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Irish Diets V's Japanese & Mediterranean Diets

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Two of the healthiest diets would be the Mediterranean diet and the Japanese.

In Japan they have one of the lowest obesity rates in the world about 3% of their adults are termed obese where we have a rate of 18% also the average life expectancy is 86 in Japan with Japanese women living the longest of all nations. Our life expectancy is 76.8yrs for men and 81.6 for females.

Also scientists have found that mental disorders are less common in the Mediterranean countries than in those of northern Europe and scientists believe the reason may lie with the diet.

Nutritionist Paula Mee

BSc., Dip Dietetics., MSc in Health Sciences., Dip Allergy, M.I.N.D.I.

From Galway, Paula graduated from University College Galway with a BSc in Biochemistry. She then completed her postgraduate qualifications in Dietetics and a Masters in Health Science in Leeds Metropolitan University.

Paula has recently been awarded a Diploma in Allergy from Southampton University. She has also completed the British Dietetic Association's Sports Dietitian course. She is a current member and a past president of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.

Paula Mee, Nutrition Consulting was set up in 2004 and offers organisations an extensive range of services in nutrition, product development, and marketing communications.

As part of her working week she also operates a dietetic and weight management clinic.

Paula was one of the presenters of RTE TV's Health Squad programme which ran from 2002 to 2006. Paula is the author of Good Food, Great Life 2008 and a co-author of the Health Squad Guide to Health and Fitness 2005. Her website is

A look at our Irish Diet:

Saturated fat
. Danish pastries, muffins and cream and choc doughnuts

In Ireland we eat too much saturated and trans fat which increases our risk of obesity and coronary heart disease. We have inadequate intakes of essential fats and healthy monounsaturated fats. Some fat soluble vitamins are also very low in the Irish diet such as vitamin D.

. Processed meats (salami, pepperoni, sausage, billy roll, hotdogs)

We eat a lot of animal protein, and not enough oily fish and peas, beans and legumes. Out portions of meat are very big and younger people eat a lot of processed meat which really doesn't have the iron and nutrient profile of leaner cuts of meat. The fat and salt hidden in these processed meats can help to raise our cholesterol and blood pressure and puts us at risk of heart disease.

. White bread, white rolls, white rice, chips, pot noodles, soft drinks, sweets

Our carbohyrates are very refined and processed meaning that often they are missing vital fibre, B vitamins and chromium. These are not as satisfying as wholegrain versions and are unhelpful when trying to regulate our blood sugar and hunger. An excess of 'empty' calories from refined carbohydrates can put us at risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

. Beer, wine, stout, alcopops

For many, our alcohol intake is very high and we get a lot of unwanted calories in these beverages. Moderation is not a word we like and we can't excuse ourselves by blaming the bad weather, our gregarious nature or our stress levels!

So what we can learn from healthier diets across the world: we are going to take a look at two of the healthier diets. Mediterranean and Japanese and see what we can learn from them:

Mediterranean Diet

Most healthy diets like the Med Diet, include more fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains than the Irish diet. They also limit unhealthy fats.

Key components of the Mediterranean diet include:

. Eating lots more fruits and vegetables and legumes
. Consuming healthier fats such as olive oil and canola oil
. Eating small portions of nuts
. Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavour foods
. Consuming very small portion of red meat less frequently than we do
. Eating fish or shellfish at least twice a week
. Drinking red wine, in moderation, for some

Health Benefits

Here are some of the health benefits that scientists have found when they studied those who'd closely followed the Mediterranean Diet:

. Increased longevity - i.e. a reduced chance of death at any age - due mainly to reductions in the chance of developing, having a recurrence of, or dying from heart disease or cancer1
. Reduction in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or raised blood cholesterol, each of which are associated with heart disease as well as other serious complications2
. Reduction in the risk of becoming obese3
. Reduction in the risk of developing Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease4, 5

Further to this research, a recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry 2009, was the first to examine the association between overall diet and depression. It found that people who ate a diet high in Mediterranean-style foods, such as pulses, fruits, nuts, cereals, fish and olive oil were 30% less likely to develop depression than those who ate less healthy foods.

