Cultural Diets

In my recent quest for books that deal with the different types of diets and dietary patterns of the many and varying cultures around the globe, I have found very little contemporary information. I would like to see more research into cultural diets, especially their relationship to diseases within a culture so that we can attain a more global knowledge of diet and health.

Here I will share with you my knowledge of these diets and some theories as to their strengths and weaknesses, related deficiency problems, and supportive nutrients that might make them more complete. Obviously I cannot discuss each and every culture around the world; that would require a whole book in itself (which I hope someone will write). But I will discuss some commonly encountered and intriguing “ethnic” diets.

Please realize that my nutritional portrayals will be rather broad and generalized, because even within each country a diet may vary greatly from north to south or from province to province based on the climate, local nationalities living within that region, and available foods.

For example, in China, the northern provinces tend toward a diet containing contains spicier foods, more meat products, and more wheat, than in the southern provinces, where a milder diet is consumed with more rice, greens and other vegetables, special fruits, and generally less meat. Also, within each nation, the diet of poorer people is usually healthier than that of the middle or wealthier classes. Rather than the richer diet of affluence, which may include more meat, dairy foods, coffee, and sugar, the poorer rural populations (the city poor may consume highly refined and malnourished diet) still consume the more traditional and natural foods—local grains, vegetables, and fruits—in a generally healthy balance.

This factor is less apparent in the United States where the poor quality and refined foods so readily available in our local stores and supermarkets are accessible to nearly the entire population. Happily though, in most cultures there is an improved nutritional awareness with a return, even in the affluent population, to a more wholesome, balanced, and natural diet. Let us hope that this continues.

Western Diets

The “Western” diet is that of the Westernized cultures (not the cowboy diet), including many European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the United States. Although the diets of these cultures are all similar, I will first take on the current American diet.

Many of the concerns about this North American diet and the problems that arise from its consumption also plague other Westernized countries. Many European populations eat a diet similar to the American one, though shaped around their basic cultural practices; those “down under” in Australia and New Zealand probably consume even more meat and milk products than we do in the United States. Most have a high intake of red meat and fat and a very high sodium intake, as well as regular alcohol use. The meat consumption rates in New Zealand and Australia, the Scandinavian countries, as well as some South American countries, such as Argentina and Venezuela, are among the highest in the world. The incidence of the diseases generated by this food component correlates with its intake. Many Europeans consume less meat and fats but sometimes more sugar, alcohol, and tobacco, which all generate their own diseases.

The Western dietary influence affects many cultures. Technological advances can bring benefits to everyone, but sometimes the time-saving, mass-processing preservation of food is not in the best interest of nutrition. People of all cultures can be influenced by sweeter or saltier foods or new and different foods altogether. We all like change, especially if it appears to be a “step up.” But often it isn’t (see previous discussion of Industrialized Diet). Eating refined flour or sugar products may be all right occasionally, but the natural, wholesome and homemade foods are better. And whether these refined foods are tastier, easier to chew, or a status symbol, when they replace the basic staples of the diet, that is when trouble may begin.

North American

Though the North American diet (South Americans have a very different diet) varies regionally and culturally, I will focus here on the common trends that cross over and influence so much of the population. The Canadian diet, in my understanding, is very similar to that of the United States. Diet-linked diseases that are common in both countries similarly affect immigrants, even though those diseases may be rare in their native lands. This has been demonstrated in studies of the incidence of breast cancer among Japanese women living in the United States, of colon cancer among Asians, and of diabetes.

All the factors that were discussed in the Industrialized Diet apply particularly to the American diet, which has been most affected by technology in our food industry. The evolution in the tastes of the average food consumer of toDay has involved a significant desensitization to the natural flavors in food. The modern consumer is attracted to the rich taste of fatty meats and fried oily foods, salty and sugary snacks, artificial flavorings and additives, and coffee, colas, and other stimulating soda pops. To speak of the refined food diet is actually a contradiction in terms, as this does not represent a “refined” taste at all, but taste buds that need to be knocked with a sledge hammer to wake up. Many nutritionists consider those refined flour products such as breads, pastries, and doughnuts and the refined sugary goodies from cereals to sodas as hardly “foods” at all. It is difficult for people used to these “processed” foods to experience much enjoyment or psychological satisfaction from a simple meal of rice and vegetables, with or without some animal protein. The diet of our culture has become an “anticultural” diet, definitely not one that our ancestors would have approved.


