Israelis among the healthiest eaters — study

Israel ranks 9th out of 187 countries in dietary quality, according to a new Lancet medical journal survey

Fresh fruits (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Fresh fruits (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A new study in this month’s The Lancet Global Health Journal places the diet of the average Israeli among the healthiest in the world.

The study, which looked at dietary habits — both good and bad — of adults in 187 countries, placed Israel in ninth place overall.

The study, led by Dr Fumiaki Imamura of the University of Cambridge, is the first ever to assess diet quality in such a large number of countries at one time, covering 4.5 billion people.

In Israel, as in nearly all countries in the world, diet improved with age, with adults in their 50s and 60s eating the most healthy foods, while eschewing the unhealthiest. However, younger Israelis tend to indulge in more junk food than they should.

In a separate metric measuring consumption of less healthy foods, Israelis rated about average, in the middle of the chart, instead of close to the top, as they did for their consumption of healthy foods

Healthier people were reported to eat such foods as grains, beans and legumes, milk, dietary fiber, omega-3 rich fish and fruits, while eating less unhealthy food, including processed meats, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and foods with high levels of sodium and trans-fat (a category that includes most processed snacks).

Researchers did not conduct their own poll, but used a wide range of data sources, including nationally representative dietary surveys, local surveys and UN reports. They also adjusted for total energy intake to evaluate quality, as far as possible, independently from quantity.

The healthy diet measured by Imamura and his team is actually quite similar to the vaunted Mediterranean diet, which is generally high in protein and omega acids. Other Mediterranean countries — Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Lebanon — also scored high in the study for healthy diets.

Israelis, according to researchers, eat less saturated fat than most Westerners do, and generally have among the lowest rates of cholesterol in the world.

Little butter is consumed in Israel, but large quantities of soybean, corn and safflower oil are, noted the report. This translates, researchers estimate, to a “linoleic acid intake of about 11 percent of calories and a ratio of linoleic to alpha linolenic acid [the most readily available plant-based omega-3 fatty acid] in the Israeli diet of about 26:1.”

According to Israeli researchers Daniel Yam, Abraham Eliraz and Elliot Berry, Israeli Jews may be regarded as a population-based dietary experiment of the effect of a high omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid diet.

The countries with the worst diets included the United States and Canada, most of central and northern Europe, Russia, India and China – which, the authors said, was no surprise, given the prevalence of the “fast food culture”.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it was the countries of central Africa that scored the highest – with Chad having the healthiest diet, followed by other Africa countries including Sierra Leone, Mali, The Gambia, Uganda, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

The reason for that, according to the report is that Africans do not have the money to buy highly processed foods that Westerners do, and subsist on a simpler diet – which, as it turns out, is healthier.

“By 2020, projections indicate that non-communicable diseases will account for 75% of all deaths. Improving diet has a crucial role to play in reducing this burden,” Imamura said. “Our findings have implications for governments and international bodies worldwide.  Policy actions in multiple domains are essential to help people achieve optimal diets to control the obesity epidemic and reduce non-communicable diseases in all regions of the world.”

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