Food lessons from around the world

This blog has been neglected of late. Blame it on a combination of work stress, learning how to live in a foreign city, and quite simply, a lack of ideas of what to blog on. Cue 2016, and apart from the stress of remembering to write “16” instead of “15” as the date, reflections on the who’s, what, when, what’s and why of life have filled my mind. 

I've realised it’s time to get back to the basics of what this blog is about. For me, it was created to be a celebration of cultures, of food, and of how people all over the world nourish themselves. What we do well and what we can learn from others. So instead of focussing on a fancy new topic, it's time I got back to that. As new years reflections take place (in between artistically turing the ‘5’ into a ‘6’), is there something you can learn from one of our sexily-accented neighbours when it comes to what we eat, why we eat it, and how we eat it? 

Teachings from the French

French women don’t get fat. It’s gotta be true, coz someone wrote a book on it, right? Luckily stats back-up this claim - obesity rates in France are among the lowest in the developing world, with about 40% of people overweight or obese in France. Obesity rates are relatively low among children too, and have not been growing over the past 20 years. In a nutshell, part of this can be attributed to their celebration and love of food, not fearing it. Fearing food causes it to be restricted- then obsessed over- then binged on- then feeling like a failure- then restricting. AKA The Circle of the Diet Industry. French people only eat small amounts of treat foods, but eat them regularly- preventing the restrict/binge cycle. Cheese is eaten daily, but French manners suggest you only take one helping of cheese from the board. Dark chocolate is the chocolate of choice, again, instead of half a block of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, only a small amount is consumed. In short, stop when satisfied. Similarly, French food is often bought from markets and butchers and bakeries- it is 'real food', food your grandparents would recognise (as opposed to boxes of aluminium wrapped cheese flavoured biscuits bought from supermarkets). So eating cheese and baguettes with mindfulness and moderation probably isn’t the worst New Years resolution you could make. Throw in the French accent for extra effect.

Teachings from the Italians

It’s no surprise I’m both biased and passionate about the Mediterranean Diet- this is certainly not the first time I’ve harped on about the way it can help you lose weight, reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And it is damn tasty. The Mediterranean Diet is NOT fettuccini carbonara and capricciosa pizza day in, day out. It’s olive oil as the main fat, it’s lashings of salads and vegetables on your plate, with fish or legumes, it’s red meat only occasionally, it’s cheese and milk every day (in moderation) and it’s drinking wine without getting drunk. And it’s the inspiration for my Prawn and Vegetable Paella (based off Ottolenghi’s recipe in his cookbook ‘Plenty’). The Mediterranean Diet is the diet of not only Italians, but the Greek and Spanish and this Paella is one of Spain’s most famous dishes. It’s an all in one dish- carbohydrates from the rice, good fats from the olives and oil, protein from the seafood and beans, and a heap of nutrients from the array of veggies. 

Teachings from the Japanese

The small, remote island of Okinawa, Japan is where you’ll find the world’s largest population of healthy older adults- adults whose lifestyles have been studied since 1975 so that we can unlock their secrets to living longer. What has been attributed to their low, low rates of disease? They eat on average three servings of fish a week, plenty of whole grains, vegetables and soy products and more tofu and konbu seaweed than anyone else in the world. Fish and soy, two food groups that the Western world tends to lack, can be two hints we can take from the Okinawaese. There is a common fear that soy products should be avoided due to their perceived increase in cancers. Soy contains large amounts of phyto-oestrogens which are plant chemicals that mimic the hormone oestrogen, although on a much weaker scale. However no studies on humans have found that eating soy as part of a healthy diet can be harmful. In fact, research on Asian women has found phyto-oestrogens actually have a protective effect against breast cancer. So mix things up with some good-quality soy milk, tofu, miso, edamame and tempeh into your diet. Throw in some chop sticks the way the Japanese do and it’ll slow down your eating too- a two for one deal!

