following a traditional French diet enjoy an uncanny ability to dine on flaky croissants, creamy cheeses, wine, and escargot swimming in butter sauce--while looking as if they've munched only cucumber slices for weeks. What envious Americans can learn from the French: portion control, says Jonas. Those in central and northern France consume three meals a day, keeping amounts of high-fat food, like cheese, tiny. There's virtually no snacking and the best meal isn't saved for last, he adds. "The largest intake in total calories comes at midday, which gives you more active hours to digest that food."
A goal in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway during the past 40 years: Improve heart health. And lucky for you, the Nordic diet is easy to imitate. It focuses on fish, low-fat dairy, daily fruit and vegetable consumption, and whole grains in the form of cereal and dark breads. And where there's dark bread, there's plenty of fiber, which research suggests can help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers as well as aid digestion and help you eat less. Low-fat dairy can help you shed pounds, too. University of Tennessee researchers found that eating three servings of calcium daily helped dieters lose 70% more weight and 64% more body fat compared with dieters who didn't make it a priority.
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If you've sworn off starch in exchange for a slimmer physique, you may unnecessarily be depriving yourself of satisfying foods. When researchers analyzed the eating habits and BMIs of more than 3,000 Rio de Janeiro residents ages 20 to 60 for a study published in the journal Obesity Research, they found that Brazilians consuming a traditional diet rich in rice and beans were less likely--13% for men and 14% for women--to be overweight compared with Brazilians who ate a Western diet, characterized by added sugars, full-fat dairy, and deep-fried snacks. Researchers attribute the diet's fat-fighting capabilities to its mix of fiber and blood-sugar-stabilizing carbohydrates.