Nutritional Problems associated Problems and Diseases correlated
with the Standard American Diet with the Standard American Diet
    High calorie
    Obesity
    Low nutrient
    Tooth Decay
    Low fiber
    Atherosclerosis
    High fat
    Coronary artery disease
    Excess saturated fat
    High blood pressure
    Excess hydrogenated oils
    Heart attacks
    High protein
    Strokes
    Excess salt
    Vascular insufficiency
    Excess sugar
    Diabetes
    Excess alcohol
    Breast cancer
    Excess milk foods
    Colon cancer
    Excess meats
    Prostate cancer
    High vitamin D
    Other cancers
    Excess phosphorus
    Arthritis
    Behavior problems/Crime


How processed the diet is varies according to the quantities of fast foods, junk foods, sweets, sodas, and other “dead” foods consumed. Teenagers can be the worst offenders, eating too much of these foods and very little of anything else. Some refined breads and pastas or occasional sodas, sweets, or fatty meats will not hurt most people, but when they become predominant in the diet, it is very poor nutrition. I believe that it is one of the greatest sins of our health care system that doctors so readily accept and support (often simply by not condemning) the industrial-age American diet. Many of the potential problems of our diet, such as the lack of fiber and excessive fat, sugar, and sodium, have been and will be discussed throughout this book. With awareness of and attention to these areas, we can make our diet a healthier one.

There are also some positive aspects of the American diet. There are many wonderful foods available to nourish us. We grow all types of grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits and raise cattle and other animals for milk, eggs, and meats. (The main concern with all of these foods is the chemicals used in growing and raising them.) We can certainly choose most of our foods in their more nourishing untreated and unprocessed state. Another positive aspect is the growth patterns that our children develop from eating the typical protein- and calcium-rich diet. Our race is growing bigger and stronger with each generation. The average height of our population continues to rise. The downside of this is that how we learn to eat as young people affects our eating patterns throughout life. As children are usually much more active than adults, obesity and chronic disease result from eating this rich diet, high in protein and fats, throughout life.

With the change in our taste for foods that has occurred over the last ten decades, there has been a decrease in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the complex carbohydrates, with an accompanying decrease in fiber intake, and an increase in consumption of salt, sugars, and fat. This eating pattern, with its overall increase in calories and decrease in nutrition, is associated with many chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cardiac disease, and a variety of cancers, as well as liver disease and nervous system problems from alcohol abuse.

More specifically, each of these potentially negative dietary choices contributes to specific pathogenic processes. First, the standard American diet provides less nutrition per calorie consumed than does our true cultural diet of natural foods. Our body needs a certain amount of nourishment to function. The high amounts of white sugar and refined flour foods in the current American diet provide useless calories with few nutrients. Therefore we require more food on this diet to obtain all our needed nutrients. This is a crucial aspect underlying one of America’s biggest problems, obesity. and its effect on other diseases, especially cardiovascular disease and many types
of cancers.

The decreased consumption of vegetable and complex carbohydrates foods, means a lower intake of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The lack of fiber has significant adverse effects on digestive function, which may lead to colon diseases such as diverticulitis and cancer. The decrease in nutrient intake resulting from an unbalanced diet with a lot of empty-calorie foods may lead to a wide variety of depletion and deficiency symptoms and diseases. This may occur in the diets of both the poor and the rich of our population.

Higher protein levels, especially from the protein-concentrated meat foods, may contribute to kidney problems, hypertension, and an increased risk for certain cancers, although this has not been well documented. The dairy foods may also cause digestive problems because of many adults’ inability to properly utilize them (lactose intolerance), as well as common allergy or hypersensitivity reactions to milk. Another concern is with the chemicals fed to dairy cows that may then end up in our milk. Dairy foods also add more saturated fats to the diet unless only nonfat products are used. The higher calcium content of milk can be helpful, but the extra vitamin D intake can cause problems when combined with even higher phosphorus ingestion from more meats and carbonated beverages. This mixture of nutrients affects bone metabolism and may be a major factor in osteoporosis. Maintaining adequate calcium intake while keeping it in balance with phosphorus is probably important in this regard.

The three aspects of the American diet that have received the most attention in the last decade are salt, red meats, and fats. Salt restriction is often suggested for people only after they have high blood pressure, but there should be attention to avoiding high-salt foods and reducing total sodium intake (and raising potassium intake) before this problem arises. Salt contributes not only to high blood pressure but also to kid-ney disease and to heart disease as well. Salt is contained in so many foods, often hidden, that we may need to read labels and avoid certain restaurant foods to really reduce our intake of sodium.

Eating red meat, the cooked muscles (and organs) of dead cattle, sheep, or pigs, is both a nutritional and a philosophical issue. Nutritionally, these meats, especially the domesticated, overfed animals, contain a high amount of fat, and regular consumption of meats may add to an already fatty diet. Meats are also high in protein, phosphorus, and usually sodium, and are low in fiber, all of which may contribute to other difficulties. Meats, of course, do provide nourishment; we just need to moderate their intake.

The idea of an association between meat eating and war is an interesting one. Throughout history, meat eating has been correlated with hunting, fighting, conquering, and a desire for power. Eating meats seems to stimulate aggressiveness, hostility, and competitive feelings. Now that most people do not hunt for food, meat consumption may stimulate these same feelings of aggressiveness, which we now take to the streets, to our jobs, or home to our families. In contrast, the vegetarian diet has always been associated with peace and nonresistance and a general respect for life, as manifested in a spiritual sense of our connection to all living beings. This is seen in the peoples of India and exemplified by the life of Mahatma Gandhi. While many people are reducing their meat consumption for health reasons, this may have the fortunate secondary effect of improving the relationships between people and among nations, increasing the chances for peace.

