Healthful Foods From Around the Globe

Bitter melon on wooden tray
Photo: Thinkstock/trumzz

Many Americans think of a healthy diet as an elimination of certain foods. Cultures from around the world, though, have an approach that seeks to incorporate protective foods. In every corner of the globe the common theme for healthful nutrition includes having a plant-centered eating pattern in which the produce is local, in-season, fresh and added into homemade dishes. Eating is done mainly at meals that are prepared and celebrated with family and friends.

Some protective trends that have been spotted here in the United States involve cuisines from two different countries: Mexico and Japan. 

Mexico is the Birthplace of a Functional Food

Nopales, also known as prickly pear cactus, has been traditionally used as a natural medicine in Mexico and South America for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, run by the National Institutes of Health, cautions that there is not enough scientific evidence to show that any dietary supplement can help manage or prevent Type 2 diabetes. Nonetheless, some evidence points to the clinical benefit of blood glucose reduction after the ingestion of nopales. Because of this, people who are on medication for diabetes should be cautious and continue to monitor their blood glucose when consuming nopales. Nopales’ protective properties can be attributed to its high fiber content along with potassium, beta-carotene and vitamin C.

Considered to be a vegetable, nopal is sold fresh, canned or dried. Recipes usually call for steaming the fresh pads of the plant before use or using canned or jarred nopales in egg dishes such as chilaquiles as well as in tacos, quesadillas, burritos, soups or salads. The juice can be incorporated into pickles, jams or desserts.

You also can whip up a quick pico de gallo by draining and rinsing a 16-ounce jar of nopales, dicing it and adding it to other diced fresh vegetables (see recipe below).

Get in the Zone with Goya

“Blue Zones®” refer to those areas of the world that are home to the healthiest aging populations. Inhabitants of these regions report a high satisfaction with their quality of life, and it is thought that their secret to longevity without chronic disease lies partially in their eating patterns.

One of these communities is in Okinawa, Japan, where diet staples include bitter melon, miso (a fermented soybean paste), Okinawan sweet potatoes, turmeric, tofu, brown rice, shiitake mushrooms and seaweeds.   

Goya, the common name for bitter melon in Okinawa, is the base of goya champuru, a vegetable stir-fry that is one of Japan’s national dishes. Some studies report that goya may improve blood glucose control. Again, caution should be taken by those on diabetic medications as the evidence is inconclusive.

To make a traditional egg-based goya champuru, first soak goya in a bowl of lightly salted water for about 5 minutes. After draining and chopping the goya, stir-fry it with your favorite in-season vegetables, eggs and tofu. Serve it seasoned with soy sauce and a side of brown rice.


Nopales Pico de Gallo

Makes 3 to 4 cups of salsa

With the addition of quinoa and spinach, this becomes a flavorful entrée.

Ingredients

  • 1 16-ounce jar of nopales
  • 4 cups diced vine-ripened tomatoes
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • ⅓ cup diced jalapeño peppers (seeded if you prefer a milder flavor)
  • 1 cup diced green pepper
  • Juice from 1 lime
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • Salt to taste

Instructions

  1. Combine all vegetables in a large bowl.
  2. Add lime juice, cilantro, garlic and salt. Stir well.
Margaret Connor
Margaret Connor, MS, RD, LDN, has more than 25 years of experience in the field of nutrition and wellness. She has consulted in corporate and community settings, providing professional continuing education and work site wellness initiatives. Presently her concentration is medical weight management. She has a passion for coaching people of all ages and all walks of life in achieving a healthy lifestyle through a holistic approach.