Like every London personal trainer worth their salt, I’m fascinated by nutrition and its power to make you stronger and healthier.
So when channel 4 showed The World’s Best Diet on saturday night (17 January 2015) I was glued to the screen. They listed in reverse order the top 30 healthiest countries when it comes to eating habits. Here are the top 8:
A recent Oxford University study found that the bacteria in blue cheeses like stilton reduce cardiac inflammation. This is part of the French paradox: foods that used to be thought unhealthy – such as red meat, cheese, dairy, wine – are now known to have many beneficial properties. The French diet is high in saturated fat but the French have low levels of heart disease compared to the UK.
The French also have healthy regard for taking your time over food, with lunch breaks running from 1 hour to 2 hours, sitting down at a dining table, chewing their food properly, no wolfing down a sandwich in 10 minutes.
7. The Kuna Indians of Panama
This ethnic group live on a simple diet which consists mainly of plantains, fish, coconuts, and dark chocolate. They have very low levels of heart disease, cancer, and almost no type 2 diabetes.
The plantains are high in fibre and release their energy slowly (good for your insulin system) particularly after being boiled. Fish provides high quality protein and omega 3 fats. There’s increasing evidence that coconuts and high cocoa-solids chocolate contain many beneficial compounds.
6. Scandinavian countries
Fish dominates the diets of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Unrefined complex carbohydrates like oats and rye provide energy. Berries and fresh vegetables supply all the vitamins and minerals.
Fish is a recurring theme in the world’s healthiest diets. The Japanese eat a lot of fish, sushi, and other seafood. When they eat rice and noodles, it’s in small portions, and vegetables dominate the bowl of food.
The only downside to the Japanese diet is their high consumption of soy sauce, and its high salt content is thought to be the cause of widespread high blood pressure and strokes in the population.
4. 7th Day Adventists
OK, so this is not a country, but it is a distinct group of people who have a very strict diet for religious reasons. This branch of Christianity believes that a healthy body and mind allows you to get closer to God, so there’s no smoking or drinking alcohol or eating red meat.
7th Day Adventists eat a vegetarian diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, pulses and grains. The most famous family, the Kellogg family, were devout Adventists, and they introduced breakfast cereals to the world. They would probably turn in their graves if they knew how much sugar was added in the manufacture of their breakfast cereals today.
The downside of a vegetarian diet is the potential lack of iron and B vitamins, so vegetarians need to eat large quantities of green leafy vegetables (ideally mixed with lemon juice) for the iron, and plenty of nuts and seeds for the B vitamins (a range of almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds).
Adventists are allowed to include eggs in their diet, and those who eat eggs get a far better range of nutrients in concentrated and better absorbed form, particularly B vitamins and complete protein.
Greece is famous for the ‘Mediterranean Diet’: high in olive oil, fish, fresh vegetables and salads. The Greeks also take their time over their food and let it digest, with plenty of long lunches and siestas in the afternoon. All this resting and relaxing may have contributed to the collapse of their economy, but at least their diet is healthy.
Very similar to the Greek diet, Italy takes the number 2 spot as runner up in this league table of best diets in the world. Again, olive oil is a major feature, and many rural communities make their own olive oil on a small scale, using traditional methods which capture and retain all the goodness.
Like the Greeks, Italians eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, and their main protein source is fish.
For many reasons, Iceland is world number one in the healthy eating league table. For a start, Iceland has one of the world’s least polluted environments, largely thanks to its abundant supply of geo-thermal energy. As a result, all food grown in Iceland is free from pollutants.
Fish (yet again) is the major theme of this national diet. 4-5 portions of fish a week has been found to reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, even Alzheimer’s disease. There is a mountain of evidence which shows that fish enhances brain health and memory.
Iceland has the highest male life expectancy in Europe, an average of 81 years. Many think this is due to the food ethos of eating the food as close to its original state as possible, in other words minimal processing and refining.
Meat and dairy are farmed locally with minimal chemicals, the lamb is grass-fed. Even the bread is high-fibre rye bread with minimal processing, so all the goodness of the whole rye grain is kept in.
A unique food product to Iceland is skyr. It’s a low-fat, high protein, high calcium yoghurt which is very popular with kids as a pudding or snack. How different could you get from the UK whose kids snack on sugary junk-food and fizzy drinks.
We can learn a lot from the world’s best diets. Better still, we can start emulating them right now.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London.