Meats, as I said, also contribute to our total fat intake, as do milk products. Vegetable oils, of course, are all fat, but of greater concern are the hydrogenated fats, which may contribute more specifically to disease. The use of these fats as magarines, in cooked or fried foods, and in baked goods has greatly increased; the trend should be in the other direction. Fats in the diet contribute specifically to increased cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and many types of cancer, particularly cancer of the breast, colon, prostate, and uterus. Atherosclerosis, or clogging of the arteries with fatty plaque, is the basic process that contributes to all kinds of cardiovascular diseases. Reducing total fat intake is probably the most important step to creating a healthier diet.

Overall, we need to ask how can we make the American diet better so that it will nourish a healthy and long-lived race of people? What can we do with this diet based on quick eating, fast preparation, microwave meals, stop-and-go diets; the diet we can fit between two pieces of white bread; the diet we can eat with one hand while driving our car or working at our desk; this processed, refined, junk food, high-sodium, high-fat diet; this diet that generates death more than life? Generally, we need to reevolve back to the basics, back to nature, back to the garden.


Suggestions for Making the American Diet Healthier

  1. Consume less fat via
  2. Consuming less red meat, lunch meat, bacon, ham, and so on and
  3. Consuming less milk and milk products.
  4. Consume less fried foods and
  5. Less hydrogenated oils.
  6. Eat less refined flour products,
  7. Less white sugar and simple sugars, and
  8. Less salt and salty foods, such as crackers, pretzels, chips, and pickled foods.
  9. Consume fewer calories.
  10. Consume less coffee and alcohol.
  11. Smoke less or not at all.
  12. Eat more fresh fruit and
  13. Fresh vegetables.
  14. Eat more whole grain cereals, such as rice, whole wheat, oats, and so on.
  15. Eat more fiber foods—the fruits, vegetables, and grains.
  16. Eat more fresh fish and poultry to replace red meats and
  17. More vegetable protein, such as nuts, seeds, and beans and the sprouts of these foods to replace animal proteins.
  18. Drink more filtered or spring water.
  19. Drink more fruit and vegetable juices and herbal teas to replace coffee, black teas, soda pops, and other stimulating beverages.
  20. Get more regular, preferably daily exercise with some aerobics—that is, more vigorous exercise. In other words, let’s get in physical shape.
  21. Take better care of our air.
  22. 22. Keep our waters free of pollution.

Getting back to the basics means learning to take the time again to shop for, prepare, and sit down to eat wholesome, nourishing meals—to generally be more conscious and conscientious with our diet. This is a tough request for a very busy population always trying to catch up with their bills and credit cards. Believe me, it is worth the price, because we will feel better longer and be more productive.

New Healthy American

The new healthy American diet is basically what I am clarifying in this book. It is what many of us have turned to as we realize the consequences of this refined, processed, and chemicalized American diet. The new “health food” industry and health or natural food stores are providing us with the ingredients needed to create our new diet. Hopefully our own garden will also help. More supermarkets and chain stores are supplying many of the new, more natural, less processed “health foods.” Furthermore, the use of chemical farming (see Chapter 11) brings the term “organic,” grown without chemicals, to national attention. Even animals are considered “chemical” when they are factory farmed, treated with antibiotics or hormones, and fed chemically-treated foods, or “natural”

This “new American diet” is thus more natural and really a traditional diet, but with the advantage of industrialization where we have many well-made and tasty packaged foods. However, the basis of our new diet is a return to whole, unprocessed foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. With this diet, there is an avoidance of refined flour products, refined sugar, red meats, lunch meats and sausages, high fat and high salt foods, and the regular use of dairy products and alcohol. More and more people are turning to a vegan or lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, or to one that I have followed for a few years, the “pesca-vegan” diet, which is fish added to the vegan diet. In this diet, milk and egg products are avoided as are poultry and meats. All the foods eaten are high in nutrients, and fish protein (and oils) is chosen over milk and eggs, which, in many people, are not handled as well.

My personal diet has shifted over the last two decades from standard American to this new American diet. It recently has ranged from strict vegetarianism to pesca-veganism, even with occasional organic or free-range poultry, mostly at holiDay s. Because my weight rises so easily when I eat with my usual love for foods, I focus my diet on vegetables and add other foods as needed—seeds and nuts, legumes or fish when I feel I need more protein and fuel, or fruits and juices (even to fasting) when I feel I need to lighten up and clean out.

