by Anne Tergesen: Want to learn the dietary secrets of the world’s longest-lived people?
Want to learn the dietary secrets of the world’s longest-lived people? I recently sat down with journalist and researcher Dan Buettner, who—with the National Geographic Society—has spent the past decade identifying and studying the world’s “longevity hot spots.”
Dubbed Blue Zones “because a team of researchers had once circled a target region on a map with blue ink,” the regions—Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the Sardinian highlands; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula—have both a high concentration of centenarians and low rates of middle age mortality and chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia and diabetes, says Buettner.
“They live a long time and tend to die quickly,” he adds.
Buettner’s latest book, “The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People” — published this week — does a deep dive into the cuisine of these regions. In a nutshell (so to speak), what they have in common is a plant-based diet (sorry paleos!). While the specifics vary from region to region, aside from vegetables, the centenarians eat lots of whole grains, small amounts of dairy and meat, and lots of legumes and beans—“about a cup a day,” says Buettner. Notably absent, he says, are sugary treats, processed foods, and the faddish diets we often use to lose weight. “Diets fail for 97% of” those who go on them, Buettner says.
In Okinawa, favorite foods include sweet potatoes, brown rice, and tofu. The Ikarian menu features feta cheese, chickpeas, potatoes and olive oil. Sardinians chow down on sourdough bread, fava beans, almonds, and wine. The Nicoyan diet is heavy on squash, beans, and corn.
In Loma Linda, California, the researchers studied the town’s large community of Seventh-day Adventists, conservative Protestants who “shun smoking, drinking and dancing” and who “live up to a decade longer than the rest of us,” says Buettner. Their dietary staples include avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, and oatmeal (not the “instant” kind I eat, of course, but the slow-cooked variety).
In each locale, healthy eating habits aren’t the only thing people are doing right. The cultures also emphasize strong ties among family and friends, membership in faith-based communities, a sense of purpose in older age, techniques to relieve stress (from prayer to naps to moderate wine consumption with friends), and moderate exercise (by which Buettner means gardening and walking—not running marathons or pumping iron).
While it all sounds good and logical, is there any science behind Buettner’s dietary recommendations?
In the forward, University of California, San Francisco clinical professor of medicine, Dean Ornish, says the “findings echo the research my colleagues and I have conducted for almost four decades.” And Buettner, during our conversation, explained that his team of researchers conducted surveys of representative samples of hot spot populations to measure rates of chronic conditions. To determine what 90-year-olds eat, they scoured dietary surveys from past decades. One example: a National Institutes of Health study of the Seventh-day Adventists.
Buettner also recommends ways to change your environment to make it “mindlessly easier” to eat well. His tips include:
Eating a big breakfast and a small dinner.
Eating with family, not with electronics, and taking your time.
When socializing over meals, gravitating to friends with healthy habits.
Using smaller plates.
Learning a half dozen plant-based recipes to use as defaults.
Not stocking sugary treats, sodas, and salty snacks at home.
Asking waiters at restaurants to not bring a bread basket.
Remembering that restaurant meals contain 200 to 300 more calories, on average.
Starting a vegetable garden.
Since 2009, Buettner — with the backing of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and AARP, among others — has been working with dozens of communities in Los Angeles, Iowa, Hawaii, and Oregon to create Blue Zones here in the U.S. Among the approaches include getting politicians to prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants, ban drive-throughs, shrink the size of fast food signs, give bikes the right of way over cars, and create green spaces and widen sidewalks. They also ask residents to sign a pledge to adhere to Blue Zone practices and facilitate get-togethers among those who take the pledge.