Ever heard stereotypes like “People from the Mediterranean are some of the healthiest on the planet!” or ” Asian people can’t become overweight”?
These stereotypes are undeniably broad generalizations and come with many exceptions, as do all stereotypes. However, almost all stereotypes have some basis on fact, which is exaggerated like a game of Chinese whispers! While there are certainly unhealthy people in every country, there *are* those that rank as having some of the lowest disease and illness rates in the world, and some of the highest standards of quality of life.
I’m currently on a trip traveling around the world. Which means ( of course) lots of delicious traditional food to sample! I am also traveling slowly, staying with locals and taking on the way of life in each country for a short period. So it’s quickly become clear that how I eat and live in different countries impacts my health drastically differently. In England, the food did not agree with me; the lifestyle was slow; and there was zero outdoor adventures… I also definitely didn’t get enough sunshine (it was winter!). This led to my vitamin D becoming very low, my mood dropping and the most intense stomach pain I’ve ever had! Two weeks into my stay in France, no more stomach pain, elevated food, sufficient vitamin D and a new lightness to my body! But why? Had I just been eating wrong or were there other reasons?
So I looked into it and came across the Bloomberg List of Healthiest Countries. What I immediately noticed was that many of these countries have things in common with each other lifestyle wise.
1. A whole-food based diet with lots of healthy fats: Perhaps the biggest thing these countries has in common was what they ate. Spain ranked number one, closely followed by Italy and Israel who all follow a diet high in natural fats like olive oil, and nuts, which has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, Spain is also ranked 6th in countries with the lowest cardiovascular illness. Italy and France also make this list with France popping into number 2! So it’s safe to say that the Mediterranean diet could pack some serious defense against the U.S’s biggest health risk! Another factor in their diet is a focus on whole, unprocessed foods. These include grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, a dietary style which is seen also in Japan, Sweden, Norway, and Israel who also feature in the top 10!
2. Small breakfast and dinner… A feast for lunch: This one surprised me slightly when I came to France. They really make an event out of lunch. I’m referring to the 4-5 courses + drinks which can take 1-2 hours to finish ( with talking in between course included.) The French, Spanish, Italians and other European nations favor the tradition of a small breakfast and dinner with a huge lunch in between. In Italy, it can be 6-8 courses! I had personally always heard that breakfast should be your biggest meal of the day. So coming to France was a shock when I was served some baguette with vegan butter and jam, with a small bowl of strawberries for breakfast… only to receive 4+ courses at lunchtime. But within one week I could already feel my body liking this new meal structure. I felt lighter, more energetic and less weighed down in the mornings! I don’t know how my health would respond over time, but I’ve noticed a difference in just 3 months!
3. Traditions: I love French and Italian villages ( which exist also in places on the list that I haven’t visited) and their charming throwbacks to a more natural era. I spot farmers at work in the wheat fields, builders using hand saws and young girls on horseback. It’s as if the Americanized fast-paced automated lifestyle has flown over the head of rural France. Everyone in the villages has a vegetable garden, the local baker makes bread freshly each morning from unbleached ( often hand-milled) flour, and the weekly market offers local, often organic, produce and products! You won’t go out anywhere without passing at least one cyclist or walker and there isn’t that rush to get everything done. This lack of stress, commercialization, 9-5 routine and big industrial foods in the countryside is something that I’ve noticed is associated with more healthy looking people!
4. The outdoors: The final thing which stuck out to me was that most of these countries have a big focus on the outdoors. Weather like France it is the farming culture, Sweden with its sports focus or Switzerland where biking and walking are very very common, the people spend a lot of time outdoors! In fact, being outdoors has been associated with numerous health benefits like reduced muscle pain and wider immunity. It makes sense since we humans were never designed to spend all day indoors and it’s definitely clear from the cultures of these countries that it affects our health. The ocean may also play a role as 9/10 of these countries bordered the sea and we’ve all heard the saying that when you’re sick you need a sea-breeze!
I’ve learned whilst traveling just how much knowledge exists in the cultures and teachings of various countries! Local remedies, stories, legends and norms which we don’t hear about on the internet… things you have to be there to find out! The countries on this list seem able to offer so much insight into how to better my own health and help others, that I am now all the more eager to visit them. If you get the chance too, even a week or two here could offer so much, or you can find yourself a good book to discover their ways of life.
Photo: Maksim Shutov – Unsplash; Aaron Burden – Unsplash; Riccardo Chiarini – Unsplash