Eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring. Across the world, people chow down on delicious eats without compromising their bodies. That’s because many local cuisines rely on natural and unprocessed ingredients, and time-tested preparation methods.
Read on to learn which countries are putting health first. Then hit up an authentic restaurant, buy a good cookbook, or start planning your own gastronomic vacation.
Greek food offers up most of the ingredients that make other Mediterranean region cuisines so healthy. In fact, the popular Mediterranean diet actually originated on the Greek island of Crete, says pediatric nutritionist and dietician Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., F.A.D.A., an associate clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. According to research, Cretans have a high life expectancy and lower risk of heart disease largely because of the food they eat.
“This diet has lots of olive oil, not much meat, is big on yogurt and lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, garlic, tomatoes, and nuts,” Ayoob says. You’ll want to look for the freshest, simplest dishes, such as grilled fish, souvlaki, and louvi (black-eyed bean salad). Avoid too many high-fat dishes, such as spanakopita (spinach pie), baklava, and moussaka.
And you don’t have to book a flight to Greece or Cyprus to get it. Greek food is getting easier to find in the United States, and Chicago boasts its own famous Greektown.
The Japanese diet is rich in seafood and fresh vegetables. And because of that, people on the Japanese island of Okinawa have some of the lowest rates of chronic disease, as well as the longest life span, in the world.
“The cuisine of Japan is generally considered to be healthy, with loads of vegetables and seafood in healthy preparations, such as a light steam or a quick stir-fry,” explains Marci Clow, M.S., R.D.N., a senior nutritionist at Rainbow Light. “Not to mention, uncooked sea vegetables, edamame, and raw fish.”
“On the unhealthier side, watch out for fried tempura, oily noodle dishes, and white rice.”
Maybe not so much the burritos and drive-thru staples, but traditional Mexican food can definitely be healthy.
“Beans are big here, so is fruit, so fiber plays a role in this cuisine,” says Ayoob, who adds that beans are “among the healthiest foods.”
Steer clear of fried foods like flautas and chimichangas, and go light on dishes with heavy cheese and sour cream, as well as the nachos and chips. Authenticity is key here, as you’ll find plenty of vegetable-heavy dishes prepared in a healthy manner if you’re discerning about your choice of restaurant.
Korean food is getting more and more popular in the United States, which is great news for fans of delicious, healthy new dishes. Among the healthiest in Korean cuisine is kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish. It’s considered a probiotic, and like ginger, red pepper, garlic, and various vegetables, it has anti-cancer, anti-obesity, and cholesterol-lowering properties.
“Tons of vegetables here, not much fat, very big on rice and steamed foods,” says Ayoob, who notes that eating like a Korean may be more than just dining on Korean foods. “Culturally, this cuisine isn’t known for lots of snacking; it’s more of a meal-oriented focus on food.”
Because fermentation is big here, watch out for high-sodium foods.
Thai food is filled with intense flavors and doesn’t depend so much on fats and meats. Among the spices and flavors that make Thai a stand out are turmeric, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, and chili peppers.
Opt for dishes that include seafood and lightly cooked vegetables. Skip the fried spring rolls and fried rice, and only indulge in coconut milk dishes on occasion.
Spain is another Mediterranean country where healthy eating is a top priority. Fresh seafood and vegetables are common here, as is a style of eating that is rapidly gaining popularity around the world – tapas.
“Spain is famous for its tapas, or small plates, giving Spain kudos for one of the only countries with an attempt at portion control,” says Clow.
Tapas make it easy to try dishes that may be unhealthy as a full portion. Clow suggests ordering options like deep-fried squid and Spanish chorizo as tapas plates to share, and ordering a big salad to help fill you up.
We’re not talking about that deep dish pizza and calzone stuffed with extra cheese here, but the Italian cuisine that focuses on olive oil, fresh tomatoes and herbs, and slow enjoyment of a meal with friends.
“Traditional Italian cuisine shies away from processed foods and features lots of fresh foods including beans, fish, grains, olive oil, seafood, fruits, and vegetables,” says Clow. Add in an occasional glass of heart-healthy red wine, and you’ll see why Italians are celebrated for their cuisine.
Indian food is packed with flavor, and while many traditional dishes are over-the-top spicy for the average Western palate, they aren’t all so daring.
“Much of this cuisine is very spicy, but not necessarily hot, just flavorful,” says Ayoob, adding that many of the spices used in Indian cuisine are great sources of antioxidants. And an added bonus for vegetarians: Many Indian dishes are vegetarian-friendly.
Watch out for too much ghee, or clarified butter, in your traditional Indian dishes. Fried samosas, kormas, and curry dishes with coconut milk are some other, less healthy options.
French cuisine sometimes gets a bad rap, as some dishes can be rather indulgent. But Clow says that isn’t true across the board.
“The foods from different regions [of the country] vary greatly,” she notes. “The Provence region, for example, uses more olive oils, tomatoes, and herbs, whereas in Normandy, you may find more crème fraiche and butter.”
And like many countries on our list, it isn’t just the menu items that make French cuisine healthy.
“The thing about food and the French is that they not only savor good quality food and focus on local ingredients, but they tend to have a healthy or mindful attitude toward food,” says Clow.
The cuisine in Lebanon has much in common with Greek eating, according to Ayoob. It also shares similarities with the food in neighbors like Syria, and is the home base of the world’s favorite healthy dip option: hummus.
While there are also some high-fat options — mainly those that are lamb-based or feature butter — ordering a meze will present a host of healthful options, like potato-garlic dip, eggplant dip, beans, salads, and grilled meats.
“Lots of small dishes often make up a meal here, like hummus, tabbouleh, pita bread, and cheese — traditionally sheep’s milk cheese,” says Ayoob. “So, in restaurants, going for a meal of appetizers is often good.”
Eating healthy doesn’t only have to be having salads and grilled chicken. Expand your palate by going global.