10 things other nations can teach us about healthy eating

Italian pasta with tomatoes

Many of us will be heading off on our summer holidays soon, but even if you're staying at home, the flavours of the world are increasingly found in Britain. Senior dietitian Victoria Taylor explains what we can learn from the eating habits of other countries.

In the UK, we’re lucky to have embraced a broad diversity of foods. Variety may well be the spice of life, but as we incorporate other nations’ cuisine into our own, it’s important to choose healthier elements where we can.

Here’s what we can learn from diets across the globe:

Italy

1. New ways to use fruit and veg

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruit and vegetables and the people living in this region eat more fruit and veg than elsewhere in Europe. Italy is a great example where, along with the usual ways fruits and vegetables are eaten, soffritto – finely chopped onion, garlic, celery, carrot, rosemary and bay leaf cooked in olive oil – is used as a base of many traditional dishes. It adds an authentic flavour and boosts the vegetable content of our meals. Because the vegetables are chopped so finely, soffritto blends into the dish and may even go undetected by reluctant vegetable eaters.

Read more about the Mediterranean diet

Japan

2. A tasty, low-saturated fat diet

Japanese sushi often includes oily fish

The traditional Japanese diet balances taste, texture, colour and flavour. When last surveyed, Japan had one of the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease in the world and this may be partly down to the Japanese diet. Traditionally, this is low in saturated fat and includes a range of foods that are linked to heart health, including oily fish and soya found in beans or tofu.

3. Making time for meals

Meals are an important part of the day and culture in Japan. Taking time to appreciate your food, and cooking from scratch, can lead to healthier eating habits than frequently snacking, buying lots of ready-made foods or eating “on the run”.

4. Portion control

While deep-fried tempura often features in Japanese cuisine, it is only in small amounts. We don’t need to eliminate all foods containing fat and sugar, but remember that eating too much of them will mean more calories, which could lead to weight gain.

Spain

5. Healthy snacks

Nuts are a part of many dishes in Spain

Nuts are prevalent in the Mediterranean diet, particularly in parts of Spain, and studies have suggested that eating them regularly may benefit our heart health. Nuts are also a source of protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre, but it’s important we eat them in their natural state, rather than salted, sugared or dry roasted.

Snacking on fresh fruit and vegetables and small amounts of unsalted nuts and dried fruit helps to increase nutrients and reduce saturated fat, salt and added sugars in our diet. This can help us to manage our weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

South Asia

6. Meat-free meals

Vegetarianism is a way of life for many in South Asia and, while a complete ban on meat isn’t essential for heart health, including some meat-free meals in our diet can be a simple way to boost our intake of fruit and vegetables and cut back on saturated fat.

7. Eating more pulses

Indian spiced chick peas

The South Asian diet makes good use of lentils and other pulses as a source of protein. These have the added benefit of containing soluble fibre (also found in wholegrain foods such as oats) that can help to lower cholesterol levels.

8. But watch out for foods high in salt and saturated fat

Traditional South Asian foods can be high in salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure, so focus instead on using herbs and spices and other typical flavours such as chilli, garlic and ginger, which liven up dishes in a healthy way.

Watch out for ghee, which is clarified butter often used in south Asian cooking. It adds a lot of saturated fat to dishes, which can raise cholesterol levels. Substituting ghee with unsaturated oils works just as well and makes recipes more heart healthy.

Visit our recipe finder for heart-healthy versions of South Asian dishes, plus many other recipes

Finland

9. Choosing unsaturated oils instead of saturated fats

In the late 1960s, men in Finland had the highest death rates from coronary heart disease in the world. A long-term national public health programme was set up to tackle the problem by changing behaviours and reducing cardiovascular risk factors. Finland was a country with a lot of dairy farming – butter and milk production were subsidised, while all vegetable oils were imported. Developing vegetable oil production in the country, alongside an education programme, helped to reduce the amount of saturated fat eaten and lower cardiovascular death rates.

However, it’s now common around the developed world to get saturated fat from multiple sources. So that means, as well as butter, milk, cheese and meat, we all need to watch out for a raft of temptation in the form of pastries, cakes, biscuits, ice cream and the like.

10. Showing how our environment influences what we eat

The Finnish approach is a reminder of how our environment influences our food choices. We might not be able to change our wider environment, but we can be in control of our micro-environment – inside our homes, around the office or in the car. For example, keep chopped vegetable sticks at eye level in the fridge, a fruit bowl on your desk at work and small bags of dried fruit in the glove compartment of your car to help you resist the temptation of unhealthy snacks.

Read our list of world foods that are best avoided

Travelling abroad? Read our tips for holidaying with a heart condition

Managing risk factors

Improving our diet is only one way to protect our hearts. Remember to look at other factors, such as not smoking, being physically active and sticking to recommended alcohol limits to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease.

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