As an example, over the winter of 1989, I was working hard, exercising less, more stressed, and consuming more foods, especially grains, which put weight on me. I organized a ten-Day fast for myself and patients in my office, which we began in early spring. It felt so good, so right for me that I continued for 16 Day s; I felt great, light, and productive with lots of energy on my lemonade diet, the “Master Cleanser” (see my first book, Staying Healthy With the Seasons). Though cleansing like this is not for everyone, it certainly works for me. (For more specifics, see the Detoxification programs and Fasting in Part Four.) Now my diet is moving slowly back into a strict vegan diet for the spring and summer and I will maintain a high-alkaline diet, consisting of green salads, fruits, sprouts, millet, soybean products, and some soaked nuts and seeds. Meals are protein/vegetable or starch/vegetable, described in the Ideal Diet of Part Three, and this spring will include a lot of green salads. I will avoid all animal products, refined foods, and wheat and other gluten grains (oats, barley and rye) as well as minimize rice and corn, which I so love. This will clearly be more strict than I have been in years, but my body and energy is already knowing the benefits, and I look forward to the final production and publishing of this monumental undertaking you now hold in your hands.

Australian/New Zealand

As well as a great deal of meat, the people of the down under countries eat large amounts of milk, cheese, and other dairy products. These two food categories mean a diet high in saturated fat and protein, which contribute to high blood fats and the higher incidence of atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. Skin cancer is very prevalent in the hotter, northern climates of Australia. The high beer consumption may undermine the liver and general health of the inhabitant. Luckily, vegetables are grown by many of people and eaten in good quantities along with the other, richer foods.

British Isles

The diet in Great Britain is notorious in Europe as one of the worst. The diets of surrounding Scotland and Ireland, which make up the British Isles, are very similar. Overall, there is a high amount of industrialized, processed foods consumed in England along with their classic meat-and-potatoes diet. And some claim that, unlike many cultures, the poorer people often have the worst diet with a lot of refined and fried foods.

In general, this northern, cold climate island does not have much agriculture, and therefore does not provide many fresh foods most of the year. Most of their fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts must be imported, and this is usually expensive and seasonal. It is known to be very difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables in Great Britain; a raw green salad is a rare treat. Often, visitors from Europe will carry fresh food with them. With this situation, the British have a low intake of high-nutrient, whole foods that are so important to health.

In the British Isles, the consumption of red meat is high, with pork and mutton eaten as much as beef. Raising sheep for food is very common in the countryside. Fish is readily available for those that live near the sea, but most often it is eaten fried, with fried potatoes, a meal called fish and chips. Butter is the main cooking fat, and milk, cheese, and butter are also regularly consumed. All of these animal foods provide a high-fat diet, and since this is generally not an exercise-oriented culture, but does have a lot of smokers, cardiovascular diseases are a prevalent process of aging. With its industry-oriented culture, chemical carcinogenesis is another big concern in Great Britain.

Other aspects of the diet include refined flour products, with a lot of bread, pies, cakes, and pudding. Whole grain products are low in consumption, save a bit o’ porridge for some in the morning. Sugar is eaten regularly in desserts, along with sugar in tea. The British drink a lot of black tea, with its caffeinelike agents and tannic acid, contributing to teeth stains and stomach ulcers. Also, beer and ales are drunk throughout the British Isles, with many local brews.

Overall, the British are waiting for their health and nutrition wave. It would be
wise for them, as for all of us, to reduce their intake of animal foods, refined flour and sugar products, alcohol, and nicotine. Obtaining more fresh foods via agriculture and importation, and storage for the colder, wetter months would also help. Dehydrating vegetables and making sprouts are a couple of ways to obtain these important foods, and eating more whole grains and the products made from them will improve this diet as well.

Western and Eastern European

The Germanic diet (Austria, Germany [until recently, West Germany], Switzer-land) is a little spicier and even sweeter than the British diet, with more breads, cakes and other sweets, potatoes, and meats (beef, venison, and pork), and especially the sausage-type meats. Each region of West Germany has its own type of sausage. Butter and lard are used as the main cooking fats. Baked goods are a staple of the German diet. In Switzerland, chocolate and cheese are very popular. Austria is known for its sweets and cakes. Hot chocolate and pastries are a favorite late afternoon tradition, followed by a light dinner. Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and sour cream, may help the intestinal tract handle this higher-fat, low-fiber diet. Fresh fruits are less available, and the colder-climate vegetables, such as cabbage, cauliflower, and potatoes, are used more than others. Beer consumption is very high, leading to more weight problems than in many other cultures.

The Eastern European countries (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslavakia, and former East Germany) are basically poor and consume a less industrial diet with less sugar and fewer desserts. They still use more natural food preparation and preservation, such as pickling foods for the colder winters. Western Europeans ate this healthier, more natural diet before industrialization. The people of Hungary and Poland consume more rye bread, cabbage, potatoes and other root vegetables, buckwheat, paprika, onions, peppers, pork, pickled fish, and cottage cheese. Food is expensive and not always readily available. More fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains could be added, but overall, this is a poorer, yet healthier diet than many of the more Westernized nations.

Balkan

The diet of the Balkan countries (Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia) is similar to that of their neighbor, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries. Thanks to a warmer, more agriculturally favorable climate, there are more fresh foods avail-able. Fish is plentiful from the surrounding seas and meats are grilled or roasted, even on open fires. Fewer sauces and fermented foods are used than in other Eastern European countries.

