What is the healthiest cuisine?

The 2017 World Health Index 1 released earlier this year, which graded 163 countries

based on variables such as life expectancy, causes of death and health risks such as

high blood pressure, malnutrition, the availability of clean water and tobacco use,

resulted in Italy having the highest health index of 93.11. Over a third of the adults in

USA are obese and the number is not dropping. This is a stark contrast especially with

countries like Japan and India where the obesity rates are below 5% 2 . For a rich nation,

Japan has extraordinarily low obesity. Apart from local culture, living environment and

lifestyle, is the local diet an important factor to achieving such a high health index? The

double-cheese pizza or the gooey lasagna, which are loaded with calories and fat can

certainly not lead to the formation of what we can term as “the healthiest cuisine”. What

makes a cuisine healthy or unhealthy? It is interesting to note how different cuisines are

linked by similar ingredients and how specific ingredients help define certain cuisines,

and how foods influence our health.

The Italian tradition of enjoying a leisurely meal is good for digestion. The star

ingredients of this cuisine: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, oregano, parsley and basil are

what make it extremely healthy. Lycopene in tomatoes may be a protective agent for

breast cancer. Garlic and traditional Italian herbs provide vitamins A and C, and olive oil

helps lower cholesterol, fight heart disease and burn belly fat.

The distinctive flavors in Indian food from its array of aromatic spices are actually

protective against some cancers. Turmeric and ginger help fight Alzheimer's disease.

The rates of Alzheimer's in India are four times lower than in America. Turmeric, a main

ingredient in curry, has anti-inflammatory and healing properties. Yogurt and lentils,

which are commonly used in the Indian cuisine, have significant amounts of folate and

magnesium, and may help stabilize blood sugar.

The Thai Tom Yung Gung soup made with shrimp, coriander, lemongrass, ginger, and

other herbs and spices, possesses properties 100 times more effective than other

antioxidants in inhibiting cancerous-tumor growth. The incidence of digestive tract and

other cancers is lower in Thailand than in other countries. Thai spices like ginger aids in

digestion, turmeric is an anti-inflammatory and lemongrass has long been used in Asian

medicine to help treat colds and ease tummy troubles.

The culinarily diverse South America’s traditional diet of fresh fruits and vegetables

(including legumes) along with high-protein grains like quinoa. In fact, a typical South

American meal of rice and beans creates a perfect protein.

The Mediterranean diet consisting of traditional Greek foods like dark leafy veggies,

fresh fruit, high-fiber beans, lentils, grains, olive oil, and omega-3-rich fish provide lots of

immune-boosting and cancer-fighting ingredients that cut the risks of heart disease,

diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. A traditional Mediterranean diet is associated

with a 25% reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, apart from losing more

weight and feeling fuller on this type of diet, which is rich in healthy fats, than on a

traditional low-fat diet. This cuisine also ranks high in terms of health benefits because

of how it is eaten. The Greeks often share small plates of food called ‘meze’. Spanish

tradition of eating the ‘tapas’ (small plates of food) is similar. The Spanish cuisine

consists of lots of fresh seafood, vegetables and olive oil, all of which aid in better

health.

Fresh herbs, lots of vegetables and seafood, and cooking techniques that use water or

broth instead of oils, are the standout qualities of traditional Vietnamese food. This

cuisine relies more on herbs than on frying or heavy coconut-based sauces for flavor,

which makes it lower in calories. Traditional Vietnamese additives including mint, Thai

basil, and red chili have long been used as alternative remedies for all sorts of ailments,

while cilantro and star anise have actually been shown to aid digestion and fight

disease-causing inflammation.

The traditional Japanese cuisine, especially the version eaten on the island of Okinawa

where people often live to 100-plus years, is rich in antioxidant-rich yams and green tea,

cruciferous and calcium-rich veggies like bok choy, iodine-rich seaweed (good for

thyroid), omega-3-rich seafood, shiitake mushrooms (a source of iron, potassium, zinc,

copper, and folate) and whole-soy foods. They prepare these in the healthiest way

possible, with a light steam or a quick stir-fry. They also practice Hara Hachi Bu (eat

until you are eight parts or 80 percent full). These simple diet rules may be why people

in Japan are far less likely than Americans to get breast or colon cancer.

Authentic Mexican cuisine’s emphasis on slowly digested foods like beans and fresh

ground corn may provide protection from type 2 diabetes apart from being heart-healthy

and even slimming. A Mexican diet of beans, soups, and tomato-based sauces helped

lower women's risk of breast cancer, a study from the University of Utah found.

It turns out that countries with big immigrant populations like the US and Australia tend

to have the greatest culinary diversity, the greatest number of ingredients and the

biggest variation between dishes. This is mainly due to immigrants bringing their native

culinary culture with them, which in turn makes the cuisines of their target country

richer. It would be only just to conclude that no cuisine ranks above the other in terms of

being healthy, but there are common elements across eating patterns that are proven to

be beneficial to health. A diet of minimally processed foods closer to nature,

predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease

prevention. Globalization 3 has played a crucial role to help enjoy global cuisines in their

purest state while also consuming meals that are light, nutritious, and incredibly healthy.

References:

1. 2017 healthiest country index. Kelowna Now Web site.

https://www.kelownanow.com/news/news/National_News/17/03/20/2017_healthiest_

country_index/.

2. Bite" BW, "First. How the japanese diet became associated with a healthy

lifestyle. Business Insider Web site. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-

japanese-diet-became-associated-with-a-healthy-lifestyle-2016-5.

3. Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL. Modern nutrition in health and

disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health; 2012:1-3.