We all know the importance of eating healthily. But if you’re planning to move abroad, you could find yourself faced with a whole new way of eating – for better or worse.
In this article, we will explore some of the healthiest diets in the world and the scientific evidence behind why they lead to a longer life. From the Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil and whole foods, to the Okinawan diet centred around soybeans and fish, we delve into the key components of each diet and the benefits they offer.
The top 10 healthiest diets in the world
Determining the top 10 healthiest diets in the world can be a complex task, as there are many different cultural, nutritional, and environmental factors that can impact the healthfulness of a particular diet. It’s also important to note that it is entirely possible to eat healthily in any country, so long as you make the right food choices and eat in moderation.
To find the top 10 healthiest diets in the world, we’ve looked at scientific and medical resources, including nutritional data and proven benefits of key ingredients. We’ve also taken into account the rates of obesity, prevalence of chronic health conditions and life expectancy in the countries associated with our top ten diets.
1/ Okinawan diet – Japan
Widely considered to be one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Okinawan diet has numerous health benefits. So much so that Japan has the lowest obesity rates and second longest life expectancy of any developed country.
The Okinawan diet is centred around fish, seafood, tofu, and other nutrient-rich ingredients. It’s also extremely low in processed foods. Some of the key factors contributing to the healthfulness of the Okinawan diet include its emphasis on soy and fresh fish, resulting in low intakes of saturated fats, inclusion of antioxidant rich foods such as seaweed and sweet potatoes, and foods with a low glycaemic index, helping to regulate blood sugar and aid healthy digestion.
Another notable characteristic of the Okinawan diet is the small portion sizes. This in turn leads to a lower calorie intake, which has been linked to increased longevity and reduced risk of chronic health problems.
Key foods in the Okinawan diet
Fish, seafood, sweet potato, seaweed, kelp, bitter melon, soy beans and rice.
2/ Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is another diet celebrated as one of the healthiest diets in the world. It’s characterised by its emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods and a low intake of red meats and dairy. Being rich in antioxidants and low in meat and animal fats, the Mediterranean diet is said to help lower the risk of certain cancers, including breast, colorectal and prostate cancer.
Another benefit of the Mediterranean diet is that it has been linked to improved blood sugar control and may therefore help to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The Mediterranean lifestyle also promotes physical activity, regular meals, and social interaction around food creating a further positive effect on weight management, helping to reduce the risk of obesity.
Finally, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to good brain health and improved cognitive function. With omega-3 rich fish a staple of the Mediterranean diet, it has been shown to help ‘cleanse the brain’ and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Key foods in the Mediterranean diet
Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, seafood and olive oil.
3/ Nordic diet
The Nordic diet is a strong contender for one of the healthiest diets in the world for both people and for the planet. The Nordic diet typically focuses on minimally processed, locally sourced foods found in the Nordic countries – Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Fish and seasonal vegetables are key players in the Nordic diet, making it both naturally rich in nutrients and sustainable.
The Nordic diet has been associated with a range of health benefits, including improved heart health thanks to being high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids from fish, nuts and seeds, and low in saturated fats. It can also help to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and improve cholesterol levels.
Owing to its focus on whole foods and plant-based proteins, the Nordic diet may also lower the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Key foods in the Nordic diet
Locally sourced fish, seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
4/ Greek cuisine
Greece is without a doubt one of the countries with the healthiest diets, owing to its culture of balanced and healthy eating that emphasises whole, high protein foods, with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
One of the main benefits of Greek cuisine is its use of healthy fats like olive oil and nuts, which are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats have been shown to be beneficial for heart health, cholesterol levels and reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of heart-related disorders, strokes, diabetes and obesity.
It’s no wonder that the Greeks have such a great life expectancy – averaging 85 years old for women, and 80 for men.
Key foods in the Greek diet
Protein including pork, poultry, lamb and goat, fresh herbs and vegetables, olive oil, cheeses and yoghurt.
5/ West African cuisine
Known for its diverse and flavourful dishes made with fresh whole foods and traditional cooking methods, West African cuisine is a strong competitor for the world’s most nutritious food.
West African cuisine offers all sorts of rich and complex flavours, owing to its abundance of fresh herbs and spices including ginger, garlic, cumin, and coriander. These ingredients not only add flavour, but have excellent health benefits too, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help to lower the risk of certain cancers.
West African cooking emphasises balanced meals that feature a variety of food groups, helping to provide the body with the energy it needs to function properly. However, it’s not just about the ingredients.
One of the key things that sets West African food apart is its use of traditional cooking methods such as grilling, roasting, and steaming, which help to preserve the nutritional value of the ingredients, while minimising intake of saturated fats.
Key foods in the West African diet
Sweet potatoes, plantains, rice, fruit and vegetables such as ackee, jackfruit, aubergine and papaya, spices and chillies.
6/ French diet
Another unlikely country with healthy food is France. The French diet is often referred to as ‘the French Paradox’, which refers to the fact that despite consuming a diet high in saturated fats, the French have a lower incidence of heart disease than other Western countries.
There are several reasons why the French diet is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world – though that may be less related to the ingredients and more to do with the country’s culture around food.
In France, mealtimes are an important cornerstone of the local culture. As such, the French tend to take their time with their food, helping them be more mindful of their food choices. Eating slowly can also aid digestion and prevent overeating.
