We're living longer, but we also want to enjoy good health into our older years. What are the secrets of living to 100 and beyond? Researchers looked for groups of people around the world with the longest lifespans and lowest risk of disease to find out what we can learn from their lifestyles and diets.
The study uncovered five populations in what scientists dubbed Blue Zones. The locations were Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Ikaria in Greece, and Loma Linda in California, USA. Let's take a closer look at the traditional diets from two of these Blue Zones.
Japan boasts an exceptionally high life expectancy, and one of the lowest rates of coronary heart disease in the world. The study looked closely at Okinawa, which has been the longest-lived prefecture (state) in Japan for most years that records have been kept.
A typical Japanese diet includes plenty of vegetables, fruit, rice, and fish, plus some meat. It also includes lots of soy products including tofu and edamame beans, along with fermented soy products including miso (fermented soy bean paste) and natto (fermented whole soy beans).
This 2500-year-old Confucian mantra is said in Okinawa before meals, and means to eat until you're 80% full. Paying attention to your hunger signals is a powerful way to tune into your body and prevent overeating. This level of satiety should leave you feeling satisfied, but not uncomfortably full. The idea of stopping before you reach fullness is a new concept for many of us, but learning to listen to your hunger signals is a skill you can practise and improve over time. What better time to remind yourself than when you're just about to eat?
Okinawan centenarians have eaten a plant-based diet for the majority of their lives. Sweet potatoes make up a surprisingly large amount of their diet, at 67%, with rice, vegetables, legumes and other grains making up another 30%. That leaves only 2% for fish, meat and poultry and 1% for other foods. Meat, such as pork, is usually reserved only for special occasions and eaten in small quantities. The Okinawan diet isn’t completely vegetarian, but it is 98% meat-free.
Okinawans enjoy plenty of soy-based foods, such as tofu and miso soup. Tofu is a great plant source of 'complete' protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies need for growth and repair. Fermented soy foods such as miso contain good bacteria called probiotics, which can help promote good gut health. Increasingly, researchers are focusing on digestive health as we begin to better understand the many effects of the gut microbiome on overall health, including weight loss, immunity and the prevention of certain illnesses. The longevity and good health of many Okinawans proves the power of eating a healthy, balanced and gut-friendly diet.
The Mediterranean diet has long been considered one of the healthiest diets to follow, and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study looked at two areas that have traditionally had a Mediterranean diet: Sardinia in Italy and Ikaria in Greece.
A Mediterranean diet is typically plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, and cereals such as brown rice, wholegrain bread, and pasta. It also includes olive oil, fish, white meat, and some red meat and dairy.
Ikarian centenarians have eaten a variation of the Mediterranean diet for most of their lives. The diet includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, making up 53% of their diet combined. Potatoes and pasta provide carbohydrates, but appear in the diet in much smaller quantities – at 9% and 5% respectively. Fish accounts for 6% of the diet, with meat notching up 5%. Like the Okinawan diet, the traditional Ikarian diet is mostly vegetarian with only a little meat.
Sardinian centenarians have a diet made up of 47% wholegrains, mostly from barley. Wholegrains are a great source of fibre and important nutrients. The second largest part of the Sardinian diet is dairy at 26%, followed by vegetables at 12%. Animal products such as meat, fish and poultry make up 5% of the diet. Meat is enjoyed occasionally, on Sundays or special celebrations. Again, Sardinians have traditionally enjoyed a plant-dominated diet with small quantities of meat, fish and poultry.
Olive oil is a staple ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine and has been linked to numerous health benefits, including reducing blood pressure and improving heart health. However oil, regardless of type, is very high in calories, so make sure you’re measuring and logging the amount that you add to your meals if you’re trying to lose weight.
While diet played a pivotal role in all of the Blue Zone demographics, lifestyle, exercise and outlook were, unsurprisingly, important too. Those studied in the Blue Zone research thought about exercise in a different way than we might. These individuals tended to be naturally active throughout the day, with active jobs, manual housework and gardening keeping them moving. They typically didn’t spend long periods of time sitting down. Stress reduction, a sense of belonging and being part of a community, were also vital factors in helping these demographics to thrive well into old age.
Much food for thought.