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 Diets: Cultural Diets  

Other aspects of the diet include refined flour products, with a lot of bread, pies, cakes, and pudding. Whole grain products are low in consumption, save a bit o’ porridge for some in the morning. Sugar is eaten regularly in desserts, along with sugar in tea. The British drink a lot of black tea, with its caffeinelike agents and tannic acid, contributing to teeth stains and stomach ulcers. Also, beer and ales are drunk throughout the British Isles, with many local brews.

Overall, the British are waiting for their health and nutrition wave. It would be wise for them, as for all of us, to reduce their intake of animal foods, refined flour and sugar products, alcohol, and nicotine. Obtaining more fresh foods via agriculture and importation, and storage for the colder, wetter months would also help. Dehydrating vegetables and making sprouts are a couple of ways to obtain these important foods, and eating more whole grains and the products made from them will improve this diet as well.

Western and Eastern European
The Germanic diet (Austria, Germany [until recently, West Germany], Switzer-land) is a little spicier and even sweeter than the British diet, with more breads, cakes and other sweets, potatoes, and meats (beef, venison, and pork), and especially the sausage-type meats. Each region of West Germany has its own type of sausage. Butter and lard are used as the main cooking fats. Baked goods are a staple of the German diet. In Switzerland, chocolate and cheese are very popular. Austria is known for its sweets and cakes. Hot chocolate and pastries are a favorite late afternoon tradition, followed by a light dinner. Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and sour cream, may help the intestinal tract handle this higher-fat, low-fiber diet. Fresh fruits are less available, and the colder-climate vegetables, such as cabbage, cauliflower, and potatoes, are used more than others. Beer consumption is very high, leading to more weight problems than in many other cultures.

The Eastern European countries (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslavakia, and former East Germany) are basically poor and consume a less industrial diet with less sugar and fewer desserts. They still use more natural food preparation and preservation, such as pickling foods for the colder winters. Western Europeans ate this healthier, more natural diet before industrialization. The people of Hungary and Poland consume more rye bread, cabbage, potatoes and other root vegetables, buckwheat, paprika, onions, peppers, pork, pickled fish, and cottage cheese. Food is expensive and not always readily available. More fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains could be added, but overall, this is a poorer, yet healthier diet than many of the more Westernized nations.

The diet of the Balkan countries (Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia) is similar to that of their neighbor, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries. Thanks to a warmer, more agriculturally favorable climate, there are more fresh foods avail-able. Fish is plentiful from the surrounding seas and meats are grilled or roasted, even on open fires. Fewer sauces and fermented foods are used than in other Eastern European countries.

The Russian diet is usually higher in complex carbohydrates and lower in protein, especially animal protein, than most other European diets—and the Russian people have better longevity than most other cultures. There are more centenarians there than anywhere in the world.

The Russian diet includes dark bread, buckwheat (kasha), wheat, goat’s milk and yogurt, potatoes, other root vegetables, cabbage, beet borscht, and some meats. The grain and vegetable basis of the diet, with less consumption of refined flours and sugars, makes it one of the healthier diets in Europe. Concerns may include the high consumption of vodka and the animal fats used for cooking. Also, because there is less variety of available foods, vitamin and mineral deficiencies may pose a problem.

The Nordic diet of Sweden, Norway, and Finland has many healthy aspects for such a low agricultural area, and certainly produces people of strong constitution; however, there are several types of food that are overconsumed, thus increasing the potential for and incidence of a number of chronic degenerative diseases. Because of the cold climate, a higher fat diet is the common faire and is probably handled better than in most other areas of the world. This would be more actualized if they ate less animal foods and more cold water fish (freshly cooked) from the surrounding seas. Cod and herring are very popular, but these are often pickled or smoked. Fish is widely consumed, but other meats and milk products are as well. Finland’s high animal food consumption gives it the distinction of having the highest average blood cholesterol level of any place on Earth. The high-salt Scandanavian diet also increases incidence of hypertension and other cardiovascular problems. Alcohol use, particularly beer and schnapps consumption, adds another health concern; black teas are also very popular.

Some wholesome traits of the Scandanavian diet include the regular use of rye as crackers and whole grain breads, which add fiber and important nutrients. Sweets are not common and pastries tend to be light. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available during the three to four warmer months of the year. Nordic peoples would be wise to dry and store more wholesome fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, to use through their long winters. Sprouted foods are ideal for cold climates or areas of low agriculture. Scandinavians would benefit by foregoing their “smorgasbord” style of eating (with too many choices and poor food combining), in favor of simpler meals.

