Destination: a Foreign Kind of Health
Comparing health in the United States with international health, we see stark contrasts. The United States spends more per person on health care than any other country, but we still lag behind globally in such things as life expectancy and infant mortality rates. What causes the differences? Many point the finger at differences in healthcare systems, while others point to anything from genes to environment to diet.
The cities and countries described below beat the United States in multiple health categories. While it is impossible to know exactly why, a look at foreign lifestyles and diets may provide a window into a healthier future for ourselves.
You might even consider trying some of these foreign foods. Nationally renowned nutritionist Angela Martindale said frequent change of diet is important if we want to be healthier.
“You need to change your diet at least every four weeks,” she said. “If we continue to eat the same foods, we are going to get the same results.”
So perhaps these fascinating cultures can provide inspiration to get off the plateaus we form with our own diets and habits of living.
Millions of tourists visit Finland every year for its natural beauty and safe environment. Helsinki, the capitol, is like many cities in Finland, but sees many tourists for its seaside location and easy access to many Scandinavian adventures. During winter, the days can be very short, and sometimes temperatures are below negative 20º F. Scandinavian people in general have more excuses than most to be unhealthy and inactive compared to nations with milder weather. But they aren’t unhealthy. Their obesity levels are a third of what is seen in the United States, and the nation is health conscious to a level few other nations have reached.
This wasn’t always the case. In the 70s heart disease in Finland was the worst in the world due to fatty diets, and in the 80s obesity was twice that found in nearby countries. What changed? The Finnish government began a public health education campaign that would change the very nature of the country. Over the last two decades, different programs and incentives have educated the public to the point that they no longer demand the fatty foods they once desired. For example, sugary drinks don’t exist in classrooms and dining halls. Food manufacturers have had to change their game plan. According to one article, 70 percent of Finnish people lead physically active lifestyles, compared to 30 percent ten years prior. Diet has changed too. Now people avoid fizzy drinks and petition for healthy food.
Finnish people tend to exercise more than almost every other European country. According to a 2005 report, over 65 percent of Finnish people over the age of fifteen participated in leisure physical activity at least three hours a week, which was second only to Sweden. And the amount of Finnish people who exercised less than once a week was less than ten percent, the lowest in Europe. Consistent exercise may be one of Finland’s best health secrets.
- Berries Arctic berries, with strong flavor and tons of nutrients are common in Finnish diets. Raspberries, bilberries, and lingonberries are found all over Finland. Other berries like cloudberries, cranberries, arctic brambles, and sea buckthorns grow and are eaten there as well. It is common to eat berries with porridge.
- Lingonberry: Vitamin C, provitamin A, plentiful organic acids, B vitamins, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. The berry also contains phytochemicals thought to counteract urinary-tract infections. Folk Medicinal Use: disinfectant, tonic for the nervous system, treatment for breast cancer, and rheumatism, to name a few. Lingonberry jam is growing in popularity here in the U.S., and many are finding the joys of growing their own lingonberry plants and harvesting the berries.
- Mushrooms Multiple fungi grow in Finnish forests, and in some places nearly all edible fungi is consumed. Chanterelles and ceps are popular everywhere. Mushroom and berry hunting are both popular in Finland.
- Chanterelles: Contain significant amounts of vitamin D. You can buy them online.
- Bread Ruisleipä, a dark rye bread rich in fiber, is a staple in Finnish diet. Barley, oat, rye, and wheat are common grains used for bread making. It is hard to find here but we can still follow their example by choosing healthier, whole grain bread even if it is a little more expensive.
Japan’s bragging rights most often center around their lengthy life expectancy, which is three years longer than ours.
Okinawa, a long chain of small islands southwest of Japan’s main islands, not only has citizens with the longest life expectancy, but also with incredibly low occurrences of disease. Researchers have conducted studies to what it is that helps these people live so long and with such great health.
Genetics play a factor for Okinawan health, but researchers have also found that calories restriction may play a role. Aging may be caused by free radicals(unstable molecules) in the blood stream, which come from our metabolic system’s changing food into energy. Therefore if we consume fewer calories, it may help us age less.
Japan in general is also more active than America. One USA Today article in 2010 found that Americans 5,117 steps per day on average, while an average Japanese person took 7,168 steps. According to the article, taking less than 5,000 steps a day is sedentary, so Americans don’t score well when it comes to walking.
Traditionally, it is improper in Japan to travel while eating. In fact, in 8th century Japan, you were required to commit suicide if you drank standing up. Think what we usually consume when eating on the go, and we realize that any quick or portable snack is often loaded with stuff we don’t need, or lacks important nutrients. Furthermore we are not as conscious about what we consume. For every granola bar there is a twinky, and for every juice box there is a soda can, and on the go we eat these things without a second thought. It might be time to apply some 8th century wisdom.
