Dr Sarah Brewer September 16, 2017

2016 saw Rio de Janeiro host the most recent 2016 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. A record number of 206 countries are competing, with more than 10,500 athletes battling against one another to win one of the 306 sets of medals on offer.

There are 28 different Olympic sports whose umbrella covers a variety of disciplines; from synchronised swimming to figure skating, to rugby sevens and golf.

But what if the Olympic teams competed for various measures of well-being instead? We take a look at which countries would win if the Olympic gold medals were awarded to the healthiest nations...

Medals For Longevity

A population’s life expectancy is considered one of the best measures of overall well-being. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has captured extensive global data on life expectancy at birth with the top countries identified as follows:

 

Country

Life expectancy at birth (both sexes)

1

Japan

83.7 years

2

Switzerland

83.4 years

3

Singapore

83.1 years

4=

Australia

82.8 years

4=

Spain

82.8 years

6=

Iceland

82.7 years

6=

Italy

82.7 years

8

Israel

82.5 years

9=

Sweden

82.4 years

9=

France

82.4 years

 

The life expectancy for Team GB is a long way down the leader board at 81.2 years, although we do better than the United States who are languishing with a life expectancy at birth of ‘just’ 79.3 years.

So, the three clear winners in the Longevity Olympics are:
Gold medal winner: Japan
Silver medal winner: Switzerland
Bronze medal winner: Singapore

Medals For Quality Of Life

While longevity is important, other factors affect whether or not you enjoy your allotted years in the Olympic Health Stakes. An international quality of life index uses a complicated formula that is based on income, purchasing power, house prices (and rent), cost of living, health, safety, traffic jams, pollution and climate. For 2016, the leader board was as follows:

 

Country

Quality of life index

1

Switzerland

208.54

2

Denmark

206.49

3

New Zealand

201.06

4

Germany

199.70

5

Australia

198.79

6=

Austria

192.40

6=

Netherlands

192.40

8

Norway

188.90

9

Spain

186.41

10

Sweden

185.81


Team GB are in 14th position with a quality of life index rating of 180.25; two places behind the United States who scored 183.96 points.

So once again, three clear winners step up to the podium:
Gold medal winner: Switzerland
Silver medal winner: Denmark
Bronze medal winner: New Zealand

Switzerland appear to be on a roll, having notched up two medals already!

Medals For Happiness

Some would argue that it’s no good having a long life - no matter how good its quality - unless you’re happy. The World Database of Happiness, drawn up by the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, regularly assesses satisfaction with life in 159 nations. Based on a scale of 0 to 10, the countries with the highest average happiness are as follows:

 

Happiest country

Average happiness

1

Costa Rica

8.5

2

Denmark

8.4

3

Mexico

8.3

4

Iceland

8.1

5=

Canada

8.0

5=

Switzerland

8.0

5=

Norway

8.0

8=

Finland

7.9

8=

Columbia

7.9

10=

Venezuela, Sweden, Panama

7.8


Some big surprises here, with Denmark once again just missing out on pole position. The average happiness and satisfaction with life indicators for Team GB were scored at just 7.1 out of 10, putting us in 30th position internationally. We were even beaten by the United States team, who cruised in at 22nd position.

Gold medal winner: Costa Rica
Silver medal winner: Denmark
Bronze medal winner: Mexico

Medals For Healthiest Diet

A healthy diet is a key factor in longevity and enjoyment of life, but how do different countries compare when it comes to the healthiest ethnic cuisines? Health.com asked an expert panel to pick their top 10 ethnic diets, ranked according to health benefits, and they came up with the following:

 

Country

Diet highlights

1

Greece

The famed Mediterranean diet: dark green leaves, fresh fruit, olive oil, oily fish/seafood, beans, lentils, aubergine, nuts, wholegrain breads and garlic

2

United States (OK, just California!)

A way of eating dubbed ‘California Fresh’ features simple, seasonal, locally-grown foods such as orecchiette pasta, mushrooms, broccoli, parsley, peppers, olive oil, grilled vegetables, quinoa and couscous

3

Vietnam

Fresh herbs, spices, vegetables, seafood, coconuts, and cooking with water or broth instead of oil

4

Japan

Yams, green tea, bok choy, seaweed, seafood, shiitake mushrooms, whole-soy foods (tofu, edamame, miso, tempeh) and stir-frying.

5

India

Spices – especially turmeric, ginger and chillies – yogurt, lentils, coriander leaves, mango and other fresh fruit and vegetables such as okra.

6

Italy

Tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and herbs (go easy on the pasta and pizza though!)

7

Spain

Tapas – eating little and often, sampling small portions at a time. Fresh seafood, vegetables, olive oil, gazpacho and paella.

8

Mexico

Beans, soups, tomato-based sauces, fresh-ground corn and chillies.

9

Brazil

Fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes and high-protein grains such as quinoa, marinated fish (ceviche) with herbs and spices.

10

Thailand

Seafood and soups featuring coriander, lemongrass, ginger, chillies and turmeric, served with marinated vegetables.


It’s not surprising to see Mediterranean and Asian cuisines featuring on this experts’ winners list, but there would probably be an official objection and even a disqualification when the United States steps up to claim its Gold Medal. While the state of California may have a relatively healthy diet, overall the U.S. tops the list of countries when it comes to obesity.

Gold medal winner: Greece
Silver medal winner: United States (objection)
Bronze medal winner: Vietnam

Medals For Fitness

A series of papers in the medical journal, The Lancet, attempted to assess the physical activity levels of different countries worldwide. Those with the lowest levels of physical inactivity among individuals aged 15 or over, were as follows:

 

Country

Prevalence of physical inactivity

1

Bangladesh

4.7%

2

Mozambique

7.1%

3

Comoros

8.3%

4

Benin

9.1%

5

Mongolia

9.4%

6

Malawi

10.2%

7

Cambodia

11.2%

8

Guinea

12.1%

9

Myanmar

12.7%

10

Vietnam

15.3%


Team GB notched up a shameful 63.3% of the population having a low level of physical activity; even worse than the United States, whose reported level of inactivity was 40.5%. In fact, the only countries to feature below Team GB were the Federated States of Micronesia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Serbia and the Kingdom of Swaziland.

So the Olympic medals for most physically active countries are:

Gold medal winner: Bangladesh
Silver medal winner: Mozambique
Bronze medal winner: Comoros

Carrying Your Torch For Good Health

While Great Britain as a nation didn’t show too well in the above tables, we can all aim for a longer, happier, healthier lifespan. Several well-known diet and lifestyle approaches can help you achieve this but, as with everything, knowledge is one thing – it’s putting it into practice that is the key:

  • Maintain a healthy weight – lose any excess weight slowly so it is more likely to stay off.
  • Exercise regularly – aim for at least 60 minutes on most days (10,000 steps).
  • Don’t smoke – use an e-cigarette or nicotine replacement therapy as risk reduction methods to help you quit.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – at least 5-a-day of varying colours.
  • Think Mediterranean and Asian - follow a diet that mimics their ways of eating as much possible, with oily fish, herbs, spices, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. 
  • Cut back on carbohydrate intake -particularly sugars and other simple carbs, and concentrate on eating wholegrains and other complex carbs instead.
  • Go easy on salt – especially if you have raised blood pressure.
  • Get some natural sun exposure - but avoid more than 15 to 20 minutes exposure without applying sunscreen. 
References
http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.688
http://www.numbeo.com/quality-of-life/rankings_by_country.jsp
http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/hap_nat/findingreports/RankReport_AverageHappiness.php
http://edition.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/08/25/healthiest.ethnic.cuisines/
http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2812%2960646-1/abstract

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Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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