Heart Health Lessons from Around the World4 min read
February is Heart Health Month! Today, we’re (virtually) traveling around the world to learn how different cultures with lower rates of heart disease live healthy lives.
In the Western world, rates of heart disease and heart-related illnesses like diabetes have increased in recent decades. But research shows that more traditional diets and ways of living can reduce the risk of heart disease.
Adapting to a more heart-healthy lifestyle doesn’t need to be complicated. When in doubt, remember to follow Michael Pollan’s rules to: “Eat food, mostly greens, not too much.” We’d also like to add “see your friends and move your body” to the list of ways to stay heart healthy.
Below are some lessons from around the world on how we can improve our heart health.
While metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka are famous for being featured in films like Lost in Translation for evoking feelings of loneliness (not to mention fast food joints on most corners), the traditional lifestyle of the Japanese has many heart health benefits. On a southern island called Okinawa, residents form groups of four to five friends in childhood that often last well into old age. They meet for a daily “happy hour” with their friend group after work and before dinner to enjoy a tea or glass of sake, catch up on their lives and provide emotional support. This practice, combined with a diet high in heart-healthy fermented foods like tofu, miso and spiced sweet potato makes the residents of Okinawa some of the longest living and healthiest in the world. Their rates of heart disease are much lower than what is found in the United States.
Takeaway: Who can you lean on for emotional support? How can they be a bigger part of their lives? Can you add a bowl of miso soup or spiced sweet potato to your meal plan?
I recently visited a cacao farm in Costa Rica run by a third-generation cacao farmer. On dirt roads and with limited access to vehicles, the farmer made the ninety-minute walk to her aging father’s house several times a week. Not to mention the arm strength she used to grind the fermented cocoa beans every day!
Many Costa Ricans live a naturally active lifestyle. While they may not be hitting the gym every day, they don’t spend much time sitting either. Movement, combined with a diet high in whole grains, vegetables, and beans keeps Costa Ricans healthy well into old age. We can’t forget that with the year-round sunshine and Pura Vida, or carefree lifestyle, Costa Ricans have perfected the art of stress management.
Takeaway: Working out is important for maintaining heart health, but how else can you add movement to your day? Can you walk to the shop or friend’s house instead of driving? Can you take a video call as a walk and talk (or walking meeting) instead of sitting?
A Pura Vida lifestyle includes not sweating the small stuff and taking life at a slow pace. How can you find more time for rest, relaxation, and ease in your day?
Also, a dose of fresh dark chocolate every now and then can’t hurt!
Scientists have long wondered why breaking down food proteins into vitamins doesn’t have the same effect on health (or fullness) as eating real food. There are also some combinations or ways of preparation of food (like cooked tomatoes drizzled in olive oil or fermenting grains) that change the way our bodies digest and process that food. While one of the joys of science is being able to take apart a whole and understand its parts, when it comes to food, this just doesn’t work.
Indian chefs have perfected the art of cooking with a combination of spices. With a high population of vegetarians, Indians know how to spice up veg and beans to make it a hearty main dish. The combinations of spices they use like turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and others have been shown to reduce inflammation and risk of heart disease.
Takeaway: Add some spice to your life. If you find yourself eating mostly plain meat, fish and vegetables, search for some recipes that use more spices. If you struggle to get enough vegetables in a day, find an Indian recipe for Dal, Palak, Gobi, Okra and learn how to cook some mouth-watering vegetable dishes that also lower your risk for heart disease.
We hope these heart-healthy ideas from around the world inspire you to take steps at home to improve your heart health! And maybe they’ll inspire some healthy travel trips in the future!