A recently-published study in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, found that the healthiest country in the world in terms of diet-related deaths is Israel. Israel was #1 among 195 countries with 89 deaths per 100,000 people (the U.S. was 43rd with 171 deaths per 100,000 people).
Not mentioned in the paper is that Israel is a land of immigrants, some of whom come from countries with very high rates of cardiovascular disease. It would seem that once you come on aliya, you are well on the way to obtaining Israel’s health benefits!
For many reasons, the results of this study should not be surprising. One might even say the Torah guarantees that Israel will be an extremely healthy place to live in: “And the Lord will take away from you all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you know, upon you; but will lay them upon all those who hate you” (Deuteronomy 7:15).
There are good scientific reasons why the Israeli diet is so healthy. Consumption of olive oil and red wine – staples of the Jewish diet in Israel since Biblical times – is one of them. One research study found significantly reduced mortality and incidence of cardiovascular events and stroke among higher consumers of olive oil. (The study included 750,000 volunteers.)
Another study found a 34 percent lower likelihood of contracting cancer among high consumers of olive oil. A Spanish study observed that women on a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil had a 62 percent lower risk of breast cancer.
The evidence of wine’s benefits is equally impressive. Moderate wine drinkers live longer than non-wine drinkers, even when non-wine drinkers drink other forms of alcohol. An analysis of 26 long-term studies showed that wine’s benefit on vascular disease follows a J-shaped curve. Drink too little and there’s no benefit. Drink too much and it’s harmful. The plateau – i.e., the most beneficial amount – is 150 mL per day.
Olive oil has polyphenols, which are compounds with anti-oxidant properties. Red – not white – wine has resveratrol, which is also an anti-oxidant. (Grape juice also has high resveratrol content, but it is not absorbed well by the gut and free resveratrol levels are low in the blood after drinking grape juice.) In short, the Israeli diet is a super-healthy one because it is full of anti-oxidants.
Anti-oxidants are found in vegetables, fruits, herbs, and whole grains. Anti-oxidants protect plants from cell damage due to reactive oxygen species that are produced during photosynthesis and due to the effect of ultraviolet light. Israel has plenty of strong sunlight and therefore its herbs, vegetables, and fruit are rich in anti-oxidants.
We now know that many diseases are associated with “oxidative stress,” including cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, and forms of cancer. There are thousands of anti-oxidants in plants, which provide protection against these diseases (anti-oxidants in a bottle do not seem to have this effect for reasons that are unclear).
Israelis eat lots of anti-oxidants without really thinking about it. They consume them in their tomato-heavy Israeli salads (tomatoes contain the anti-oxidant lycopene), in their hummus smothered in olive oil, in their vegetables roasted in olive oil, and in their falafel topped off with vegetables.
Israel does not import many fruits and vegetables, which means Israelis enjoy the seasons with the bounty the land produces, and there is a culture of eating fresh produce when it appears seasonally in the stores. One can purchase these same items in the supermarket every day of the week in America, but that seems to deaden people to purchasing them.
Nutritional advice is changing. Formerly, everything was about what not to eat – for example, how to limit your intake of cholesterol and how to limit your intake of saturated and total fat. We now know that much of that advice was unhelpful and sometimes even harmful. Nutritional advice is changing and is now about what you should be eating.
Please don’t get me wrong. This study is not saying every Israeli loads his plate with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Many Israelis (too many) crave non-satiating sugar-containing drinks and non-satiating processed foods such as Western-style snack foods and Western breakfast foods. As a result, obesity in Israel is on the rise, as it is in the rest of the world.
However, The Lancet article suggests that as long as Israelis continue to eat the agricultural munificence G-d has provided them, nutrition-related diseases can be prevented. People throughout the world would do well to follow their example.