Russian

The Russian diet is usually higher in complex carbohydrates and lower in protein, especially animal protein, than most other European diets—and the Russian people have better longevity than most other cultures. There are more centenarians there than anywhere in the world.

The Russian diet includes dark bread, buckwheat (kasha), wheat, goat’s milk and yogurt, potatoes, other root vegetables, cabbage, beet borscht, and some meats. The grain and vegetable basis of the diet, with less consumption of refined flours and sugars, makes it one of the healthier diets in Europe. Concerns may include the high consumption of vodka and the animal fats used for cooking. Also, because there is less variety of available foods, vitamin and mineral deficiencies may pose a problem.

Scandinavian

The Nordic diet of Sweden, Norway, and Finland has many healthy aspects for such a low agricultural area, and certainly produces people of strong constitution; however, there are several types of food that are overconsumed, thus increasing the potential for and incidence of a number of chronic degenerative diseases. Because of the cold climate, a higher fat diet is the common faire and is probably handled better than in most other areas of the world. This would be more actualized if they ate less animal foods and more cold water fish (freshly cooked) from the surrounding seas. Cod and herring are very popular, but these are often pickled or smoked. Fish is widely consumed, but other meats and milk products are as well. Finland’s high animal food consumption gives it the distinction of having the highest average blood cholesterol level of any place on Earth. The high-salt Scandanavian diet also increases incidence of hypertension and other cardiovascular problems. Alcohol use, particularly beer and schnapps consumption, adds another health concern; black teas are also very popular.

Some wholesome traits of the Scandanavian diet include the regular use of rye as crackers and whole grain breads, which add fiber and important nutrients. Sweets are not common and pastries tend to be light. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available during the three to four warmer months of the year. Nordic peoples would be wise to dry and store more wholesome fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, to use through their long winters. Sprouted foods are ideal for cold climates or areas of low agriculture. Scandinavians would benefit by foregoing their “smorgasbord” style of eating (with too many choices and poor food combining), in favor of simpler meals.

Mediterranean Diets

This area includes a cross section of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Southern France. Morocco offers a mix of Mediterranean and mid-Eastern cuisine. The Mediterranean diet is similar to the nearby Turkish and Middle Eastern diets, with wheat, rice, lamb (and goat), cheeses, yogurt, olives, and olive oil as major components. Due to the lower animal (saturated) fat intake and more olive oil used as the main cooking fat, the risk of cardiovascular disease is relatively low in these countries. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more plentiful in these warm coastal areas than anywhere else in Europe. Daily shopping in outdoor markets is a Mediterranean tradition. Fish and seafood, tomatoes, peppers, citrus fruits, nuts, and fresh and dried herbs give this diet great variety. Wine and coffee (espresso) are in high consumption. Fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, and apricots may be eaten fresh or cooked. Negative aspects of the Mediterranean diets include excessive use of coffee, cigarettes, and sweets.

Italian

The Italian diet contains more breads, pastas, and cheeses than that of other European countries. Italians drink more wine than beer. In many regions of this coastal country, they produce local wines, cheeses, and prosciutto (cured ham). In general though, dairy product consumption is low, primarily as cheeses such as mozarella and Parmesan. Spaghetti is classically Italian, as is a thin-crusted pizza (nothing like heavy American pizza). Meats, such as prosciutto, veal, chicken, and the fatty processed spicy meats, such as salami and pepperoni, are popular. Vegetables are usually well consumed, especially tomatoes, as are fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, and marjoram. Minestrone is the common soup. Olive oil is used regularly as the main cooking fat and on salads and other foods; even though it is better than other fats, it is high in calories when used in quantity. Other foods prominent in the Italian diet include garlic, hot peppers, wild local greens, white breads and breadsticks, and fresh figs and melons in the summer.

A typical Italian meal is served in several courses, as is true in much of Europe. Breakfast is light if at all, consisting of coffee, juice, and croissants. Lunch is the main meal, with most businesses closed between one and four p.m. The first course is pasta, followed by meat or fish with vegetables and a green salad. Dessert is often fruit, followed by an espresso, which has a stronger taste but less caffeine than a typical American cup of coffee. After a rest, people go back to work. Dinner is generally light or just a social time, with some soup, bread, and wine. Luckily, the portions in Italian meals are modest; thus, there is less overeating than is typically stereotyped in the Italian-Americans.

Some concerns of the Italian diet include recent increases in refined and processed foods. As elsewhere in Europe, the heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, caffeine, and sweets may lead to health problems.

French

In this large European country (as is true in many larger countries), the diet may vary widely from north to south with climate, cultural differences, and available foods. The mid-Europe northern area consumes more meat and a generally heavier diet, while the southern, Mediterranean regions eat more fish, local vegetables, and a lighter diet overall. In most countries of the world, especially the European ones, the native, rural, or peasant-type diet contains a higher amount of natural foods than the urban diet. For example, a typical meal served in American “French” restaurants is rich in creamy sauces, gravies, pastries, sweets, fats, cheeses, bread, pates, and, of course, wine. This type of food is also consumed by the wealthier classes and in the fancier restaurants in France.

