5 Health Lessons From Other Cultures

by Grace McCalmon


5 Health Lessons From Other Cultures

by Grace McCalmon

Our own way. Everybody wants it, likes it when we get it, and acts accordingly, most of the time. In the United States, we definitely have our own ways of doing things, but, compared to the rest of the world, we’re just a baby. Our culture is barely 200 years old. In terms of living long, healthy lives, other countries have more experience. As wisdom comes with age, it’s probably a good idea to look outside our borders occasionally, and try a few things their way.

Here are five health-promoting practices that span the globe and have stood the test of time.



Probiotics are the cool kids of the supplement world right now. But before you could buy them in capsules, or packaged inside of The Galaxy’s Most Mind-Blowingly Delicious Gummy, probiotics were a typical part of everyday diets. These probiotics, or, “beneficial bacteria,” came in the form of fermented foods.

The earliest record of fermentation dates back as far as 6000 B.C., in the Fertile Crescent, and nearly every civilization since has included at least one fermented food as part of its culinary heritage. Today, many cultures around the globe still include traditionally made fermented foods. Germany makes sauerkraut, while France is famous for its sourdough bread. Asian civilizations in particular, have a history of fermenting many different foods such as Japanese natto (soybeans), Vietnamese mám (seafood), Chinese douchi (black beans), and Korean banchan (side dishes) – all of which, remain dietary staples today.

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The process of fermentation creates an environment where beneficial bacteria – namely strains of Lactobacillus – can grow and multiply, but pathogenic bacteria cannot survive. The end product is a food that will last for many months and is full of probiotics, which have been shown to help promote digestion and support immunity. (Read more about all the awesome benefits of probiotics here.)

The only drawback to getting probiotics from fermented foods, is that making your own takes time. Properly prepared sauerkraut, for example, can take anywhere from seven days to three months to ferment. Between work, kids, school, and all the other demands of modern life, many people don’t have weeks to wait.

Here’s a Smarty hack: try newbie home fermentation with this basic sauerkraut recipe. While you’re waiting for your probiotics to brew, you can get a daily dose of good bacteria into your diet with our SmartyPants Probiotic Complete gummies – they’re the best of both worlds, old and new.



Think about the last time you saw someone sitting on the floor. It was probably a child or a be-dreadlocked traveler in an airport. Now think about the last time you sat on the floor. Almost everywhere you go there is some type of sitting apparatus, but chairs are actually a relatively modern invention – they only became a fixture in our lives about 500 years ago.  In many cultures such as India, Africa, Japan, and Turkey, squatting and sitting on the floor to eat meals is still a common practice.

In India, it is believed that sitting on the floor cross-legged in the position known as sukhasana can help to aid digestion, as you must naturally bend forward to get food to your mouth. This back and forth movement is said to activate the muscles of the abdomen and increase stomach acid, making it easier to break down food.

Research shows that sitting on the floor can also help relieve lower back pain, increase hip flexibility, and strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor and abdomen. This makes sense when you consider that the human body evolved over millions of years with only the floor as a resting place.



The term “nose to tail,” eating was coined in 1999 by English chef Fergus Henderson and describes consuming as many parts of an animal as possible – from the nose to the tail, nearly everything gets eaten. It’s part of the philosophy that, when you take an animal’s life, none of it should go to waste, and many cultures around the world have been eating this way for centuries. Today, stir-fried pork kidneys, chicken feet, and pork liver soup are popular dishes in China. In Brazil, churrasco (barbecue) often includes chicken hearts, and in Africa and Europe common menu items range from stomach and hooves (trotters) to intestines, liver, lungs, head (of pigs, calves, sheep, and lamb), testicles, tongue, and snout.

So, that sounds kind of gross. But before you say, “Thanks but, no thanks,” consider the benefits. Nose-to-tail eating is not only more sustainable and more respectful of an animal’s life, it can also deliver a variety of different vitamins and minerals that can be hard to get when only eating the same cuts of meat, day in and day out. In fact, organ meats, in general, can be between 10 and 100 times higher in nutrients than corresponding muscle meats.

If you’re interested in giving organs a go, we recommend easing them into your diet. Just one ounce of beef liver contains 100% of the RDA for both vitamin A and B12, and the taste can be quite strong, so, a little goes a long way. Try mixing a small amount of ground organ meat together with something more mild in flavor, like ground beef or turkey. We like this recipe for nutrient-dense meatloaf. If you’re not quite ready to chow down, you can still eat more sustainably by purchasing your meat from a local butcher that makes use of the entire animal.



Getting hot, whether in the form of saunas and sweat lodges, or hot springs, mineral baths, pools, and spas has been used as a therapy for tens of thousands of years,  as we can absorb minerals through our skin, and eliminate toxins through our sweat. Today, there are Turkish hammams, Russian banyas, and Korean jimjilbangs – bath houses which serve as gathering places for socializing and relaxing, and typically offer hot steam rooms, baths, massages, as well as cold plunge pools. Japanese onsen are hot springs, naturally produced by the country’s volcanic activity, and Finland has close to two million saunas. Nearly all Finns “take a sauna” at least once a week – even those in jail!

If you’re thinking about getting heated, please know that, in this case, more is not better. There is nothing to be gained by staying hot for longer than you feel is comfortable. It’s easy for the body to become overheated and, unless you’re soaking in mineral-rich water, you will also lose key minerals when you sweat. Make sure you replenish your nutrient stores by eating lots of potassium and magnesium-packed fruits and vegetables and don’t overstay your welcome in any heated environment.


In Israel they say, Birkat Hamazon. In Japan, itadakimasu. In English, we call it Grace. This act is ancient and spans a multitude of cultures around the world. To many, it is spiritual, giving thanks to someone or something – a mother, a god, the earth, or even the other people at the table. Beyond the spiritual, many holistic health practitioners believe that there is also a physiological benefit.

According to those who practice mindful eating, a moment of gratitude gives you the opportunity to breathe and fully take in the sight and smell of your food. This pause helps put the body into “rest and digest mode,” or, a parasympathetic state which physically prepares our bodies to break down and assimilate food.

While there may not be a ton of scientific research behind this idea (yet), we at SmartyPants believe that taking time to give thanks is one of the best things you can do for your health. Whether that’s before a meal, while watching a sunset, or once a week at our office “Gratitude Sessions.” It only takes a minute, but it can change your whole perspective, and a happy mind helps make a healthy body.

Posted on May 11, 2017

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Grace McCalmon

Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.