By Corrie Pikul
Brazil: They eat a superfood side dish almost every day.
Rice and beans are such a part of daily life in Brazil that the phrase is used colloquially to mean "the foundation" or "the basics." Brazilians know that beans alone are low in calories and fat, high in fiber and complex carbs, packed with antioxidants and can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Combine them with rice, which has some of the essential amino acids lacking in beans, and the pair becomes become a complete protein. What's more, compared with typical Western food, a diet consisting of primarily rice and beans lowers the risk of becoming overweight by about 14 percent, found a study in the journal Obesity Research. (Just be sure to keep the ratios even and not skimp on the beans.)
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India: Their curries have special powers.
The spice turmeric is well known for giving Indian curries their yellow color and their slightly peppery taste. Turmeric has also been in the news lately because of research highlighting its fat-burning potential. A Tufts University study suggested that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, could inhibit the spread of fat tissue by inhibiting new blood vessel growth (called angiogenesis) necessary to build this type of tissue. Another research review by the University at Buffalo discussed evidence that curcumin may regulate lipid metabolism. Up to this point, these effects have been observed only in animals, and scientists have yet to track the effect on humans. In the meantime, turmeric has another benefit: This flavorful, complex-tasting spice can be a calorie-free alternative to oil, butter or salt.
France: They don't eat everything in moderation.
We've all heard about French women and their reasonable portions--of cheese, meat, le pain. But what we tend to forget is the category of food they don't put limits on: fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit. In part, it's because they've been encouraged to try many varieties from a very young age and have developed a lifelong appreciation for naturally healthy food, explains Pamela Druckerman in her book, Bringing Up Bébé. Druckerman writes that it's almost impossible to find rice cereal in French supermarkets, and bébé's first foods are typically "flavor-packed vegetables...steamed and pureed green beans, spinach, carrots, peeled zucchini and the white part of leeks." So what do you do if you were raised on meat and potatoes and you're not crazy about "flavor-packed vegetables"? Druckerman writes that French kids don't all have an innate preference for, say, the white part of leeks, but "parents see it as their job to bring the child around to appreciating [them]," and a government handbook even urges parents to keep proposing a food even after kids have rejected it three or four times. This approach can work on palates of any age: Research has shown that trying a "meh" food 10 times in a row can help you develop a taste for it.
Thailand: They go for the burn.
Chiles are constantly popping up in Thai cuisine--the most innocent-sounding papaya salad could arrive covered in the notorious "mouse-dropping chiles" that will set your mouth on fire. If this small chile (one of the world's hottest) is too extreme, you could try adding a milder pepper (like a Poblano or Anaheim) to your dish--the heat can slow you down just enough to recognize when you're getting full, says registered dietician Felicia Stoler, the author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes. Another way Stoler says spicy food helps you eat less: It makes you crave water, which fills you up.
Japan: They give each dish its moment in the sun.
Japanese people have a lot of slimming habits, but not all of us can (or want to) snack on seaweed, eat fish at every meal or drink copious amounts of green tea. Here's one tip anyone can steal: In Japan, every food, from the humble rice to the grilled meat to the pickles, gets its own special dish (these are different from courses because they're often all served at the same time). Separating each component of your meal will help you not only appreciate each individual taste but also consume less overall. Experiments by eating-behavior expert Brian Wansink, PhD, have shown that we tend to eat less (yet feel just as full) when we use smaller plates, and when those dishes contrast with the color of our food (which makes us perceive portions as larger than they are).
Burma: They use meat as a side dish.
In many Asian countries, meat is a small part of a meal. This is often due to economics: Meat represents prosperity, says Naomi Duguid, a de facto culinary anthropologist and co-author of six books on food and travel. This used to be the case in our country, but as we've become more prosperous over the past century, she says, "meat has become an entitlement instead of a treat." Americans consumed about 166 pounds of meat per person in 2012, estimates the USDA. By returning to smaller portions of beef and pork, we can cut fat, cholesterol and calories. In her book Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Duguid includes recipes like this one, which is a stir-fry loaded with vegetables and topped with a bit of pork. She says that in a typical Burmese meal, this dish would be accompanied by broth as well as plates of raw and cooked vegetables, which serve as a palate refresher--as well as being a sneakily low-calorie way to fill up.
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