In general, the French are very involved with food, and often consume multiple course meals as is true in much of Europe. There are local street markets that provide fresh seasonal foods and their special cheeses and sausages. The French tend to shop often, preparing their meals to suit the locally available foods. The more rural or peasant diet in France consists of potatoes, some meats and “charcuterie” (sausages and cold cuts), poultry, breads and cheeses, and vegetables. Meals often include a small green salad, and finish with cheese as “dessert.” Breads, croissants, and pastries, are often consumed daily. Wine and very strong coffee are the national beverages. Overall, the French diet is richer and higher in fats and refined flours than many other European countries.

Spanish

The Spanish diet is similar to the Italian, at least along the coastal regions. Having more inland terrain, Spain’s beef production and consumption is higher than in other Mediterranean countries. The Spanish enjoy a wide variety of foods, including fish and meats, olive oil, tomatoes, greens, wine, white breads, figs, and citrus and other fruits. Paella is a common dish that combines rice and seasonings, especially saffron, with seafood and shellfish, chicken, or sausage. Wine is consumed regularly with meals. Problems with refined foods and animal fats are beginning to appear in Spain. Coffee consumption and cigarette smoking are also high.

The Portuguese consume a similar diet to the Spaniards, yet, being a poorer nation, the people tend to eat simpler, more natural meals of locally available foods. Wine is also consumed regularly.

Greek

This southern, coastal mecca provides a relatively simple diet, mostly cultivated from its own land. Goats and sheep are raised for milk and meats. Goat milk cheeses, such as feta, and yogurt are eaten regularly, as is lamb meat. Fish is very popular. Moussaka is a popular local dish—a layered, baked “casserole” with lamb, eggplant, feta, tomatoes, and onions. “Greek” salads are eaten almost daily, made of tomatoes, black olives, red onions, cucumber, feta cheese, and dressed with olive oil and herbs. A yogurt and cucumber appetizer dip for pita bread is also common. Greece is less industrially developed than the other Mediterranean countries and thus, has probably one of the healthier diets in Europe.

Asian Diets

In most Asian countries people are poor and must cultivate their own food and, thus, their diet from the land around them; and these hard-working peoples do a very good job of it. These cultures are basically non-carnivorous, though not strictly vegetarian either. However, their diets are vegetarian based, focusing on grains and fresh vegetables, usually with some meat, poultry, or fish cooked into one of the dishes. Eggs and milk products, mainly as yogurt, are occasionally consumed by adults.

Due to this generally healthy—more natural, local, and seasonal—diet, there is a reduced incidence of many of the chronic degenerative diseases that are nutritionally related. Thus, the elderly population is healthier and more active in these cultures, and is less plagued by atheroscleroses, high blood pressure, heart disease and their consequences, such as heart attacks and strokes. However, with the increasing use of refined sugar products, especially in China and Japan, combined with other factors, possibly even food and environmental chemicals, adult diabetes and cancer are on the rise.

With the following examples from China, Japan, and India, please realize that as times change and there is more industrialization and “Americanization” of these countries, the general diet, nutritional adequacy, and basic health and longevity of their populations will be affected.

Chinese

When we consider that China contains more than one billion people, about a quarter of the Earth’s population, what the Chinese people eat is the major diet of the world. That diet is primarily vegetarian, with usually only small amounts of animal foods consumed.

When I visited China in late 1984, I was most impressed with the agriculture—the incredible use of the land and the masses of people working it. Crops were planted in huge fields, on hillsides, along riverbanks, around houses, literally everywhere. It is a very green and fruitful country. Rice is the main crop, although more wheat is used in the north. The northerners also eat more meat and spicier foods, to keep them in balance with the colder climate, though people throughout China make spicy dishes using tiny, hot red peppers; and chili oil, vinegar, and soy sauce
are on most tables.

The basic Chinese diet is fairly consistent, containing polished white rice, cooked vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, and small amounts of meat, pork, or fish, with occasional poultry and eggs (a luxury). Large amounts of meat are rarely consumed at one meal. Fruits are eaten as they are available. Soybeans are used in a variety of ways—as tofu (soybean curd) or as soy sauce, a favorite flavoring. Milk products are consumed infrequently, mostly as yogurt, which spoils less easily. Pickled, smoked, and salted foods, usually fish or meats, are also common to the culture.
There is some concern that these pickled and smoked foods may irritate the gastrointestinal mucosa and, when consumed excessively, may increase the risk of stomach cancer.

This diet is lower overall in fat and higher in magnesium than the Western diet, which helps to reduce the risk and incidence of cardiovascular disease. With the high fiber and complex carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat levels, there is very little obesity and less degenerative disease in general. These people are very hard working, especially on the land, and being outdoors cultivating food also contributes to good health. The elderly poplulation seem healthier and more capable because, I believe, they have eaten well and been more connected to the earth. They are usually more involved in family care than in Westernized countries, which gives them a sense of purpose and a positive self-image.

