In a world where fad diets and fitness trends dominate the headlines, we often overlook the profound impact our environment has on our overall health and well-being. Our environment is not just the hinterland in which we live but includes the spaces we occupy in our homes, workplaces and social lives. In the unprecedented era of modern living, human beings find themselves in environments that, for the first time in their existence, has significantly elevated the risk of chronic illnesses, obesity and premature death. It would be no harm for us to look to the healthiest populations in the world who took the slow train to the 21st Century, who make their own food every day and never go to the gym. These populations have mastered the art of living simply yet purposefully, where making healthy choices is not a conscious effort but a natural part of their daily lives. In examining these communities, it becomes evident that adapting elements of their diet and lifestyle could pave the way for a healthier future in the super-developed, modern societies.
Take, for instance, the residents of Okinawa, Japan, known for having one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Their secret doesn't lie in complicated diet plans or strenuous exercise routines, but rather in the simplicity and balance of their lifestyle. Okinawans have a cultural practice called "hara hachi bu," which translates to eating until you are 80% full. This mindful eating approach helps prevent overeating and contributes to their lower rates of obesity and related health issues.
Another exemplary community is the Mediterranean region, where the Mediterranean diet has gained international recognition for its health benefits. This diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, is not just about the food but also the way of life. Regular physical activity, social connections, and a strong sense of community contribute to the overall well-being of the people in this region. The emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients not only promotes good health but also benefits the environment and local economies.
One common thread among these healthy populations is that the healthy option is often the easiest option in their environments. Fresh, whole foods are readily available and accessible, while processed and unhealthy choices are limited. Traditional diets are centered around plant-based foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats, steering clear of the processed and sugar-laden foods that dominate many Western diets. Importantly, their lifestyle and work practices allow time and space to integrate good nutrition into their daily lives.
In contrast, Western societies are faced with environments that promote sedentary lifestyles and are saturated with highly processed, calorie-dense foods. Fast food joints and convenience stores filled with sugary snacks are often more accessible than fresh produce markets. There was a time, not so long ago in evolutionary terms, that most of the day was centred around activities that garnered food for us. In contrast, we now have outsourced our nutrition for convenience and in doing so taken time away from making food that nourishes us and given that time away to activities that are slowly killing us. This cannot end well! The prevalence of desk jobs and reliance on cars contribute to a lack of physical activity, resulting in rising rates of obesity, heart disease, and other lifestyle-related health issues.
More than 55% of calories consumed in the US and UK come from Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs). Ireland is the third highest country with 45.9% of food consumed coming from UPFs. Source: Journal of Public Health Nutrition, January 2018
So, what can we learn from these health-centric communities, and how can we apply their wisdom to our modern lives?
Firstly, incorporating more plant-based foods into our diets is a key step. Consider adopting the "Blue Zones" philosophy, where regions with the highest concentration of centenarians emphasize a predominantly plant-based diet. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains take centre stage, while meat and minimally processed foods play a supporting role. The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on olive oil, nuts, and fish, provides an excellent model for achieving a balanced and heart-healthy diet.
In addition to dietary changes, creating environments that encourage physical activity is crucial. Urban planning should prioritize walkability and the availability of green spaces. Communities that foster cycling, walking, or other forms of exercise as part of daily life are more likely to see improved health outcomes. Encouraging physical activity doesn't necessarily mean hitting the gym; it can be as simple as incorporating movement into our daily routines.
Social connections are another essential aspect of a healthy lifestyle. The emphasis on communal dining in many healthy societies fosters social bonds and reinforces the importance of shared meals. In contrast, the fast-paced, individualistic nature of Western societies often leads to isolated eating habits and gnaws away at the basic fabric of families and communities.
Moreover, re-evaluating our relationship with food and the pace at which we consume it is vital. All of ultra-processed foods are designed to be wolfed down without a thought. If we dare to stop and think about what we are eating, it is highly likely that we would not buy it again. This is why food processing puts so much effort into the mouth feel, textures and flavour enhancement of its product. Real wholefood, on the other hand, requires time for preparation and cooking and time for eating and digestion. The practice of mindful eating, as observed in cultures like Okinawa, encourages savouring each bite and recognizing when we are satisfied. This approach helps prevent overeating and promotes a healthier relationship with food.
We can learn so much from the world’s healthiest populations to reshape our surroundings both inside and outside our homes. In doing so, it is possible to make the healthy choice the easier choice and take the hard work, time and effort out of trying to be well in a harmful, unnatural environment. Embracing a wholesome and mindful approach to food, moving more outdoors and prioritizing social connections are key steps towards a healthier future for Western societies. It's time to learn from the wisdom of these thriving communities and forge a path towards a more vibrant and resilient well-being.