From spices to siestas, we can learn a lot from other cultures when it comes to global health habits, says Michelle O'Connor
Eat at the table in France
‘You’d never see a French person having a TV dinner,’ says celebrity trainer and fitness author Christianne Wolff. ‘This means they are paying attention to how much they consume and aren’t eating in a rush. They typically spend two hours having a big lunch and then have a small supper. This allows time to digest and absorb the nutrients of the food and actually feel full.’
In fact, a recent study found that children who eat at the table with their families are up to 40% less likely to be overweight.
How to make it your healthy habit? Make mealtimes a family affair – when you catch up on news and spend time together. Take your time, pause between mouthfuls and savour the flavours and textures of your food.
Take a fika in Sweden
Translated literally, fika means ‘to drink coffee,’ but there’s a lot more to it than that. Anna Brones, author of Fika (£12.99, Ten Speed Press), says, ‘It’s more about taking time out to be in the moment. In Sweden, the fika tradition has been around since the 1700s and is something almost everyone does at least once a day.
‘It’s factored into work schedules (companies build in these breaks throughout the day to keep staff healthy), and even a relaxed weekend at home. Life without fika is unthinkable.’
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Make a commitment to slow down and take a break at least once a day when you simply appreciate the world around you.
It’s a great way to refresh your mind. The health benefits of ‘screen breaks’ are well known, but a recent study found that those who stopped to socialise during the day were around 15% more productive.
Get on your bike in Holland
There are more bicycles than residents in The Netherlands, and in some cities up to 70% of all journeys are made by bike. University of Utrecht scientists found that the health benefits outweigh any potential risks, such as being involved in an accident or exposure to air pollution, as regular cycling reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Swap your car for a bike for short, close-to-home journeys, and get friends and family together for a joint bike ride.
Always wear a helmet and aim to get out at least three times a week for 30 minutes. For routes near you and cycling advice, visit sustrans.org.uk.
Have a siesta in Spain
Spaniards have long extolled the benefits of an afternoon nap, which can reduce stress, help cardiovascular function and improve alertness and memory, according to a report from the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (SEMERGEN).
This echoes a NASA study which showed that when pilots were allowed to take a nap for 26 minutes during their working hours (but obviously, not while flying!) their efficiency improved by 34%.
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Shut your eyes for a maximum of 30 minutes in a comfortable armchair – not in bed – to avoid entering deep sleep. Set an alarm, just in case.
Get a regular massage in Thailand
Thai massage is different to other forms, as it’s carried out on a comfortable floor mat and the client remains fully clothed. The therapists use their hands, feet, forearms and elbows in a flowing series of moves, stretching to improve flexibility, and works on pressure points to improve circulation and increases relaxation.
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Try this DIY version to free tension in your neck. Rub your hands up and down the back of your neck. Then use your fingers to make deep, circular movements in this area, taking care not to apply pressure to the spine itself.
Practise portion control in Japan
Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world – 3.5% compared with 24.8% for Britain. That’s because the average Japanese person consumes 25% fewer calories per day compared to Westerners. The traditional Japanese diet of green tea, raw fish (sushi), wholegrains, tofu, rice, soya and vegetables is naturally healthy, but their portion sizes are also smaller.
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Stop eating at the first sign of fullness, instead of finishing your plate out of unhealthy habits. Use smaller plates and bowls and, to lose weight, keep the protein and carbohydrate content of your meals no larger than the size of your fist, advises nutritionist Sally Bee (sally-bee.com).
Make time for family in India
Indians are renowned for having supportive extended family networks and close communities. According to psychologists in the journal PLOS Medicine, this can boost a person’s health more than exercise, losing weight or quitting cigarettes and alcohol.
A review of studies into the impact of relationships on health found that people had a 50% better survival rate if they belonged to a wider social group of friends, neighbours or relatives.
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Make a point of maintaining your family and friendship ties. Plan get-togethers or activities as often as you can. It doesn’t always have to be something big – just a coffee and a catch-up can do the trick.
Try t’ai chi in China
This technique of deep breathing and slow movement has been used in China for thousands of years. Studies have shown that it can help people aged 65 and over, particularly, to reduce stress, improve balance and general mobility and increase leg muscle strength. Other research suggests it can reduce the potential for falls among older adults who are at increased risk.
How to make it one of your healthy habits? Find a class near you (taichiunion.com), or pick up a book or CD to teach yourself. Incorporating t’ai chi, or other exercises such as yoga or Pilates, into your week will help you feel noticeably calmer.
Food health habits worth following
Eat ‘real’ food: ‘France may be our next-door neighbour but their obesity and heart disease rates are far lower,’ says dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton. That’s because the French tend to eat fresh, local, seasonal food that leaves them more satisfied and less likely to snack.
Choose ‘real’ food, such as cheese, yogurt and bread, in moderation rather than low-fat/diet versions and try not to rely on packets and ready meals.
Choose fish over meat: Take inspiration from Japan and Scandinavia and opt for more fish. Recent studies have linked a high intake of red meat to bowel and breast cancer and heart disease.
Aim to eat a wide variety of fish – white (cod, haddock, pollock) are low in fat, while oily (mackerel, sardines, salmon, pilchards) are rich in heart-healthy omega-3s.
Cook with spices: Whether you love Indian curries or Mexican fajitas, eating spicy foods could help you lose weight and boost health. According to studies, turmeric could help slow Alzheimer’s, which may explain the low incidence of the disease in India. Chillies can speed up your metabolism and make you eat more slowly, giving the brain more time to register fullness.
Drink (moderately) with meals: Try adopting the Mediterranean practice of drinking a glass of red wine with a meal – and savour each sip. This is far healthier than opening a bottle while watching TV or because you’ve had a stressful day.