Rice is the staple of the diet. In Chinese, the word for rice, fan (pronounced “fahn”), means “food.” White, polished rice does lose some of its nutrients, but in China, it represents status and success. It is considered a little easier to digest and utilize in the body. Peasants still consume a less refined rice with more nutrition.

Most Chinese live in rural areas and work the land. In the larger cities, where people have access to refined foods such as sugars and flour products, sugar abuse and poor nutrition from consumption of candy, sodas, and other junk foods are causing concern. But the basic diet is a fairly sound and healthy one, the product of a culture thousands of years old.

Japanese

The Japanese diet is similar to the Chinese, with the basic rice, cooked vegetables, pickled vegetables and meats, and a modest amount of animal products. Since Japan is actually a group of islands, seafood is consumed in much higher quantities than in other Asian countries. Raw fish, or sashimi, is characteristic of the Japanese cuisine. Tofu, a soybean curd, and other beans such as aduki are also used. Miso, a fermented soybean paste, is a common salty soup base. Milk products are eaten minimally, and fruits are consumed as available. Raw, fresh vegetables are consumed rarely, as is true throughout the Asian countries. Most everything is cooked (or pickled or smoked), except for raw fish. This practice may have evolved because of concern over spoilage and contamination. Japan is more westernized than other Asian countries, so concerns over an industrialized diet are present there as well. Also, the higher use of condiments, pickled, and fermented foods may offer some concerns in terms of health.

East Indian

The Indian diet is similar to the other Asian diets with its basic cooked rice and vegetables. However, in India, the major legume is lentils, rather than the soybean. Dahl is the main East Indian lentil dish. Wheat is used to make various flat and pocket breads. Curry flavoring, a hot mixed spice, is used throughout India, and fermented milk products, mainly yogurt, are also consumed regularly, often to cool down the spicy foods. Lahsi is a yogurt drink taken with meals. A more common beverage is chai, a black tea served hot or cold with added milk and sugar. White sugar is used all too commonly in India. A fair amount of fried dishes are popular. Due to heat, hygiene, and concern over food poisoning, few raw foods other than peeled fruits are eaten; most are cooked. The main cooking fat is ghee, a clarified butter. Coconut oil and coconut meat are also used in cooking in some East Indian recipes.

The cow is considered the sacred animal of India, and vegetarianism is much more common there than anywhere else in the world. However, the Hindu people tend to maintain their lactase enzyme function and thus can handle eating cow’s milk products, such as milk, yogurt and paneer, a fermented cheesecake curd made from milk. The main concern in this populated country is basic shortages of food and subsequent malnourishment.

Thai

Thai cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. This diet is very close to that of Southern China, which Thailand borders. This food can range from mild to very spicy, and the Thai people are quite artful in their use of special spices and flavors. Meals consist of white rice and mixed vegetables, along with tofu or an animal protein such as fish, chicken, pork, or beef. Since Thailand is so fertile, the fresh food, especially green vegetables, are readily available much of the year.

Other Countries

Middle Eastern
(Morocco, North Africa, Arabian Countries)

The Arabian nations consume a variant of the Indian diet, though wheat is used more than rice, eaten both as breads and crackers and as cooked wheat grain (couscous), often with peas or lentils. More types of legumes are used, including lentils, peas, and garbanzo beans. Meat, mainly lamb, is eaten regularly; with yogurt and some cheeses are an important part of the diet as well. Vegetables are usually cooked with meats. Olives are also eaten. Few fruit trees (other than date and occasionally fig) grow in these desert climes. Alcohol is forbidden by Moslem law, as is pork. Sweets are very popular, such as halvah, a sweetened sesame seed candy, as well as sugared fruits.

African
(South Africa)

The diet of the white population of South Africa is similar to that of Australia and England, with the same high consumption of meat and dairy products that leads to an increase in disease. There is also an acceptance of many of the refined foods. The traditional diet of the native black Africans is closer to the “natural” (cultural) food diet. Cultivated and gathered grains and vegetables with some hunted meats (for rural tribes) and fish for coastal tribes make up the basic diet that has supported this culture for many generations. But the acceptance of more refined foods and sugars has been to the detriment of these already malnourished people.

Mexican

The staples of this Central American country are rice, beans, and corn, with a bit of shredded beef or chicken. Tomatoes and chili peppers are particularly common, as Mexican people like their food spicy. Chili con carne is a popular dish, made with meat, chili peppers, and perhaps some vegetables. The spicy chilis stimulate the digestive function, clean the blood, and may help prevent certain degenerative diseases.

Corn is used in a variety of ways, mainly ground for tortillas or corn bread. Red beans are the most commonly used legumes. The rice used varies in its degree of refinement. The high amounts of starches in the diet, along with cerveza (beer) and tequila, makes many Mexican people fairly heavy around the waistline, although usually strong in constitution. Burritos, tostadas, tamales, and enchiladas are Mexican names for a variety of dishes, rather like sandwiches, made of meat, beans, cheese, or vegetables and corn or flour tortillas.

