Eat your way around the world

Brits love international flavours. But have we adopted the healthier aspects of certain national diets? Kate Hilpern reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

With lasagne and chicken tikka masala currently topping the list of the UK's favourite foods, the British diet has clearly moved on from consisting exclusively of the likes of pies and roasts to taking on more international flavours. More and more of us opt for sushi, Italian, Thai and middle-eastern cuisine on a regular basis. So can we look forward to the same long and healthy lives enjoyed by the inhabitants of these countries? And do claims about the health benefits of certain national diets hold any truth anyway?

With lasagne and chicken tikka masala currently topping the list of the UK's favourite foods, the British diet has clearly moved on from consisting exclusively of the likes of pies and roasts to taking on more international flavours. More and more of us opt for sushi, Italian, Thai and middle-eastern cuisine on a regular basis. So can we look forward to the same long and healthy lives enjoyed by the inhabitants of these countries? And do claims about the health benefits of certain national diets hold any truth anyway?

Japan is the country with the longest life expectancy. Bearing in mind that stress, one of the principal risk factors for cardiovascular disease, is an authentic epidemic, the experts attribute numerable benefits to the Japanese diet. "It includes a huge amount of beans, soya, fruit, vegetables, rice and fish, but very little animal protein and sugar," says Patrick Holford, nutritionist and founder of The Institute for Optimum Nutrition.

Another significant feature of the Japanese diet, he adds, is their way of preparing foods - raw, boiled, steamed and using a wok which requires very little oil. The Japanese even have the opportunity to grow old gracefully - wasabi sauce, a vital ingredient of any sushi dish, contains a compound that inhibits a bacterium that causes tooth decay.

In China - where long and healthy lives are also prevalent, particularly in rural areas - the passion is for soy, a food that is receiving an increasing amount of attention for its healthy qualities. Rich in proteins with high biological value, soy sprouts, soy milk, soy oil and tofu are as common in Chinese kitchens as turkey twizzlers have been in British schools. "Like the Japanese, they eat very little sugar," adds Mr Holford.

This, he attributes, to the inhabitants of some Chinese cities boasting some of the lowest levels of coronary disease. He adds, "Whereas we have one in nine women getting a diagnosis of breast cancer in their life, in rural China that figure is one in 9,000 women. Among men, the risk of prostate cancer here is one in six compared to one in 20,000 in rural China."

Also famous for its goodness is the Mediterranean diet. Indeed it's associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, gallstones, diabetes, and cancers of the breast and large bowel. Little wonder when you consider that the Mediterranean diet has always included more cereals, fish, fruit and vegetables, and, crucially, more olive oil than countries in northern Europe. Most significantly, proteins and fats consumed in the UK tend to be from animals, whereas the Mediterranean diet contains a much higher proportion of fat and protein derived from vegetables.

But before you get too excited about your increased intake of olive oil, sushi and soy sauce, beware. Experts say British versions of foreign foods are often bastardised. Ian Marber, principal consultant at The Food Doctor Clinic in Notting Hill, London, explains: "Sushi rice over here tends to be sugared and we tend to get smoked salmon instead of raw fish. Italian dishes tend to have extra and often unhealthy ingredients added to them, and Chinese food is often deep-fried. Chicken tikka masala doesn't even exist in India. Not surprisingly, this kind of dumbing down of international foods causes us to lose out on some of the health benefits."

Meanwhile, Wendy Cook, author of Foodwise: Understanding What We Eat And How It Affects Us, points out that supermarkets and take-aways don't feature highly in nations boasting healthy diets. "They don't have the culture of convenience or processed foods," she says. "Without the tradition of buying fresh produce and actually cooking from scratch, we won't get the health advantages that these countries have."

Dr Frankie Phillips, of the British Dietetic Association (BDA), adds that we have a tendency to pad out international dishes with excessive quantities of dairy products and/or meat, counteracting their goodness. "Traditional Mexican dishes are extremely healthy, with small amounts of meat but lots of pulses. Yet some British versions of dishes like Chilli Con Carne include huge amounts of mince."

Genetics and lifestyle are also significant, she says. Longevity in Japan isn't only down to diet. The culture is well known for low crime, more social interaction, greater fitness levels, fewer smokers and less alcohol consumption. The Japanese tend to use more energy than Westerners to complete daily household chores. And even traditional squat lavatories work the leg muscles, which means older people fall over less often and suffer fewer injuries.

And despite the reputation of Japanese being partial to a tipple, research shows 45 per cent of Japanese have a poor tolerance of alcohol, meaning they enjoy feeling tipsy without having to drink more than a couple of glasses of beer.

Anne Murcott, a sociologist specialising in food and a professor at Nottingham University, points out that when Japanese have moved to the United States, the quality of their health has been found to drop. "The fact that their habits tend to mirror those of the new country strongly suggests the cause is related to lifestyle," she says.

Perhaps the most confusing of links between healthy nations and their cuisine is France. Although French cuisine is characterised by an abundance of sauces, pastry and butter, only seven per cent of French people are obese - a fact that has been baptised "the French paradox". But one recent study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found an answer - quite simply, they eat less. Comparing the individual portions in restaurants and supermarkets, it was deduced that the average portion for a Frenchman is 277 grams, whereas in the US it reaches 346 grams - a staggering 25 per cent more.

The merits of widening the range of foods we eat from around the world should not be under-estimated, according to the BDA. But unless we take on more than a few minor ingredients of a particular country's cuisine, we'll gain only some of the benefits. The Italians are currently learning this the hard way. They still eat lots of olive oil, but their consumption of fats from other sources is increasing as they too become influenced by the world's varying diets. So if you're planning to follow the Mediterranean diet, be sure you get an old recipe book.

SERVING SUGGESTIONS

Here are some suggestions from the British Dietetic Association of healthy international dishes.

Korea

Bibim bap is a dish usually made from rice and strips of vegetables, with optional tofu, meat or seafood, and usually topped with an egg. The balance of rice with a variety of vegetables and a small amount of meat or seafood is ideal.

Morocco

Tagines are stew-like dishes cooked very slowly and served with couscous. The ingredients are simmered, resulting in very tender meat, with spices, herbs and vegetables, providing a range of phyto-nutrients (plant-derived bioactive chemicals). Fruits, such as apricots, may also be added to a tagine, boosting the nutritional content further.

Scandinavia

There are many types of fish soups served in Scandinavia. Fish is a great source of protein, and oily fish, such as salmon and herrings, are rich in omega-3 fats. Coupled with added potatoes and vegetables, this is a well-balanced simple dish.

West Africa

Jollof rice is a great one-pot dish. Ingredients can vary, depending on availability of meat, fish and vegetables. A good choice providing a range of nutrients in one dish.

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