The world's best and worst diets revealed
Kate Quilton travelled the globe to countries with 80pc obesity — and one where a village has found the secret of eternal youth in search of the world's best and worst diets.
I’m in hospital to see my dad. He’s sitting up and chatting away like he’s propping up the bar at his local — but he’s here because his heart has failed.
Dad drinks, smokes and eats a poor diet. The kind of diet I wouldn’t serve to a dog. But he is not alone. He is surrounded by some very sick people who are also in hospital because they have bad diets. My dad is skinny on his; most are large on theirs.
In the next ward, a patient is morbidly obese. He’s served hospital food three times a day and tops it up with snacks from the tuck trolley. Brimming with brightly packaged sugar and fat bullets with a shelf life beyond the apocalypse, the trolley offers an array of saturated fats, hidden sugars, salt and thousands of ingredients that are more at home in a laboratory than a kitchen. He buys himself a selection for the day that most of us couldn’t eat in a week.
This is an extreme example, but it’s a snapshot of modern life. On the one hand, the food revolution of the past 50 years has brought us choice and convenience; on the other, we’re facing a global epidemic of obesity.
Now, I love food. It’s fuel, it’s medicine, and it’s delicious. So when I was asked to go on a journey to find the world’s best diet, I was excited. I eat pretty healthily, but I could definitely do better — and when my dad’s not looking, I’m nicking his Jaffa Cakes. So which countries hold the secret to a longer and healthier life? Might it just be possible that I could find a diet that will ultimately prolong my life? And will I still be able to eat the odd Jaffa Cake?
What I found along the way was not only surprising, it also had the potential to change my life. And if a few of these lessons could be applied closer to home — or even on a global scale — they could help make the world a healthier place.
THE MARSHALL ISLANDS IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC
Peering out of the aeroplane window, it looks as though we’re touching down in paradise: azure waters lapping a sun-soaked shore dotted with palm trees. But once the wheels sink into the greasy tarmac, it becomes quickly apparent that we have landed in one of the most obese places on the planet.
In 2013, the International Diabetes Federation found that more than 80pc of the Marshall Islands’ adult population is overweight. And you can see it. Baggage handlers, airport security and the chaps at passport control are all demonstrably carrying extra pounds. And with all this weight come some very grave consequences. The Marshallese have the third highest prevalence of |diabetes in the world — 50pc of people aged over 35 have the disease, and amputees can be seen island-wide as a result.
So where did it all go wrong? Fifty years ago, the Marshallese suddenly changed their diet. After World War II, the islands became a trust territory of the United States. The US began trading with the islands and as a result the Marshallese diet shifted from fresh fish and coconuts to an imported, processed ‘Western’ diet of flour, white rice, sugar and fatty meats. And this is the diet they still eat today.
One evening I ate with a local family at home — mum, dad and five beautiful children. On the menu were two types of white rice — one with sugar and one without — and turkey tails. Turkey tails are essentially a turkey’s derrière. And, I quickly discovered as turkey fat dripped down my chin, they don’t pack much muscle in their trunk, since their tails can contain a staggering 73pc fat. So much fat that they have been banned in countries such as Samoa.
And with a watermelon costing $38 (€28) in the local supermarket, there wasn’t a fruit or vegetable in sight. The island is a coral atoll, so growing fruit and vegetables is nigh-on impossible. And on the average wage of $2 (€1.40) an hour, imported fruit and vegetables are luxuries most people can’t afford.
Rice, flour, sugar and fatty meats are a lethal combination if you don’t add any fibre in the mix. Without it, diabetes is almost an inevitability.
It was way past my bedtime. Armed with a strategic power nap and a box of doughnuts, I shuffled up a back alley.
Punctuated with neon, it was like something out of Blade Runner. I arrived at an apartment and a pretty, petite South Korean girl opened the door. Not the racy madam I was expecting.
Hyo-Jin tucked the |doughnuts under her arm |and ushered me into her bedroom. She gave me a slick of red lipstick, smoked my eyes and tamed my mane. We were ready.
I was about to participate in something pretty radical. Eating alone in South Korea is a major social taboo. Mokbang is the antidote. It means “broadcast eating”, something that is taking the country by storm and is earning Hyo-Jin a small fortune.
Her live stream is free to watch, but if people are happy with the service they can give a donation.
We tucked into an array of South Korean delights: kimchi pancake, fried pork in soy, and something a little more familiar: fried chicken. In just an hour of eating on a webcam, we’d made a few hundred dollars.
With such a passion for food, it is perhaps surprising that South Koreans are some of the slimmest people on the planet. In 2012, a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that they have the lowest level of obesity in the developed world.
So why are they so healthy? Firstly, and very simply, they eat an inordinate number of vegetables. They eat more than twice the number of vegetables we do and grow enough to have 222kg of vegetables per person available every year over our 94kg. Instead of five a day, |it’s more like 10 a day. Fresh and often raw vegetables are |a staple everywhere, even at service stations. This is a far cry from our chippers, ready meals and packets of crisps.
Secondly, fermented foods are a major part of their diet. Kimchi, a spicy, fermented
cabbage, is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with the average South Korean consuming a hefty 150g-200g per day in the winter, and 50g-100g in the summertime. Packed with good bacteria called lactobacilli, it helps boost metabolism and aids digestion.
Fit to burst, I rolled out of Hyo-Jin’s flat. Feeling slightly objectified, I did genuinely believe, perhaps naively, that I had provided company at dinner for a few hundred solo eaters.
I asked her what I should do about my bloated tummy. She had a one-word answer: “Kimchi.”
Tucked away in the Italian countryside, just a couple of hours from Rome, stands a magical hilltop. Known by scientists as the “village of eternal youth”, the average life expectancy in Campodimele is 95 years. Compare that with the Italian average of 77.5 for men and 83.5 for women. In addition, their cholesterol levels are some of the healthiest in the world. In the 1980s, the World Health Organisation discovered that the cholesterol levels in 80-year-olds was similar to that of newborn babies.
Why are they living so long? There’s no doubt they have longevity in their genes. Yet it’s what they do with those genes. I spent a day with Geraldo and Liana. They are 85 and 83 respectively, yet look and move like they’re at least 10 years younger.
I ask them to show me what they eat. Geraldo invites me on his Vespa, and I am half-expecting him to take me to the supermarket; instead, we roll down the hill to feed his chickens and check on his wheat fields.
As for the supermarket, he laughs and tells me the closest one is 50km away and he’s never been. On returning home, his wife Liana is preparing lunch: a delicious rustic feast of pasta, passata, chick-peas, lashings of olive oil, and a substantial goblet of deep, fruity red wine poured from an old Evian bottle.
Every element is homegrown and homemade.
Geraldo and Liana are not an exception.
Professor Cugini has studied the town since the 1980s and refers to their diet as “hyper-Mediterranean”. It’s all the best bits of the Mediterranean diet, turned up full blast.
The villagers enjoy top-quality, home-produced fresh ingredients packed full of vitamins and minerals. Their diet is low in meat and almost devoid of red meat and butter.
They consume an average of one litre of olive oil a week, the perfect recipe for heart health — washed down with two glasses of red wine a day to offer a daily injection of antioxidant polyphenols.
Aside from running water and electricity, the people in Campodimele live much as they would have done 1,000 years ago.
This isn’t feasible for most of us, but if we all ate a little more like them, we might just feel the benefits.
One can only hope that somewhere in a parallel universe, the tuck trolley being wheeled around my dad’s hospital ward is loaded with a Campodimele harvest and, rather than crisps and chocolate, it is fresh vegetables and olive oil that are being administered.