“Living well is the best revenge.” – George Herbert.
When I was in high school in the late 1960s, we were pretty sure someone was going to drop a bomb on us. We had graduated from duck and cover to emergency preparedness, bomb shelters and all. One day in the auditorium we watched some training on first aid and handling trauma. The films were pretty vivid and some kids left in a hurry to throw up. One thing from this that has stuck with me is: if you are sick or injured, you can’t help anyone else.
Anyone who has had major surgery or been extremely ill knows how helpless you can be and how dependent you are on those around you, whether or not they are prepared for dealing with an incapacitated person. The best way to survive and help your family and friends to survive is to not get sick or injured. There are some pretty solid strategies for doing this, the most basic including wearing personal protective and safety equipment, knowing your tools and using them properly, being conscious and aware in potentially dangerous situations and so forth. But in the long run, the best way to stay healthy is to drop bad habits, eat well, and live well.
In a November 2005 National Geographic article, Dan Buettner introduced the term Blue Zones to describe five regions where people more often than anywhere on Earth live in good health into their 100s. Although these areas differ dramatically in culture and diet, they have some very particular things in common, many of which people familiar with this web site will recognize. One is that they are mainly self-sufficient, relying very little on outside sources for their food.
The Blue Zones are Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy; the community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; and Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.
The Mediterranean Diet you may already know something about, and it is a good approximation of the diets from Ikaria and Ogliastra with a few exceptions. The Mediterraneans use milk products—people from the other zones, not so much—and they also tend to have alcohol in moderation, usually one or two glasses of the local wine daily, a wine loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidants. Okinawans eat fish pretty much every day and lots of sweet potatoes, their main source of carbohydrates. The Adventists are pesco-vegetarians although some also eat small amounts of meat, and they don’t drink alcohol, caffeine or sugary drinks. The Costa Ricans thrive on the traditional corn, beans and squash of the ancestors along with regional fruits, yams and occasional eggs.
What all of these diets have in common are lots of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables and whole grains; daily consumption of nuts and beans; no added sugars (only what naturally occurs in fruit, vegetables and grains); and very small amounts of red meat, if any at all. All consume little or no processed foods which can contain unhealthy additives. People who follow this way of eating do not overeat. In Okinawa, they have an 80% rule—eat until you are 80% full, then stop. To help them achieve this, they use small plates, eat consciously and slowly, and eat with friends and family so the experience is pleasant and leisurely.
Faith and Family Ties
Besides diet, these centenarians often live in communities where they worship together, value family ties and are active members of extended families. They get gentle but sustained exercise, such as you might get from walking up and down hills while herding goats or working regularly in a garden. While it isn’t yet clear if a hybrid of these diets will prolong your life, anyone who lives like these folks is less likely to have diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory diseases like arthritis, and a host of other diet-related illnesses that can be painful and expensive to treat and maintain, and that make it difficult to take care of yourself and others. Besides that, they make you feel lousy and sap the joy from life.
There are lots of web sites, articles and books dedicated to the Blue Zone Diet and way of life, but I’ll share my current take on it. I must confess that I don’t grow all of my own food, and will include in the following lists of my sample meals, items that I purchase. My diet and life style are still a work in process, but I’m 69, take no medications and am pretty darned healthy. I’ll let you know in 31 years how it has worked for me.
Blue Zone folks tend to get the majority of their calories at breakfast and lunch, with supper being the lightest meal. Everything I describe in teh following paragraphs is for one person, so scale up as appropriate for your family.
I like variety so here are some of my breakfasts:
Oatmeal with nuts, berries and milk or yogurt. I grow mulberries, raspberries and blueberries, so those are the usual.
A one-egg omelet filled with sautéed dark greens, mushrooms, and green onions with some cheese melted in and topped with a bit of fresh salsa (because I like spice). I’ll often also have some fruit as well, and if I’m planning to work hard that day and need extra calories, I’ll add a piece of whole-grain toast.
Cornmeal or buckwheat pancakes or waffles topped with nuts and fruit.
A modified English breakfast of beans on whole-grain toast, sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes, and half a grapefruit or an orange.
A smoothie of frozen banana, berries, probiotic yogurt, green tea (decaf), and turmeric. I like to add elderberry juice if I have it.
Whole grain bread, natural nut butter and apple or pear slices. I like to have a V-8 juice with this—one of my bad habits.
