Diets tend to become a fad: A decade back, it was the meat-based Atkins, these days it’s veganism, or the Keto diet.
When it comes to food, however, the only trends probably worth considering are the ones steeped in tradition. In fact, most new-age foods are those our grannies tried to feed us in childhood (turmeric latte, anyone?). That’s why we have studied the healthiest indigenous diets around the world to find the lessons we can apply in everyday life.
Eat low in the food pyramid
“A plant-based approach is the only way to go looking at the future,” says Shonali Sabherwal, macrobiotic nutritionist, chef, and author of the The Detox Diet. “A vegetarian diet is known to keep your PH in balance and cellular structure detoxified at all times” she says.
The diet of Japan’s Okinawans forms the basis for today’s macrobiotic diet. Almost 80% of their food is based on carbs (sweet potatoes), and they eat almost seven servings of vegetables and two servings of grains a day. In the book The Okinawa Program : How The World’s Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health—And How You Can Too, authors Bradley J. Willcox, D. Craig Willcox and Makoto Suzuki talk about sticking to a low-fat, low-calorie diet packed with fibre and complex carbohydrates via plants and whole grains.“The Okinawa approach is to have greens at every meal,” says Sabherwal, explaining that when you eat greens the amount of chlorophyll in the body increases, detoxifying and oxygenating the blood. If you get your greens from a smoothie, she suggests you rotate your greens every week (for e.g., spinach this week, mustard greens the next) so they get absorbed better.
Familiarize yourself with indigenous grains
People of the Hunza valley—in Gilgit–Baltistan, claimed by Pakistan as its fifth province earlier this year—are known to have an average life expectancy of 120 years; they have even been known to conceive past their 60s.
In her book, Sabherwal talks about how these people have the bulkiest stool in the world—bulkier stools are easier to pass and decrease your chance of constipation. “This is because the Hunza’s diet is very high on fibre,” says Sabherwal. It’s a diet that consists mainly of barley, millet, buckwheat, and whole-wheat chapatis. In the Nordic diet (also considered one of the healthiest in the world) too, people eat a variety of whole grains, be it rye, oats or spelt. “Carbs are extremely essential, be it for energy or absorption of protein—it’s just that we need to choose them wisely,” says Rashmi Shetty, a Mumbai-based dermatologist and author of the book Age Erase: Your Ultimate Beauty Bible To Ageing Gracefully. While refined flour or white rice are completely devoid of fibre, don’t think that the solution lies in substituting these with brown rice or whole-wheat bread. Add some buckwheat (kuttu) groats into your soup, make a ragi porridge, or try a jowar roti if you really want to change what you eat.
Don’t forget the beans
A study published in Lancet Global Health in 2015 assessed dietary quality in 187 countries. A West African diet, based on beans, legumes and vegetables, was considered the healthiest. “Legumes are highly anti-inflammatory in nature,” says Anjali Hooda, Delhi-based functional medicine and metabolic doctor at Fortis Hospital. Disease always begins with inflammation—and not only do beans contain massive amounts of antioxidants, they also have a high fibre and protein content.“But don’t cook your legumes and beans Indian style—instead, germinate them as sprouts, boil and toss them into salads, or minimally process them to hold on to the nutrients,” advises Dr Hooda.
Restrict calorie consumption
The Okinawan mantra—hara hachi bu—encouraged them to eat until they were 80% full. The Hunzas survive on a 1,900-calorie diet. “I believe that you should never restrict calories too much, but that said, if your foods are nutritionally dense, then you will feel fuller faster,” says Sabherwal.
Processed and refined foods are empty calories. When you eat these vitamin-deficient foods, your body tends to store all the fats because fat is the best reserve against starvation. “These days people are drinking protein shakes and nutrient drinks, but it’s better to eat unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods,” explains Sabherwal. The Okinawans’ main food is the deep purple-coloured sweet potato, the Hunzas eat huge amounts of apricot and its seeds, and the Nordic people enjoy berries, grains such as spelt and rye, and wild-caught salmon. The idea is to stick to your own locally available nutrient-rich foods—and in India we are certainly not lacking in variety.
Fasting keeps you healthy
From recommending six small meals a day, the world is now waking up to the benefits of intermittent fasting. Traditionally, we too have understood its benefits. The south Indian diet is considered one of the healthiest by all the experts quoted in this story. “To me it is the best diet,” says Shetty. “And traditionally, we ate only two full meals a day—breakfast would be red rice, milk, eggs and ghee, and dinner would again be heavy, with complex carbs, lentils, vegetables and good fats.” Shetty herself has followed this style of eating “And at 45, I still fit into the jeans I used to wear when I was 18.”
The Hunzas eat only twice a day and fast regularly, just like the Okinawans. And on the Greek island of Ikaria, considered a Blue Zone—defined as a place where the environment is conducive to old age, and one of the few places around the world where people tend to live long—people fast for weeks. A 2017 study published in Science Translational Medicine, and conducted by the University of Southern California, found that fasting had the capacity to slow down ageing and reduce disease.
Use locally available oils
The healthiest diets around the world are based on locally available oils. People in the Mediterranean use olive, the Nordic people, rapeseed, south Indians, coconut, and the Hunzas, apricot. Somewhere along the way, however, most of us have forgotten the virtue of our own home-grown oils.
“Any oil which is first pressed and unrefined is good,” says Sabherwal. “When you look at India, there’s sesame, coconut, mustard, groundnut and ghee, all of which when cold-pressed are extremely healthy. What’s more, they also have a high smoking point suited to Indian cooking.”
Shetty also advises using traditional oils instead of olive oil or canola, which are imported. “Eat local because that’s what your body knows (how) to digest and assimilate best,” she says.
Use meats like condiments
Whether it’s the Hunzas, the Okinawans or the West Africans, their meat consumption is low. In Okinawa, bits of pork are added to soups for flavour, in West Africa meat is used in stews along with beans and veggies. And the Hunzas eat very small quantities of chicken. “I agree with this completely,” says Sabherwal. “When we use meat as a condiment, we are balancing the acidic component of meat.”
Our body composition, she explains, is not ideal for breaking down large amounts of meats. What’s more, the human body is naturally alkaline. Meats are acidic in nature—and this increases inflammation in the body.