The 7 Healthiest World Cuisines and Where to Find Them

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide obesity rates nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016. This trend isn’t consistent across the board; some areas contribute to the problem substantially, while others maintain very low national obesity rates. Many factors affect weight and health, but this overall negative pattern has led many people to gain a new interest in foods that are known or thought to be particularly nutritious across the globe. 

Greece

If you’re considering taking a trip and staying in Greece, your tastebuds (and your waistline) are in for a treat. Mediterranean food has gained a robust reputation for healthy dishes, perhaps in part due to the lasting mark that the Ancient Greek and Roman empires had on western culture. The climate and geography of Greece have ensured that their traditional cuisine has a natural abundance of protein and healthy fats. Their proximity to the sea has resulted in a seafood-heavy diet, while their mild, sunny climate results in hardy, diverse crops, including olives, spinach, tomatoes, and lentils. 

It may seem contradictory that a high-fat diet could contribute to health and fitness, however, the Seven Countries Study in the 1960s found correlative evidence that the high-fat diets of Mediterranean inhabitants was resulting in significant, positive health effects. Meanwhile, modern studies suggest that a high protein diet has a range of health benefits, including improved weight management. 

The benefits of the Greek diet, however, are questionable in terms of how it actually translates to national health and fitness. Although the people of Greece do enjoy long lifespans, they also face a 20.1% rate of adult obesity, with an overall 53.7% of the population who were overweight as of 2008. The WHO projected that these numbers would increase over time.

Italy

Visiting Italy provides you with an opportunity to experience one of the most celebrated wine cultures in the world. Italian cuisine is regarded as being particularly healthy for largely the same qualities as Grecian dishes. The consumption of red wine throughout Italy is also often credited with having health benefits for Italian citizens. Sardinia, an Italian island, is particularly known for the health of those who live there. The area is a so-called “Blue Zone,” a designation for certain areas in the world where people commonly live to be more than ninety years old. 

Traditional Italian cuisine should not be confused with other cultural takes on Italian food, such as American-Italian food, which can be considered a separate genre. While traditional Italian food can already be relatively high in calories due to common use of pasta, American-Italian cuisine often seriously compounds that issue by using more cheeses and creamy sauces, as well as larger portions. 

Italy enjoys high rankings for longevity, as well as overall low obesity rates, although the rate of childhood obesity is unusually high. 

Japan

Japanese people are well-known for their health, with Japan boasting one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Many factors likely contribute to this trend, such as a very affordable healthcare system, but there is significant evidence to suggest the Japanese diet is a large factor. The Japanese population has an incredibly low rate of obesity, with only about 4% of its population at a BMI of more than 30, compared to 32% in the United States. 

If you’re going to take a vacation and stay in Japan, you will quickly be introduced to some of the most iconic dishes. The health benefits of Japanese cuisine likely largely relates to common use of seafood and vegetables, as well as small portion sizes. Japanese people also often tout the health benefits of fermented foods that are staples of their cuisine, such as natto (fermented soybeans). 

Okinawa, in particular, is well-known for the great health of its citizens. Okinawa is an island south of the Japanese mainland which is another so-called “Blue Zone.” While Okinawan longevity is often attributed to their eating habits, what exactly is the key dietary factor or factors is up for debate. Some common theories attribute the health benefits to low-calorie intake, common use of plant-based foods, and more surprisingly—carb intake. The carb-to-protein ratio in the average Okinawan diet is approximately 10-to-1. 

Korea

Like Japan, the health benefits of Korean cuisine (particularly South Korean cuisine) are largely derived from vegetables, seafood, and fermented dishes. However, the specifics are of course different. While Japan’s staple fermented dish is natto, Korea’s is kimchi. Kimchi, a fermented mixture of cabbage and other vegetables, is high in vitamin C, and easily preserved. It is thought to have historically prevented scurvy and other similar vitamin deficiency issues during sea voyages and long winters, just as it’s probable descendent, sauerkraut, did in western culture. 

It is unclear just how much Korean cuisine is contributing to the overall good health of South Koreans, but no doubt the vitamin-rich foods are a factor. According to a study from the Lancet, South Korean women may become the first demographic to have an average life expectancy at birth of above 90. This is projected as being possible as early as 2030. 

Thailand

A visit to Thailand will introduce you to the tradition of celebrating diversity in the local cuisine. Thai people reap the resulting health benefits from regular ingestion of a wide array of ingredients. In particular, Thai food is known for including a variety of spices and plant-based ingredients. In fact, staple dishes in Thailand such as Kang Liang and Tom Kla Kai are thought to have health benefits ranging from anti-inflammatory properties to cancer prevention.

However, although traditional Thai food is largely considered very healthy, a large shift in cuisine is taking place in Thailand — perhaps because of the very open-minded food culture that originally was a boon to their diet. Shifts to a fattier, more protein-heavy diet in recent years seem to be causing negative repercussions for the Thai population. Their food culture also appears to be shifting towards eating out more rather than cooking at home. These changes may be observable in growing childhood obesity rates, especially for those who live in urban areas or attend private schools.

Spain

Spanish dishes provide many of the health benefits of other Mediterranean cuisines, with its own very distinct twist. If you were to stay in Spain, you’d find foods rich in healthy fats like olive oil and seafood are popular. Similar to the rest of their Mediterranean family, the Spanish also commonly incorporate an array of spices in their food, as well as various cheeses and other dairy products. Many of the spices that are used liberally in Spanish dishes, such as garlic and rosemary, are known to have health benefits, and dairy products provide calcium, along with many other healthy vitamins and minerals. In fact, although the Spanish do use cow’s milk to make cheese, they also commonly use goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, which have their own distinct health benefits. 

Additionally, Spanish dining habits also lend themselves to this culture’s reputation for healthy eating. Spaniards usually eat a substantial lunch, but all other meals tend to be small or are skipped altogether. This may contribute to lower calorie intake and better digestion. 

Spain certainly has a reputation for healthy food, a reputation that natives take pride in and courage. However, do the numbers seem to stack up? A 2018 study about global life expectancy from researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests that by 2040, Spanish people will have the longest life expectancy in the world. Many factors may contribute to this; however, the good health of those in Spain is often attributed at least in part to their diet. 

Lebanon

While Lebanon is also Mediterranean, and it’s cooking derives many health benefits from that influence, it is Levantine as well — the combination of which gives Lebanese cooking a unique quality. Lebanese cooking features all of the Mediterranean powerhouses, such as garlic, olive oil, and seafood, but due to its Levantine influences, it also utilizes a significant amount of whole grains and plant-based foods. 

Meze is a type of meal common in Lebanon and adjacent countries, which involves small plates that are shared by the entire group, similar to tapas in Spain. This may encourage diners to savor their food more and consume fewer calories over the course of the meal. Despite this, the citizens of Lebanon are not leading the world in terms of health. The current life expectancy in Lebanon is 80 years old for women, and 75.8 years old for men. However, this likely has more to do with infectious disease and other factors rather than a poor diet. Lebanese health is steadily improving as the country recovers from the civil war in the 1990s.

September 16, 2019