In 2006 scientists at Japan’s Tohuku University found that a traditional Japanese fish based diet is healthier than a typical American diet. They compared 21 common foods from each country, which they dried, ground into powder, and fed to mice. The mice fed on Japanese food had lower cholesterol, and had more activity in genes that break down cholesterol. Fat accounts for 40 percent of calories in an American diet, and 20 percent in a Japanese diet.
Japan is one culture among many where people often savor their food, and enjoy leisurely dining. Meals can take a long time, where you enjoy the smells, textures and flavor of every food individually. This is healthier than scarfing food in a matter of minutes, because it aids digestion and helps you avoid overeating.
Angela Martindale, who advised Tom Cruise in his health, said that since it takes 15- 20 minutes for the stomach to register that it is full, slow dining is a great habit. Otherwise we overeat.
“We are taught as children to clean our plates,” Martindale said. “But that first moment of being full is when we need to stop.”
Some Okinawans practice “hara hachi bu,” which means “eight parts out of ten.” This means they stop eating when they are eighty percent full. Portion control is a foreign concept to many Americans that should become a little more familiar. Eat small portions until the first twinge of fullness, and then stop eating.
- Yuba Yuba is made from ground and boiled soy-beans, which are then fried, becoming a thin film that is eaten with a number of dishes. The first yuba was supposedly eaten in Kyoto. It was originally a food for priests and royalty. Kyoto is now the largest Japanese producer of yuba. Soy is nutritionally complete, with every amino acid needed for optimum health. Soy also provides fiber and iron. Americans can buy yuba online from various Asian exporters, or they can make it themselves.
- Sichuan/ Szechuan A common spice in East Asia, Sichuan is different from other peppers because it contains certain oils that give a citrusy flavor. It provides good sources of vitamin A and minerals like copper, potassium, iron, manganese, phosphorous, and zinc.
It is also often found in Nepal and Tibet, as it is one of few spices that can grow in the Himalayas. From 1968 to 2005, importation of the pepper to the United States was banned because of a possible bacterial disease that the pepper could carry which would harm American crops. However, Americans can buy Sichuan online from suppliers in various countries.
You might think a country with the highest chocolate consumption on the world would have a hard time staying healthy. Not so for Switzerland (and this despite world renowned chocolate). The country maintains low obesity levels and high life expectancy. Being one of the most pristine places on earth, Switzerland draws in billions of dollars every year from mountaineering and skiing tourists.
Located on the western side of Switzerland, Geneva attracts visitors and residents from the whole world. In fact, 40% of people who live there came from other countries, making the city extremely international. The city’s rich history and high quality of living draw visitors. It is a worldwide center for diplomacy and peace.
The city is right next to the largest lake in Europe; Lake Geneva. Its lakeside location allows the city to bask in comfortable weather nearly year-round. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, allowing Genevans to maintain an active lifestyle by utilizing what they see out their backdoors. And they do utilize what they have.
One USA Today article showed walking may be the secret to avoiding obesity. While Americans take one average just over 5,000 steps a day, an average Swiss person takes 9,650 steps a day, well over the minimum requirement to be considered “active.”
Also, the people have some healthy habits. Their fizzy drink consumption per person is less than half of what it is here in the United States.
The Swiss also tend to use cars less. They use a car for about 38 percent of all their trips, compared to 84 percent of all American trips, according to ibike.org.
Some Common Swiss Foods
- Muesli This is a common breakfast food made from uncooked rolled oats, fruit, and nuts. It was invented in 1900 by a Swiss physician for patients in his hospital. It can be compared to granola, but it is not toasted in oil like granola.
The oats help lower cholesterol concentration, the nuts provide some fatty acids which are good for the heart and nervous system, and the fruit provides multiple vitamins. To buy: onlinefoodgrocery.com
- Cardoon Popular in Geneva and France, this is a member of the artichoke family. It provides good sources of magnesium, fiber, and potassium. Vitamins A and C are also part of the benefits. The plant is grown in the United States and other places around the world, but sometimes isn’t seen a something to eat. In England sometimes people just grow the plant because of its beautiful purple flower and tall height. Other places see it as a weed. California is the largest American producer of cardoons for eating.
You eat the stalk of cardoon, and not the bud, like you would with an artichoke. The taste has been described as a mix of artichoke heart and celery. In some areas is has a reputation to “give wit to maidens and vigor to the not-so-young.” Grow your own to eat: territorialseed.com
Cycling: A Key Ingredient to International Health Commuting by bike correlates strongly with international health. A number of studies have shown clear benefits of frequent biking, and nations like Finland, Japan, and Switzerland are trying to grasp those benefits. One study looked at 30,000 people ages 20-93 over a 14.5 year span, in Copenhagen. The study found that bike commuting an average of three hours per week decreased risk of mortality by about 40 percent compared to the group that did not bike (Andersen, 2000).