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What the World’s Healthiest Nations’ Diets Have in Common

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Japan, Spain, Italy, Iceland and Switzerland are considered the healthiest nations in the world. The traditional diets of these countries have helped keep the countries’ populations as a whole healthier than other countries. Let's look at why.


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There are many beautiful, diverse ways of eating around the world. Japan, Spain, Italy, Iceland and Switzerland are considered the healthiest nations in the world. In turn, the traditional diets of these countries have helped keep the countries’ populations as a whole healthier than other countries following a Western-style diet.

Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index is a ranking system out of 100 points based on many factors including: life expectancy, environmental factors, clean water and sanitation. The top healthiest countries for 2019, according to this index, are (respectively):

  1. Spain (92.8)
  2. Italy (91.6)
  3. Iceland and Japan (91.4)
  4. Switzerland (90.9)
  5. Sweden (90.2)

The USA was ranked thirty-fifth with a score of 73. The USA, unfortunately, follows a Western diet which is low in fruits, vegetables, fiber and higher in fatty meats, sugar and salt. Following this diet pattern can increase risk for obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases.

What can we learn from the world’s healthiest nations’ diets? There are some underlying similarities these countries have with how they eat.  

High in Plant Foods

Both Spain and Italy, the top two countries ranked for health from Bloomberg, follow a traditional Mediterranean style diet. This eating pattern is primarily made up of: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and heart-healthy fats primarily from olive oil.

This eating style is naturally lower in sweets, red meat and processed foods.

The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to provide many health benefits. This may be a strong factor for why Spain and Italy are some of the top healthiest nations.

Similarly, the Nordic diet, which encompasses Sweden and Iceland, also incorporate similar eating style high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

Eating Until 80% Full

Japan has one of the highest concentrations of centenarians—people over 100-years-old. Like the Mediterranean diet, the Japanese traditionally eat a high amount of fruits, vegetables and grains. The diet is traditionally very low in red meat and sweets.

While eating in Japan, you may hear “Hara Hachi Bu” which literally means eating only until 80% full. This is how the Japanese eat; stop when you are not hungry anymore as opposed to when you feel stuffed.

Eating Local Foods

All these top healthy countries rely on locally made foods for their diet. Traditionally, there was no way to get foods from other countries; they had to work with the native foods in the land and preserve them to eat throughout the year.

In Iceland, this may especially be a key piece for their diet. Local seafood, as in Japan, plays a vital role to Icelandic diet as well as local grass-fed sheep. As with other top healthy countries, Iceland embraces a farm to table eating style along with preserving plant foods to last through long winter months.

Eating with Others

We tend to focus on what foods we eat for health and not the how. What may not get as much attention with the Mediterranean style diet is how they eat food. These countries, like other healthy cultures, focus on eating meals together with family and friends.

In Western societies, we tend to eat more by ourselves, on the go or while doing other tasks. Eating with others produces a social norm for eating which can encourage healthy eating and may lower risk for obesity.

They Support Gut Health

Eating foods that provide probiotics, beneficial bacteria, can help support gut health. Switzerland and Nordic diets incorporate a higher amount of unsweetened, locally made, probiotic-rich yogurt. Japanese diet is high in other fermented foods like miso and fermented vegetables.

Another important component for gut health is eating a wide variety of fiber. As mentioned, all the top healthy countries eat a higher fiber diet compared to the Western-style diet.

They Are Not a Western Diet

A Western-style diet is associated with an increased risk of obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases. This may be one reason why the USA and other countries following a primarily Western diet rank lower on the healthy country index.

The top five healthy countries have a strong traditional diet that is fairly simple: eating local foods, eating mostly plant foods, not overeating and usually eating with other people. There are traditionally minimal amounts of added sugar and processed red meat.

Adopting more of these countries’ eating patterns could be beneficial for you and your family’s health. This is just an overview of these countries’ eating patterns; I encourage you to research them more for yourself to see what you may want to take from them.