In this study researchers from University College, London studied 3,486 participants over five years. The participants had an average age of 55, and worked in civil service departments in London. Each answered questions about their eating habits and completed a self-assessment for depression.

The research team identified two dietary patterns. Those with the highest intake of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and fish, were less likely to report depression symptoms later on.

Those eating a lot of processed meat, chocolate, sweetened desserts, fried foods, refined cereals and high fat dairy, were seen to be more vulnerable to depression.

The clear distinction remained even after the researchers had accounted for factors like smoking, level of physical activity, and body mass.

These findings are particularly relevant for people recovering from mild or moderate depression, who might not realise that simply by making changes to their diet they can help improve their mood.

Let's look at some typical foods from the Mediterranean Diet

Olives - we often forget that olive oil comes from these tasty little treats! They are delicious as a snack or in a salad, casserole or pasta dish, and ten olives contains just 103 calories. They have monounsaturated fats which can help to lower our LDL bad cholesterol and raise our good HDL cholesterol. They are also a source of fibre, which is important in the fight against many cancers.

Feta Cheese - popular in Greece, feta is usually made from Sheep's or Goat's milk. High in calcium and lower in calories, fat and saturated fat than cheddar cheese, this is a sharp tasting cheese that will give lots of flavour to salads, pasta dishes, sandwiches etc.
Many Mediterranean countries have a similar fat content to Irish people, but they eat the right type of fat e.g. they eat cheese but perhaps more of the lower fat versions. They also use more olive oil instead of the butter and spreads we use.

Hummus (e.g. Old McDonnell's Farm coriander & chilli) - made from chickpeas which are a source of soluble fibre which may help to lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol. Also contains olive oil, rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats which can help to lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol and increase levels of healthy HDL cholesterol. This helps to decrease their risk of heart disease.

Sardines - sardines are oily fish with omega-3 essential fatty acids. These types of fats can be anti-inflammatory as opposed to too much saturated and n6 fats in the diet which can be pro-inflammatory. Sardines are also a source of iron and high in calcium.

Red wine /grapes (alternatively pomegranate) - Researchers think antioxidants in red wine, grapes and pomegranates, such as flavonoids or a substance called resveratrol, have promising heart-healthy benefits. The antioxidant properties of red wine in particular is interesting. However, the amount of wine you drink matters tremendously. If you drink more than what's recommended, the health benefits are lost and your health risks increase.

The Japanese Diet:

The traditional Japanese diet is high in soyabean products, high in fish, and low in red meat. Japanese people enjoy one of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world -according to the International Obesity Task Force. It is only 3% in comparison to our Irish figure of 18%.

One reason for this may be in the way that Japanese dining encourages you to "eat with your eyes" by enjoying the beauty of your food. The result is that you slow down at mealtimes, savour every bite and ultimately, eat less, because eating slowly gives your brain time to realise your stomach is full. Another aspect of Japanese food is that food is served on separate small plates and bowls instead of on one big plate.

According to research, a lifetime of eating tuna, sardines, salmon and other fish appears to protect Japanese men against clogged arteries, despite other cardiovascular risk factors. One study suggests that the protection comes from omega-3 fatty acids found in abundance in oily fish1. In the first international study of its kind, researchers found that compared to middle-aged white men or Japanese-American men living in the United States, Japanese men living in Japan had twice the blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids-a finding that was independently linked to low levels of atherosclerosis.

The high intake of fish is also linked with lower levels of colorectal cancer2.

The Japanese have traditionally been at low risk of breast cancer but breast cancer incidence in Japan has recently increased, believed to partly attributed to the adoption of a more Western diet.

