It's dinnertime, and you're craving something with a little flavor. Maybe you'll grab Indian takeout or whip up a taco salad. But, uh-oh, these days it's easy to find yourself biting into the ethnic version of a triple burger and fries. "We've Americanized dishes to the extent that they don't have their original health benefits," says Daphne Miller, MD, author of The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World-Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You.
Enjoy global cuisines in their purest state, on the other hand, and you get meals that are light, nutritious, and incredibly yummy. So we asked experts to rank the 10 healthiest cuisines and reveal what makes them good for you.
There's a good reason docs love the Mediterranean diet: Traditional Greek foods like dark leafy veggies, fresh fruit, high-fiber beans, lentils, grains, olive oil, and omega-3-rich fish deliver lots of immune-boosting and cancer-fighting ingredients that cut your risks of heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related ailments. In fact, eating a traditional Mediterranean-style diet is associated with a 25 percent reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, according to Harvard University research. And people lose more weight and feel more satisfied on this type of diet, which is rich in healthy fats, than on a traditional low-fat diet, another Harvard study suggests.
This cuisine also ranks high because of how it's eaten, notes Dr. Miller, one of our judges. "The Greeks often share small plates of food called meze," she says, having just a bite of meat along with low-cal, healthy Greek staples like fresh seafood, slowly digested carbs (beans, eggplant, or whole-grain breads), and small portions of olives and nuts. If you're eating out, order grilled fish and spinach or other greens sauteed with olive oil and garlic. "This dish gives you the anti-inflammatory combo of olive oil and greens with the blood-pressure-lowering effects of garlic," Dr. Miller says.
Danger zone: Unless you make it yourself and go light on the butter, the classic spinach pie (spanakopita) can be as calorie- and fat-laden as a bacon cheeseburger.
2. California Fresh
You don't have to live on the West Coast to reap the body benefits of the California style of cooking. California Fresh is all about enjoying seasonal, local foods that are simply prepared, and that's a healthy style you can adopt no matter where you live, says supermarket guru Phil Lempert, a leading consumer trend-watcher and one of our cuisines judges.
Eating plenty of disease-fighting, naturally low-cal, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables from a local farmers' market or farm is good for your body, and it's satisfying, says Health's senior food and nutrition editor Frances Largeman-Roth, RD. "Foods grown locally are going to taste better and may have more nutrients," she explains, while produce that's shipped cross-country after being harvested can lose vitamin C and folate, not to mention flavor.
And what should you whip up from your local riches? Chef Annie Somerville at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco serves orrechiette with mushrooms, broccoli rabe, Italian parsley, hot pepper, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, or grilled veggie skewers over quinoa or couscous. But it's a style of cooking that great chefs cross the country are embracing.
Danger zone: Relying on high-fat cheese to flavor veggie-based dishes is not a waist-friendly move, Largeman-Roth warns.
Fresh herbs, lots of vegetables and seafood, and cooking techniques that use water or broth instead of oils -- these are some of the standout qualities of Vietnamese food, our judges say. "This cuisine, prepared the traditional way, relies less on frying and heavy coconut-based sauces for flavor and more on herbs, which makes it lower in calories," Largeman-Roth explains. Traditional Vietnamese flavorings (including cilantro, mint, Thai basil, star anise, and red chili) have long been used as alternative remedies for all sorts of ailments, and cilantro and anise have actually been shown to aid digestion and fight disease-causing inflammation.
One of the healthiest and most delicious Vietnamese dishes is pho (pronounced "fuh"), an aromatic, broth-based noodle soup full of antioxidant-packed spices.
Danger zone: If you're watching your weight, avoid the fatty short ribs on many Vietnamese menus.
When Dr. Miller was traveling around the world doing research for her book, she found that traditional Japanese cuisine -- especially the version eaten on the island of Okinawa, where people often live to 100-plus -- was super healthy. "Not only are Okinawans blessed with a diet rich in cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables, but they also prepare them in the healthiest way possible, with a light steam or a quick stir-fry," Dr. Miller explains. They also practice Hara Hachi Bu, which means "eat until you are eight parts (or 80 percent) full," she says. These simple diet rules may be why people in Japan are far less likely than Americans to get breast or colon cancer.
Japanese staples that are amazing for your health include antioxidant-rich yams and green tea; cruciferous, calcium-rich veggies like bok choy; iodine-rich seaweed (good for your thyroid); omega-3-rich seafood; shiitake mushrooms (a source of iron, potassium, zinc, copper, and folate); and whole-soy foods. "The soy that's good for you is unprocessed, not made into fake meat," Dr. Miller says. Think: tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh, a nutty tasting soybean cake made from fermented soybeans.
Healthy choices the next time you visit a Japanese restaurant? Miso soup, which typically contains seaweed and tofu, or a simple veggie-and-tofu stir-fry.
Danger zone: White rice can cause a spike in blood sugar, so ask for brown rice, rich in fat-burning Resistant Starch (RS).
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