How to Live a Long Healthy Life The Blue Zones Way
Having a background in medical science my knowledge was always obtained from scientific research determined by proving that one specific factor, chemical or organism was responsible for a particular result, reaction or disease. Unfortunately, because health is very complex this type of research can often fall short when dealing with the many factors that influence and interact with one another to result in good health. Hence, I have always been interested in reading about research based on observations made on peoples or populations who exhibit a better level of health, with a higher percentage reaching greater ages and without our common Western lifestyle diseases such as some forms of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Recently I was reading an edition of National Geographic (as I am sure you all do) devoted to a single article called “The Blue Zones”. This article was the result of observational research of some of the longest living and disease-free populations on the planet. And surprise, surprise? We weren’t one of them.
These areas became known as the Blue Zones simply because researchers were initially circling them with a blue marker. Over the course of many years, research was collated on the populations that had the highest numbers of centenarians and the lowest numbers of disease stricken people. They found five specific cultures or groups of people that met their criteria and nine healthy lifestyle habits that contributed to a better level of good health and longevity.
The five groups of peoples that met the above criteria were: the Ikarians of Greece; the Okinawans of Japan; people of the Ogliastra region, on the island of Sardinia, Italy; Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California and people of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
So, let’s have a look at the healthy lifestyle habits and what the researchers called the Power Nine:
- Move naturally. The longest living peoples are constantly moving in the environment that surrounds them. They walk to work, to a friend’s house or to their place of religious worship. So, keep moving whenever you can.
- Purpose. Peoples in the Blue Zones had a sense of purpose, something other than work that gave their life meaning.
- Downshift. These peoples have developed routines to reduce stress. For example, Okinawans take a few moments to remember their ancestors; Ikarians take a daily nap and you will like this one, Sardinians enjoy a happy hour.
- 80 % rule. The Okinawans remind themselves to stop eating when they feel 80 percent full, with the phrase “Hara hachi bu”.
- Plant slant. Beans, vegetables, fruit and nuts are the fundamental ingredients in most centenarian diets. They also eat relatively small amounts of meat. So, make plants the heroes of your dish.
- Wine @ 5. Another one you will be happy to hear; all Blue Zones peoples drink alcohol moderately and regularly, and moderate drinkers tend to outlive non-drinkers.
- Right tribe. Be part of a social circle that supports healthy behaviours. The Okinawans of Japan form moais. These are groups of five friends committed to one another for life. I too have a group of friends who I have known since kindergarten, primary and high school and we are still in regular contact even though we now live in different states.
- Community. Research found that attendance at a faith based service four times a month added 4-14 years to your life expectancy. I personally believe that this can be extended to social groups who regularly meet to participate in a common interest or activity. Social interaction plays a critical role in maintaining an exuberance for life, especially in our later years.
- Loved ones first. Spend time with your families first. Centenarians invested time and love in their children and children in turn cared for their elders. Having a life partner was also found to add several years to your life.
From my own point of view, I really do feel that I am ticking most of those boxes. I enjoy moving. Getting out and about by foot energises me and I don’t really like to sit still for too long. I have a wonderful little family who are really my purpose in life and a great group of friends I can call on when I need them. My diet has become more plant based and I try not to over eat. I enjoy a glass of wine several times a week and since I moved from medical science to personal training I am a lot less stressed. I really do enjoy training my clients and helping them where I can with their health issues.
Now, let’s have a look at one of these healthy habits in a little more detail.
By far, one of the biggest differences between people in these regions and those in a Western culture is the proportion of plant food eaten to meat and dairy.
On the Greek island of Ikaria, theirs is a typical Mediterranean diet to the extent that it includes lots of vegetables and olive oil, smaller amounts of meat and dairy products and moderate amounts of alcohol, specifically, wine. Where it was different was its emphasis on potatoes, goat’s milk (feta cheese), honey, legumes, wild greens and some fruit.
Despite the potatoes having a high carbohydrate content, they do have heart-healthy potassium, Vitamin B6 and fibre. Wild greens are a great source of minerals. Feta cheese provides gut-friendly bacteria with anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. The Ikarians add it to salads, vegetable stews and other dishes. Black-eyed peas, which are actually beans, have been found to contain some of the strongest anti-cancer, anti-diabetes and heart-protective substances around. And honey, used to treat everything from insomnia to healing wounds, is stirred into tea and coffee as a sweetener or simply by the spoonful twice daily.
The Okinawans of Japan are an interesting group of people due to the influence Western culture has had on the younger generation. Prior to WWII, the Okinawans diet consisted of a diet of two thirds sweet potato (or imo, a purple relative of the orange sweet potato). They also ate miso soup with seaweed, tofu, and green leafy vegetables and turmeric as a spice and in tea, with smaller servings of meat and fish. The three foods turmeric, sweet potato and seaweed had the added benefit of mimicking caloric restriction. This results in cells producing less energy and in turn, less free radicals and in so doing, slowing the aging process.
However, after the second world war, the Americans set up an army base in the region and Western influences changed food habits. Sweet potato consumption dropped to 5% and rice consumption doubled. Bread crept in, milk consumption increased and meat, eggs and poultry consumption increased more than seven-fold. With that, cancers of the lung, breast and colon almost doubled.
The shepherds on the rocky slopes of Sardinia exercise daily and at a low intensity but this level of physical activity allows them to eat a rather high caloric diet, similar to today’s Americans. The difference though is in the nutritional content. Breads they eat are healthier, made from high protein low-gluten wheat or whole wheat. They eat fava beans and chickpeas which deliver protein and fibre and are one of the foods most highly associated with reaching the age of 100. Fennel, which flavours many dishes, is a rich source of vitamins A, B and C. And tomatoes, used as a sauce or basis for many dishes such as minestrone soup, are rich in vitamin C and fibre. Almonds, eaten alone or chopped into main dishes are regulars in Sardinian cooking.
This has been a brief overview of the “Blue Zones” way of life with a few practical examples of how the longest living peoples on the planet go about things. I will return to this topic in future articles.
The main point I would like to make to everyone is that to give yourself the best chance of living a long healthy life free from disease and under the influence of pharmaceutical medication, it does take some thought and consideration regarding the many habits that we undertake daily. But you can do it when you put your mind to it and make good health a habit.
Try to eat a mainly plant based diet, get out and about every day if possible, and spend time with family and friends. Take some time to take stress out of your day, don’t eat too much, give to others, be grateful for what you have and last of all but not least, enjoy a glass of wine or two.
Now, get to it!
National Geographic. Blue Zones. The science of living longer. Dan Buettner.