It's no secret that while undeniably tasty, most traditional American foods are not exactly healthy. From the grilled cheese sandwich to the corn dog, good old-fashioned American food can pack a serious punch to your waistline. According to the 2010 National Health and Examination Survey, 33.8 percent of adults and approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States are obese.
Between full schedules and readily available processed foods, it's easy to fall into the trap of over-eating and under-exercising. While this problem isn't limited to the United States, the eating and lifestyle habits of some cultures have kept their populations significantly healthier, looking lean and living long. Here are some of their secrets.
1. Control your portions.
Even if you have the best intentions of eating smaller portions of food, efforts are often sabotaged by all-you-can-eat buffets and never-ending pasta bowls. In other countries, such as Japan, portion control is built into daily meals. Okinawa residents who, incidentally, have the longest life expectancy in the world, practice "hara hachi bu," which roughly translates to: "Eight parts out of 10." This means eat until you're only about 80% full. This practice recommends taking away your plate as soon as you begin to feel full. Other strategies to successfully consume smaller portions include serving meals on smaller plates, using a food scale to measure out portions, and eating more fiber-rich foods that can make you feel fuller faster.
2. Eat slowly and savor.
Whether it's speeding through breakfast so that you'll get to work on time or being rushed through a meal at a restaurant so that the table can be cleared for the next guests, Americans have developed an eat-and-run culture. In countries such as Greece, France, Italy, and Spain, meals are a time to relax and reconnect with family and friends. In fact, one of Greece's dietary guidelines (the equivalent of USDA dietary guidelines) states that "meals should be eaten slowly, preferably at regular times of the day." One strategy for slowing down meals is to serve each course separately, allowing 10 minutes between each round. This allows time for the body to relax and more efficiently digest food and helps to encourage portion control.
3. Choose unprocessed, whole foods.
Processed foods have become a way of life in the United States: from "diet" foods that are full of sugar and sodium to microwavable breakfast sandwiches topped with "meat product." However, processed foods should rarely (if ever) find their way to the dining table. Instead, whole foods such as vegetables, beans, fruits, fish, lean meats, and whole grains should make up most meals. While these foods may take a bit more prep work than a pre-packaged frozen meal, they're well worth the health benefits. People in the Mediterranean have been found to live longer, healthier lives by sticking to this basic tenet. Fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants that help to fight off illness and keep the body healthy, while fresh fish such as salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
4. Spice it up.
While salt and pepper have always been staples in American recipes, there are many other herbs and spices such as garlic, cinnamon, and turmeric that are as delicious as they are beneficial to your health. For example, one study showed that people with type-2 diabetes who consume a half teaspoon of cinnamon twice a day significantly lowered both their blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cooking, has been studied for its anti-inflammatory properties and possible role in cancer prevention. While nothing has been concluded, India has some of the lowest rates of certain types of cancer, including prostate, colorectal, and lung. Add more spice to your daily meals by experimenting on familiar foods such as chicken or rice. Try growing a small herb garden on your windowsill for fresh and flavorful additions to your meals year-round.
When it comes down to it, cultures with healthier eating habits simply take the time to prepare and enjoy fresh, whole food every day. The next time you find yourself searching for a new diet that will help you shed a few extra pounds, consider slowing down, trying some new fruits and vegetables, and preparing the quality meal that you deserve.