Refined foods have become more common in the Mexican diet. Breads, sugars, cookies, and candies are eaten more and more by young children. Hydrogenated oils and lard for cooking may be a problem too, related to obesity and atherosclerosis. The Mexican people would do better with less refined foods and more whole grains and vegetables for fiber. Fruits are plentiful and should be eaten more. Excessive alcohol intake should, of course, be avoided. Because water and food contamination is common, most foods are well cooked before eating, though eating more fresh fruits and vegetables for their cooling effect would probably be more healthy for a hot climate.

South American

The South American diet varies a bit from country to country. Most are similar to the Mexican diet, with a fair amount of corn, rice, and beans. In the wealthier countries such as Argentina and Venezuela, where cattle are raised on a large scale, beef consumption is very high. Fresh vegetables are not consumed often, though fruits are available. More dairy foods are eaten than in Mexico, but really the basic diet is meat, grains, beans, and fruit. A more natural diet with less beef consumption, both in South America and elsewhere internationally, would reduce the necessity to use rain forests as cattle feed and save these beautiful environments.

Tropical

The diet of the tropical locales such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and other ocean islands seems to be potentially very healthful. Fruit and fish are both very plentiful, though they are not usually eaten together. Some vegetables are grown and eaten, especially the sweet potato, taro root, the banana-like plantain, and breadfruit. The coconut is also popular; its inner water is drunk for nourishment by many natives before eating its meat. Coconut milk and meat are used in many tropical dishes. The island diet is generally a light one, often with more raw foods than cooked ones, appropriate for keeping energy up in these humid climates.

However, problems of malnourishment, obesity, loss of teeth, diabetes, and other diseases have increased since the islanders have adopted a more Westernized diet, consuming more refined, canned, and fried foods, sodas and other sugar products. This trend, occurring within native cultures around the world, must be addressed and changed for the peoples of this Earth to be healthier.

Jewish

Let us look at the Jewish diet, not just as an example of a special cultural diet that exists within the state of Israel, but also as an ancient ancestral diet that has been passed down through generations and across national boundaries. The Jewish people are very involved with food, and can be classic overeaters, often associating food with love and safety. Italians, other Europeans, and Mexican people also seem to share these attitudes toward food. Often, these are people who have known poverty or starvation, for whom eating to satiation represents security, contentment, and even wealth.

Most of the food eaten is cooked, often involving complex preparations. More flour products than whole grains are eaten, though buckwheat may be more common than in other cultural diets. Vegetables are eaten either in soups or with meats. Tomato soup, beet borscht, and the famous chicken noodle soup are common. Fruits are often eaten cooked, such as baked apples, stewed prunes, compotes (mixed stewed fruit), or fruit soups.

The Jewish diet usually includes only one animal protein at a meal, and, for religious reasons, the traditional menu does not include meat and milk foods at the same meal. Of the red meats, only those of cud-chewing animals, such as cattle, goats, or lambs, are eaten; pork is avoided. Roasts and beef brisket are popular cuts of beef. Chicken is eaten regularly, most often baked, broiled, or boiled for soup. Fish, usually whitefish, is consumed fairly often. Gefilte fish—balls of grain meal and whitefish—are a Kosher classic. Shellfish are usually avoided. Other common foods are potato flour pancakes (latkes), matzoh balls, kreplach, blintzes, and flour
pastries, such as apple streudel.

The Jewish diet may cause weight problems. Including more natural foods, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grain products, would increase fiber, decrease calories and sweet cravings, and help to prevent some chronic disease problems. Learning not to overeat and avoiding too many sweets are important habits to develop not just for this diet, but for any diet.

Enough Food?

Many cultures of the Western world have plenty of available food and have a tendency to excesses and the many congestive and degenerative problems that this creates. But such as the African countries, India, and China, do not have advanced agricultural technology, and still count on manual labor. Many do not have enough resources or enough usable agricultural land to feed their ever-growing populations. Even if they can grow enough food (which is often not the case), slow or nonexistent transportation may not be available to distribute food, and thus, many people are underfed. Often, they do not get enough nutritious food to support normal growth and development in young people or maintenance for adults. Malnourishment and starvation are among the greatest diseases we confront on a global basis. The high consumption of animals, who eat half of the world’s grain before they themselves are eaten, is considered a poor use of energy, poor economics, and poor sense. We need to change this focus from the excessive amounts of meat we eat to a more healthy, vegetarian-based diet; this will help reduce the destruction of our Earth, the only home we have.

Keeping people healthy enough to recultivate the earth and teaching and inspiring them to do so will go a long way toward solving one of humanity’s greatest challenges—malnourishment and starvation. Feeding the hungry babies, adults, and elderly of the world is a growing and vital concern of everyone.

Elson M. Haas MD Written by Elson M. Haas MD

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