There have long been suggestions from the government that as a country, our diet needs to improve. With solutions ranging from fad diets to raising our intake of fresh fruit and vegetables and halving our sugar consumption, we are left to wonder whether anyone really knows what the healthiest diet is.
Channel 4 has attempted to answer this in a documentary titled: “The World’s Best Diet”. This quest aimed to create a list of 100 countries, tribal people, and religious groups deemed to have the 50 best and 50 worst diets in the world. Produced with the help of nutritionists, the list was determined by rates of obesity and diabetes, life expectancy and diet-related cancers. So what is our diet doing for us and to which nations and cultures should we be looking to for our healthy eating inspiration?
Lowest on the list and dubbed the place with the worst diet is the Marshall Islands: a beautiful group of coral islands in the South Pacific. It’s here that we find the highest mortality rate due to diabetes in the world. You might associate a tropical paradise with an abundance of fruit and fresh sea food. In fact, fresh, local produce is simply too expensive for the islands’ inhabitants, who live mainly off a diet of cheap imported goods from America: white rice and fatty, processed meat.
Following immediately after the Marshall Islands, Russia also ranked extremely low however, not for the reason you would assume; the country’s diet is fairly good. Russia comes so low on the list for one reason alone: vodka. 25% of Russian men die before they reach 55, largely from alcohol-related causes.
Britain doesn’t fair all too well either. Our number one killer is heart disease and almost a quarter of the population is now obese. We also consume the highest number of ready meals of any country in Europe.
At the other end of the spectrum, Japan ranks as the 5th healthiest country. The Japanese diet is full of fresh vegetables and fish. Women’s life expectancy is highest in the world. However, it only makes number five as high salt levels in soy sauce has been suggested as a cause of strokes. Western influences are also seeing increased consumption of more processed and high fat foods.
Following Japan is the Seventh Day Adventists – a religious group. The Protestant Christian denomination prohibits drinking, smoking and eating meat. Studies have suggested this way of life could add up to a decade to your life expectancy. All the same, not everyone would deem such sacrifices worth the healthier lifestyle.
At number three is Greece. The Mediterranean diet has long been held as a glowing example of the ideal mixture of pleasure and health. The principles of the diet are low quantities of processed food, red meats and dairy products and increased intake of fruit and vegetables, legumes and whole grains. This combination means the relatively large quantities of red wine and olive oil consumed provide a more balanced diet and therefore only improve health.
Despite being known for pasta and pizza, Italy too falls within this gleaming halo of health at number two. A small town just south of Rome is known as “The Village of Longevity” because the average life-expectancy is an astounding 95.
The country with ‘The World’s Best Diet’ is Iceland. It has the longest life-expectancy for men in the world. High intake of fish has been linked to many of the health benefits here including low levels of Alzheimer’s. Yet, a typical family’s weekly shop contains high levels of meat and dairy and surprisingly little fruit and veg.
This is not the only surprise throughout the show. As in the Mediterranean, a French table is rarely complete without a bottle of red wine. Yet unlike Greece and Italy, French cuisine is rich and full of animal fats. The French Paradox is that despite the meat, cheese and patisserie, the people maintain low levels of cholesterol and heart disease. The difference between their diet and ours seems rather to be a psychological one. The French love their food, and respect it. An hour or two off work for lunch is not just reasonable, it is expected. The French are conscious of what they eat: three good meals a day, and as such, are less likely to graze mindlessly. This respect for food also means high quality ingredients are a necessity, whether it’s fruit and veg, blue cheese or foie gras.
A focus on quality is the common factor uniting the top 50 countries. Even South Korea made it into the top 50, despite consuming the greatest quantity of hard liquor in the world. Though diets vary, a focus on fresh, unprocessed and high quality ingredients seems to be the key to a healthy diet.