Why is it that some countries have obesity issues and others don’t? Is it their environment or work habits, both, neither? Most likely it is some combination of their genetics, physical activity and eating. Let’s focus on developed countries like Japan, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Norway. Each of these countries have adult Body Mass Index* averages less than 25.5, whereas the US has an average of 29. They must be doing something right.

How does a lower BMI relate to a flatter belly? Low BMIs mean relatively less mass on one’s frame. Leaner people are more unlikely to have pudgy midsections.

The ways in which people eat in these countries reveal how they stay slim. Follow these tips based on their traditional diets and you may trim down your waistline, too.

Keep Portions Small – Japanese principles on diet are known for this.

Taking only what you need and savoring what you eat is reflective of getting satisfied with less. Enjoying a single servings and refraining from second helpings equates to fewer calories. Using smaller bowls, glasses, and plates means smaller portions filling the container and tricking the eye into believing you have a generous serving. Another way to eat less is to connect with family and friends during the mealtime so you spend more time talking and less chewing.

Prepare Your Own Food – The Dutch custom of the Netherlands

It’s no surprise that meals made from scratch or prepared at home are healthier than those from a drive through or box (Americans are notorious for not making their own meals and going out to eat instead). By controlling the ingredients and method of preparation, the results of your cooking can save up to half the calories of a similar item from a restaurant.

Whole Grains and Protein – The French way

Diets that include adequate fiber (10 grams per 1000 calories) and protein (roughly 15%-20% of calories) are associated with less fat in the torso region. These two diet constituents fill you up and satisfy longer than do refined flour, natural sugars or fat. The overall effect may be less energy intake in addition to a greater metabolic benefits. Get your dietary fiber from whole grains2, fruits, vegetables, legumes and seeds. Choose high quality plant-based protein sources or fish for the best health effects.

Limit Alcohol Intake – A Norwegian culture ‘must’

Infrequent and smaller volumes of this heavy calorie non-nutrient are associated with smaller waist circumferences. This is true for low-to-moderate consumption of beer and spirits, equating to less than 2 drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women. Vino lovers take heart: wine intake doesn’t strongly correlate with abdominal fat.

Mediterranean Diet3 – Italy’s tradition (not so secret but only a small % of world follows)

This pattern of food choices is characterized by high consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, cereal grains, fish and seafood, and unsaturated: saturated fatty acid ratio; moderate alcohol intake; and low consumption of meat and dairy products. What else don’t you see? Sweets and refined sugars!

No single type of food or style of dining equates to a smaller waist. The main point is that countries with thinner populations simply have citizens with healthier eating habits. Let’s assume they also get more exercise… so hit the gym, too!


*BMI is not a direct fat measurement, but a weight vs. height factor used for comparison and evaluation.  It is obtained by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared (BMI = kg/m2). A BMI of 18.5 to 25 is normal and pertains to almost everyone except body builders whose unique muscle mass create higher BMIs but very low body fat percentages.



  1. Body mass index and waist circumference independently contribute to the prediction of nonabdominal, abdominal subcutaneous, and visceral fat. I Janssen, S Heymsfield, D Allison, D Kotler, R Ross. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition April 2002 Vol. 75, no. 4 683-688.


  1. Whole- and refined-grain intakes are differentially associated with abdominal visceral and subcutaneous adiposity in healthy adults: the Framingham Heart Study.McKeown NM, Troy LM, Jacques PF, Hoffmann U, O’Donnell CJ, Fox CS. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010; 92(5): 1165-1171.


  1. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower abdominal adiposity in European men and women. Romaguera D, et al. The Journal of Nutrition2009 Sep; 139(9): 1728-37.


Image of Italian statue, maybe?


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