Healthy regional diets?

Dear Alice,

A lot of people talk about regional diets that are really healthy. I hear a lot about the Mediterranean diet, traditional Japanese diets, etc. Is adopting the diet of another region a good way to improve health, or is it just a fad? Will eating like the Japanese give me the same health benefits that Japanese people seem to have??

Dear Reader,

Your question may be a bit more complicated than perhaps it appears, as defining what "healthy" means varies from person to person and holds different meanings across cultures as well. To put it simply, delicious and nutritious foods can be found all over the world, and learning about diets from other regions could positively impact your health. Preparing global dishes also provides an excellent opportunity to explore culture through cuisine. As you explore different cuisines and identify what feels right for you and for your lifestyle, it may be helpful to remember that many aspects of life influence our health beyond just diet. These aspects may include movement, relationships with others, and your environment. While both the Mediterranean and Japanese diets have health benefits, just like with any culture, they aren't just specific to the foods consumed but are also rooted in their cultural foundation. 

Before delving too deeply into the diets in question, you may have noticed that many diets include prioritizing fruits, vegetables, proteins and whole grains to ensure you're getting enough vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. To learn more about a healthful balanced diet, you can check out online tools such as the Healthy Eating Plate. Studying regional diets can certainly inspire what you put on your plate and be helpful in discovering new foods that you may come to love.

Now for the "meat" of your inquiry: You specifically mentioned being curious about the Mediterranean and Japanese diets. The staples of the Mediterranean diet — which have been associated with a lowered risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease — are fruits, veggies, legumes, and nuts. Cooks also use olive oil instead of butter, limit the use of red meat, and incorporate fish several times a week. The Japanese diet has been linked to long lifespans and lowered risk of heart disease, but also higher rates of hypertension (high blood pressure). Foods commonly found in the Japanese diet include eating a lot of omega-3-rich fish and protein-dense soy, drinking green tea, and limiting intake of sugar and white flour.

Depending on where you are in the world, finding some ingredients that are common in other regions of the world (such as fresh olive oil or fresh fish) might not be as easy to find at your local grocery store as it is for someone living on the Mediterranean coast or in Tokyo. Fresh fruits, veggies, beans, and nuts might be easier to come by, depending on where you live. Both of these diets tend to feature lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fewer servings of dairy, red meat, and poultry. These diets also suggest limiting saturated and trans fats, which are high in low-density lipoproteins, also known as LDLs (cholesterol that clogs arteries) and instead opting for monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, which are high in high-density lipoproteins, or HDLs (cholesterol that helps remove other cholesterol from arteries).

While you seem ready to stock up your pantry, it might be easier to start by incorporating some of the foods from these cultures that you enjoy into your meals, rather than fully ascribe to a new diet. It's also helpful to consider that these diets are generalizations of what people in specific cultures traditionally eat, and they don't necessarily represent what average people eat every day. Though the Mediterranean diet uses olive oil, it wouldn't necessarily be nutritious to consume cups of it per day. And in Japan, though fish is a common staple, there are some groups of people, such as those who are pregnant, who might be advised to limit their fish consumption. Moderation is key, and giving yourself some flexibility while you figure out the most appropriate diet for you may help support your forays into new foods.

Lastly, both diets that you've mentioned are rooted in the unique cultural foundation beneath them, and therefore might not have the same health benefits in a different context. For example, daily physical activity and shared meals are integral parts of Mediterranean cultures, both of which have been linked to improved health and well-being. In Japan, reliance on the fishing economy and a culture that emphasizes moderation and balance enhance the health benefits of their diet. Every culture has unique and healthful traditions such as these, which you may not be able to fully experience while just preparing cultural foods – unless you have your passport handy!

Overall, the ideal diet for you depends on a variety of factors, such as your genetic makeup, hormonal profile, culture, and food preferences. With a little research, you can explore international dishes that enhance your diet. The USDA Ethnic/Cultural Food Pyramids, for example, show recommendations for healthy eating from many different countries. Sites like these may be helpful in finding food choices that work for you. Your overall well-being, social and mental health, and level of physical activity are also key to feeling your healthiest. Discussing your options with a health care professional can also help clarify what health means for you and how to achieve it.

Here’s to eating well wherever you are!

Last updated Sep 02, 2022
Originally published Mar 28, 2014

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