Portion control is another factor. French cuisine often focuses on smaller portions, which can help individuals maintain a healthy weight.
Key foods in the French diet
Full-fat cheese, yoghurt butter, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, small portions of meat.
7/ Korean diet
South Korea has the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. But what’s the secret to their excellent health record?
A colourful and flavoursome cuisine, the Korean diet is often considered one of the healthiest diets in the world due to its emphasis on vegetables and fermented foods. It also uses low-fat protein sources such as tofu, seafood, and poultry, which are lower in calories and saturated fat compared to red meat.
The probiotics in fermented foods like kimchi contain beneficial bacteria that can support gut health, aid nutrient absorption and boost the immune system. This can in turn reduce the risk of a range of health issues including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Key foods in the Korean diet
Rice, vegetables, soy beans, tofu, seafood, fish, kimchi and spices.
8/ Thai cuisine
Not only does Thai cuisine make a flavoursome meal, it’s also packed full of some of the world’s most nutritious foods. Brimming with fresh, nutrient-ingredients like vegetables and fruits, Thai cuisine is known for its balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavours, helping to satisfy cravings and prevent overeating.
Naturally low in saturated fat, Thai cuisine often includes healthy fat alternatives such as coconut milk and oil, which are a good source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that help to aid weight loss and support brain function.
Thai cuisine also incorporates a variety of herbs and spices, such as lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, and chilli peppers. These ingredients have been linked to a range of health benefits, including improved digestion, reduced inflammation, and lower blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of heart and digestive related diseases.
Key foods in the Thai diet
Colourful vegetables, noodles, rice, coconut milk, shrimp, tofu, chicken, herbs and spices.
9/ Italian diet
Who doesn’t love Italian food? And no, we’re not talking about frozen pizza. Real Italian cuisine is a goldmine for vitamins and minerals. With a focus on fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables, the Italians know exactly how to match nutrition with flavour.
The Italian diet includes a variety of whole grains, such as whole wheat pasta, bread, and farro, which are a good source of fibre and important nutrients like B vitamins and iron, essential for healthy blood as well as being associated with lower risks of stress and chronic fatigue.
Another reason Italian cuisine is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world is its low intake of processed and packaged foods, which can be high in added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats. Instead, the Italian diet includes healthy fats such as olive oil, which is a good source of monounsaturated fats, and nuts, which are a good source of polyunsaturated fats. These fats have been linked to a range of health benefits, including improved heart health and a lower risk of strokes.
Key foods in the Italian diet
Whole grains, tomatoes, vegetables, fish, poultry, olive oil, cheese and fresh herbs.
10/ Indian diet
Last on our list of top 10 healthiest diets in the world is the Indian diet. In India, meals are all about balancing flavour, incorporating a variety of spices, such as turmeric, cumin coriander, and ginger, all of which have their own unique health benefits aiding everything from digestion to immune function.
Indian cuisine uses a selection of healthy fats such as ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil, which can help improve cholesterol levels and support brain health. Meanwhile, the Indian diet’s emphasis on vegetarian and vegan protein sources make many dishes low in saturated fat and help keep caloric intake down.
If you’re used to the take-away curries found in many Western countries, which tend to use creamy, fatty sauces as their staple flavouring, you may be surprised to learn that authentic Indian food can be very different to what you’re used to. Local Indian cuisine is rich in nutrients, low in fat, uses meat sparingly and contains no dairy.
Key foods in the Indian diet
Grains, lentils, lean meat, vegetables, ghee, herbs and spices.
The most unhealthy diets in the world
It is difficult to say definitively which countries have the unhealthiest diets, as dietary habits and patterns can vary greatly within a single country.
However, some countries have been criticised for having high rates of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic health problems that are often associated with unhealthy diets. So now to name and shame the worst offenders:
It’s been found that in the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds – that’s about 805,000 heart attacks every year. While shocking, this is sadly unsurprising when you consider what the average American diet looks like.
The diet in the United States has been criticised for being high in processed foods, unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and animal products, and low in fibre, fruits, and vegetables. As such, the United States has the 12th highest obesity rate in the world at 36.2% (for comparison, obesity rates in the United Kingdom average around 27.8%).
For the average American adult, 36% of their daily calories come from fat, 47% from carbs and 22% from sugar.
Key foods in the American diet
Fried foods, high-fat dairy, processed meat (such as bacon and deli meats), red meat and refined grain.
While on paper the Mexican diet is not traditionally unhealthy, Mexico has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.
Mexican cuisine does a lot right in terms of ingredients, with vegetables, beans and grilled meats all staples of the local diet. However, where it falls down is its heavy reliance on fried foods, and its large portion sizes.
Mexican dishes, such as tortilla chips and deep-fried taquitos, are scarily high in unhealthy fats, calories, and sodium, contributing to high blood pressure, cholesterol and any number of weight and heart-related health issues.
Meanwhile, when it comes to portion sizes, Mexico goes big, which has contributed to a culture of overeating and weight gain.
Are you covered?
Knowing you have international health insurance that suits your circumstances and gives you access to the best possible care overseas can give you some much needed peace of mind. But it’s essential to check cover limits carefully, as not all global health insurance plans offer the same benefits.
At William Russell, we offer international health insurance that covers you for everything from minor injuries to long hospital stays. Speak to our award-winning customer service team today to see if our policies could be right for you.