In Okinawa, pork might explain why the city is a cold spot for breast and prostate cancers. A local study of centenarians found that residents had high blood levels of proline and glycine, two compounds that assist in the regeneration of normal tissue and can be traced to the collagen and elastin in pork. The selenium in pork also contains an essential mineral that helps form a cancer-fighting enzyme in the breast and prostate. Okinawans stay healthy by eating mostly the lean meat, and sparingly at that.

Let's look at some typical foods from the Japanese Diet:

Edamame Dip (M&S) - made from soyabeans (aka edamame beans)

Tofu - natural soya products like tofu and edamame beans are a great protein alternative to red meat because they have little or no saturated fat. They are high in protein and contain substances that can help to lower the bad LDL cholesterol.

Green Tea - Green tea is served at the end of traditional Japanese meals. Green tea is a rich source of flavonoids and polyphenols, namely epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is a potent antioxidant that appears to be responsible for many of green tea's health benefits. These wonder nutrients scavenge for damaging free radicals which oxidize the bad cholesterol and deposit it on the inside of blood vessels, leading to athersclerosis and heat disease.

Bok Choy - Bok Choy is a member of the cabbage family and quite popular in Asian cuisine. Also known as Chinese white cabbage, among other names, it is frequently found in wonton soup and many stir-fry dishes ordered in Japanese and Chinese restaurants. Mildly flavored with a tender sweetness, bok choy is a welcome accompaniment to many meals without being overpowering. It can be found fresh year-round in supermarkets.

Important health benefits that have been associated with consuming bok choy include its abilities to aid in healthy digestion. It is high in vitamin A, vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium and dietary fiber. The leafy vegetable also contains potassium and vitamin B6

Seaweed - Seaweeds like kelp, wakame, arame and dulse are commonly used to make Japanese salads and are added to soups, stews and other dishes. Seaweed is also used as a wrap for sushi. Seaweed tastes similar to leafy green vegetables, with an underlying salty, sea flavour.

Seaweed contains the broadest range of minerals of any food - the same minerals found in the ocean and in human blood, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and iodine.

Seaweed also contains vitamin C, fibre, beta-carotene, and pantothenic acid and riboflavin - two B-vitamins needed for your body to produce energy

We can't claim the Mediterranean diet is better than the Japanese diet but I can say that it's more applicable to the way we eat and the type of foods we like.
Looking elsewhere for answers about a healthy diet is a helpful exercise in learning what can help prevent diseases and promote longevity. But looking beyond our borders for diet secrets is helpful, but cutting down the amount we already eat matters even more.

Mediterranean References:

1. Trichopoulou A, Orfanos P, Norat T, et al; Modified Mediterranean diet and survival: EPIC-elderly prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2005 Apr 30;330(7498):991.

2. Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, et al; Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. BMJ. 2008

3. Mendez MA, Popkin BM, Jakszyn P, et al; Adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced 3-year incidence of obesity. J Nutr. 2006 Nov;136(11):2934-8.

4. Gao X, Chen H, Fung TT, et al; Prospective study of dietary pattern and risk of Parkinson disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Nov;86(5):1486-94.

5. Scarmeas N, Luchsinger JA, Mayeux R, et al; Mediterranean diet and Alzheimer disease mortality. Neurology. 2007 Sep 11;69(11):1084-93.

6. Akbaraly, T; Brunner, E; Ferrie, J; Marmot, M; Kivimaki, M; Singh-Maoux, A. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2009), 195, 408-413

Japanese references

1. Sekikawa et al. Marine-Derived n-3 Fatty Acids and Atherosclerosis in Japanese, Japanese-American, and White Men: A Cross-Sectional Study. J Am Coll Cardiol, 2008 52: 417-424

2. Kimura Y et al. Meat, fish and fat intake in relation to subsite-specific risk of colorectal cancer: The Fukuoka Colorectal Cancer Study. Cancer Sci. 2007 Apr;98(4):590-7.

Paula Mee