Mediterranean Diets

This area includes a cross section of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Southern France. Morocco offers a mix of Mediterranean and mid-Eastern cuisine. The Mediterranean diet is similar to the nearby Turkish and Middle Eastern diets, with wheat, rice, lamb (and goat), cheeses, yogurt, olives, and olive oil as major components. Due to the lower animal (saturated) fat intake and more olive oil used as the main cooking fat, the risk of cardiovascular disease is relatively low in these countries. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more plentiful in these warm coastal areas than anywhere else in Europe. Daily shopping in outdoor markets is a Mediterranean tradition. Fish and seafood, tomatoes, peppers, citrus fruits, nuts, and fresh and dried herbs give this diet great variety. Wine and coffee (espresso) are in high consumption. Fruits such as apples, pears, cherries, and apricots may be eaten fresh or cooked. Negative aspects of the Mediterranean diets include excessive use of coffee, cigarettes, and sweets.

The Italian diet contains more breads, pastas, and cheeses than that of other European countries. Italians drink more wine than beer. In many regions of this coastal country, they produce local wines, cheeses, and prosciutto (cured ham). In general though, dairy product consumption is low, primarily as cheeses such as mozarella and Parmesan. Spaghetti is classically Italian, as is a thin-crusted pizza (nothing like heavy American pizza). Meats, such as prosciutto, veal, chicken, and the fatty processed spicy meats, such as salami and pepperoni, are popular. Vegetables are usually well consumed, especially tomatoes, as are fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, and marjoram. Minestrone is the common soup. Olive oil is used regularly as the main cooking fat and on salads and other foods; even though it is better than other fats, it is high in calories when used in quantity. Other foods prominent in the Italian diet include garlic, hot peppers, wild local greens, white breads and breadsticks, and fresh figs and melons in the summer.

A typical Italian meal is served in several courses, as is true in much of Europe. Breakfast is light if at all, consisting of coffee, juice, and croissants. Lunch is the main meal, with most businesses closed between one and four p.m. The first course is pasta, followed by meat or fish with vegetables and a green salad. Dessert is often fruit, followed by an espresso, which has a stronger taste but less caffeine than a typical American cup of coffee. After a rest, people go back to work. Dinner is generally light or just a social time, with some soup, bread, and wine. Luckily, the portions in Italian meals are modest; thus, there is less overeating than is typically stereotyped in the Italian-Americans.

Some concerns of the Italian diet include recent increases in refined and processed foods. As elsewhere in Europe, the heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, caffeine, and sweets may lead to health problems.

In this large European country (as is true in many larger countries), the diet may vary widely from north to south with climate, cultural differences, and available foods. The mid-Europe northern area consumes more meat and a generally heavier diet, while the southern, Mediterranean regions eat more fish, local vegetables, and a lighter diet overall. In most countries of the world, especially the European ones, the native, rural, or peasant-type diet contains a higher amount of natural foods than the urban diet. For example, a typical meal served in American “French” restaurants is rich in creamy sauces, gravies, pastries, sweets, fats, cheeses, bread, pates, and, of course, wine. This type of food is also consumed by the wealthier classes and in the fancier restaurants in France.

In general, the French are very involved with food, and often consume multiple course meals as is true in much of Europe. There are local street markets that provide fresh seasonal foods and their special cheeses and sausages. The French tend to shop often, preparing their meals to suit the locally available foods. The more rural or peasant diet in France consists of potatoes, some meats and “charcuterie” (sausages and cold cuts), poultry, breads and cheeses, and vegetables. Meals often include a small green salad, and finish with cheese as “dessert.” Breads, croissants, and pastries, are often consumed daily. Wine and very strong coffee are the national beverages. Overall, the French diet is richer and higher in fats and refined flours than many other European countries.

The Spanish diet is similar to the Italian, at least along the coastal regions. Having more inland terrain, Spain’s beef production and consumption is higher than in other Mediterranean countries. The Spanish enjoy a wide variety of foods, including fish and meats, olive oil, tomatoes, greens, wine, white breads, figs, and citrus and other fruits. Paella is a common dish that combines rice and seasonings, especially saffron, with seafood and shellfish, chicken, or sausage. Wine is consumed regularly with meals. Problems with refined foods and animal fats are beginning to appear in Spain. Coffee consumption and cigarette smoking are also high.

The Portuguese consume a similar diet to the Spaniards, yet, being a poorer nation, the people tend to eat simpler, more natural meals of locally available foods. Wine is also consumed regularly.

This southern, coastal mecca provides a relatively simple diet, mostly cultivated from its own land. Goats and sheep are raised for milk and meats. Goat milk cheeses, such as feta, and yogurt are eaten regularly, as is lamb meat. Fish is very popular. Moussaka is a popular local dish—a layered, baked “casserole” with lamb, eggplant, feta, tomatoes, and onions. “Greek” salads are eaten almost daily, made of tomatoes, black olives, red onions, cucumber, feta cheese, and dressed with olive oil and herbs. A yogurt and cucumber appetizer dip for pita bread is also common. Greece is less industrially developed than the other Mediterranean countries and thus, has probably one of the healthier diets in Europe.

(Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition ISBN: 1587611791)
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 About The Author
Elson Haas MDElson M. Haas, MD is founder & Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (since 1984), an Integrated Health Care Facility in San Rafael, CA and author of many books on Health and Nutrition, including ...more
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