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Healthy lessons from global cuisines

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
Posted: November 2012

Health practitioners have long praised the Mediterranean diet, which favours lots of vegetables, grains and fish, not too much meat, and plenty of olive oil.

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Cara Rosenbloom, RD
One healthy lesson many North Americans could learn: Simply taking time to enjoy our meals.

People around the world have adopted this eating pattern as a way to combat heart disease and stroke.

But the Mediterranean diet is not the only eating style that we can learn from. Many other cultures have healthy lessons easy to adapt for Canadian dinner plates.

Go meatless

From rich Indian lentil dhal to spicy refried beans in Mexico to savoury Middle Eastern hummus, legumes play a central role in many cuisines. Rich in fibre, beans are a powerful ally in the fight against high cholesterol. Plus, they contain no saturated fat but are high in protein and iron, which makes them a healthy substitute for meat.

Think beyond bean salad and experiment with main dishes like Mexican bean burrito casserole and Confetti vegetable and bean tortilla stack.

Spice it up

Many global cuisines use an array of herbs and spices to add flavour without adding too much salt. With the right herbs, even a simple dish of chicken, rice and broccoli can transport your taste buds around the world. Find your favourites among these options:

  • Caribbean: Allspice, ginger, thyme, cayenne
  • Chinese: Star anise, Chinese five spice powder, garlic, Szechuan peppercorns
  • Horn of Africa: Chillies, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, sage, nutmeg
  • Indian: Cumin, cardamom, ginger, curry
  • Mediterranean: Oregano, mint, garlic, basil
  • Mexican: Chili, cilantro, cumin, oregano
  • Moroccan: Saffron, mint, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, turmeric
  • Thai: Coriander, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, basil

Cinnamon, cloves, cumin and turmeric contain protective antioxidants, which may help reduce inflammation and ward off heart disease and diabetes. A teaspoon of cinnamon provides more antioxidants than a half-cup of blueberries! Try Cinnamon apple bread pudding.

Help us fund health promotion programs to reduce the prevalence of heart disease and stroke. Please donate generously today.

Cut the fat

Sadly, we’re a culture stuck on French fries and donuts, which are created through the heart-unfriendly process of deep-frying. There are better ways to cook! Many of the world’s healthiest cuisines use unsaturated fats from oil rather than saturated butter or lard, and use low-fat cooking methods.

Chinese food has popularized the stir-fry, which involves high-heat cooking using a scant amount of oil to produce tender-crisp meat and vegetables.

Grilling and broiling are low-fat methods used in Indonesian satay skewers, Turkish shish kebab and Japanese yakitori. When meat is cooked on an open grill the saturated fat drips out, rendering a final dish that is lower in total fat. Try Chicken shish kabobs.

However, grilling some meats can produce cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). To reduce HCAs, continuously turn meat over on a high heat source and remove any charred bits. Using rubs or marinades on meat, especially ones that contain garlic, fruit juice, olive oil and/or rosemary, can help decrease HCAs by up to 70 per cent.

Slow-cooking at low temperatures is another healthy cooking method. It is common in Morocco, where chicken or meat is cooked with fruit, vegetables and spices in an earthenware container called a tagine. Try our Moroccan beef tagine with apricots.

Slow down

In Japan, meals are presented like a work of art and are savoured slowly and appreciated for their beauty. In Italy, meals are about spending time with family and friends. In Argentina, people leave work midday to have lunch with their families.

In North America? Meals are often an afterthought between hockey and ballet. According to Statistics Canada, almost 25 per cent of Canadian household food dollars are spent in restaurants. On any given day, 30 per cent of kids living in North America visit a fast food establishment.

Instead of rushing through your next meal, take the time to consider the flavours and textures, and to enjoy your dinner companions too!

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