Teachings from Cambodia

Trekking though this remarkable country as a bright-eyed bushy tailed 21 year old, the impacts of malnutrition were not easy to ignore. Children crippled with rickets (soft and weakened bones due to a lack of vitamin D, calcium or phosphorus), and 6 year olds who I could have sworn were no more than 3 years of age due to their stunted growth, were two harsh realities of life in developing countries. This should not be occurring in the 21st century. In a world where there IS enough food to feed everyone (for the world as a whole, per capita food availability has risen from about 2220 kcal/person/day in the early 1960s to 2790 kcal/person/day in 2006-08), around 1 billion people go to bed hungry. This country taught me of the injustice that is a basic human right- chronic undernourishment. Sure, “finishing your dinner because there are starving children in Africa” isn’t going to help. Bigger picture things like empowering women and reducing poverty is needed, but on a smaller scale, eating less meat will contribute. Why? Meat production is a wasteful use of the planet's limited resources – 40% of grain crops are going to feed livestock and fish. It is most inefficient with intensive beef farming, where it has been shown that just 2.5% of the feed given to cattle emerges as calories for our consumption. Beef farming also uses up valuable land and damages the earth so it is unable to grow crops, forcing people who live rurally and once farmed to move into cities, compounding the poverty cycle. Meatless Monday’s for all!

Teachings from the US

More root beer, supersized fries with your burger, and extra jelly with your PB- surely that’s all the US has to teach us, right? Give the country some credit- believe it or not, the McLovin’ US is home to one of the world’s longest living populations. In a Californian town called Loma Linda, the majority of residents are Seventh-day Adventists- practising a life predominately vegetarian based, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and rich foods. Though this is not dissimilar to other populations we can take note from, a key part of this group’s lifestyle and longevity is the Sabbath. For 24 hours once a week there is dedicated time to rest, abstaining from electronics, and de-stressing from the week. There is no doubt that with all the emphasis on “clean eating” we are lacking the basics- health is about more than kale. It’s about nourishing your mind as well as your body, and without doing so our mental health as well as our quality of life can suffer.

 Teachings from Down Under

What do we as Aussies do well? Let’s go!

1. We add beetroot to our burgers. However, to be honest as a nation we don’t do this enough. In 2011/12, only 8.2% of Aussies met the guideline for daily vegetable intake (5 serves per day). So add the beetroot and while you’re at it add the extra lettuce and tomato to your burger, to your sandwich, and really, to each and every meal!

2. We add Vegemite to our toast. Controversial, and I’m not just talking about the taste. Whilst high in salt, a serve of Vegemite only provides 8% of the Upper Limit of sodium. Its benefits lie in the fact it also provides 25-50% the Recommended Daily Intake of thiamin (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin (Vitamin B3) and folate, taking the standard toast with margarine into a much more nutrient-packed slice of bread. Mix it with some avo, cheese, or tomato, and it’ll put a rose in every cheek! 

3. Our national emblem is nutritious and delicious. Kangaroo is a fan-bloody-tastic source of red meat in our diets (no pun intended). It is impressively low in fat, with less than 2% fat (much lower than beef or lamb)- as well as low in undesirable saturated fats and a good source of heart-friendly omega-3’s, as well as zinc and iron. AND it’s good for the environment- kangaroos are open range animals and the meat we eat is not farmed. Therefore kangaroo meat is never exposed to human intervention, antibiotics, added growth hormones or added chemicals. Being a native animal, they are designed to live in the Aussie environment and do not damage it the way the hooves of cows do.

4. Weet Bix. Aussie kids are Weet Bix kids. Well, if they all were, I guarantee Australia’s health would be in a better state. I’m a huge fan of these little cardboard/brick-like cereal bowl fillers, and they are most definitely in my top 5 commercial breakfast cereals (oats, All Bran and a decent muesli join it). 2 Weet Bix have only ONE GRAM of added sugar to it, and meets around 10% of our daily fibre intake and 25% of daily iron intake. Add milk, add banana, perfecto.

5. Tim Tams. Double coat, to be exact. Yes these are processed and are high in sugar and high in fat, but they’re Aussie and they're my weakness.

So in a nutshell: Let’s aim for a 2016 with more veg, less meat. More mindfulness, less food shaming. Foods grandma recognises. And the occasional Tim Tam. 

Take me to Prawn and Vegetable Paellla