Rye toast smeared with avocado and topped with an egg. Fresh fruit is always nice to have along with this.
I love the taste of coffee, so I always have decaf with milk, but sometimes I have herbal or decaf tea instead.
Lunches and Dinners
My lunches and dinners can shift around. A more robust version of these representative meals is at lunch time, a lighter version in the evening:
Taco salad of lettuce topped with beans (and sometimes a little ground red meat with chilies), cheese, tomato, onions, avocado or guacamole (if I have it), sour cream, salsa and a corn tortilla on the side.
Grilled or smoked salmon (wild-caught, home-smoked), brown rice pilaf, whatever vegetables are good from the garden.
Cheese soufflé with a side of steamed vegetables or a salad depending on the weather.
Navy beans, turnip or other dark-leafy greens, cornbread.
Root vegetable hash with a poached egg.
Pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans with lots of other vegetables).
Chicken thigh fajitas.
Asian stir fry of vegetables in sesame oil with ginger and garlic, a tiny bit of pork sometimes, and served over brown rice.
Greek salad of tomatoes, garbanzo beans, olives, cucumber, marinaded mushrooms and/or artichokes, red onions, basil, and feta or mozzarella cheese, and dressed with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, thyme and oregano.
Fish tacos with cabbage slaw. A white fish low on or in the middle of the food chain is best, but whatever you catch locally would be good, too.
Black bean burger, roasted corn on the cob, whole grain bun, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and whatever else you like on your burger (I’m a pickles and mustard sort of girl).
Hummus, whole wheat pita (but I often skip the bread), carrots, celery, cauliflower, other raw vegetables for dipping.
Curried or masala vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots, chickpeas and English peas, and whatever else sounds good (this doesn’t come from a Blue Zone, but it meets all the criteria, and I’m crazy about Indian food). If you throw in a sweet potato, you don’t even have to serve it over rice. I like to top it with a little yogurt, as well.
For an occasional treat, we eat out, and I love to have miso soup, seaweed salad, and a California roll.
Most evenings I have one or two small glasses of red wine while relaxing with family or friends.
In one of the zones, turmeric is used often. I like turmeric, and have been trying to grow my own, but so far I haven’t had much luck. I do grow most of my own herbs as well as ginger and garlic. I’m a big fan of all these and cook with them often.
The recommendations for a Blue Zone type diet are to eat no more than 10 ounces of red meat a month. That means a half-pound of ground beef makes four servings, enough to make chili if you also use plenty of beans or to make spaghetti sauce if you like meat in it. The red meat you do eat should be grass-fed and hormone-free. Goat, sheep, buffalo, and game are all good alternatives to grain fattened beef. Poultry and lean pork can also be in your diet in moderation if you decide to eat meat, and no meat of any kind should be eaten more than once a day—better still if three times a week or less.
Some guidelines recommend reducing dairy, but that depends on how much full-fat dairy you’re currently getting. The Japanese use almost no dairy (they tend to be lactose intolerant); the Mediterraneans use more but these are mainly from grass-fed sheep and goats. Eggs should not be eaten daily—three a week is good and eggs from free-range chickens are always going to be a better option. Try to get at least a handful of nuts a day, either in your main meals or as a snack. Eat one-half to one cup of beans every day. Fermented foods are fine, including sauerkraut, kimchi, probiotic yogurt and tempeh. As you can see, this diet, especially if you grow most of your own food, can be inexpensive—certainly the people in the Blue Zones are not wealthy and are eating home grown, locally caught or gathered, and readily available foods.
Lifestyle + Diet
A common type of lifestyle as much as diet contribute to the long life of these Blue Zone centenarians. Okinawans have a word for “why you get up in the morning,” and having this sense of purpose reinforced daily contributes to their long lives. The Adventists are a racially diverse group (including whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians), so don’t assume the long life is down to genetics. In fact, studies of the health and longevity of twins have shown that diet and lifestyle far more than genetics cause many of the afflictions I mentioned above. The Adventists are united in their longevity only by their ritualistically-defined lifestyle that includes not just adhering to a defined diet (mainly as described in the early chapters of Genesis in the Bible), but also weekly nature walks and one 24-hour period per week of downtime when the cares of life are set aside for worship and renewal.
All of the Blue Zone people stay active throughout their lives. They live with their extended families and benefit from something called the Grandmother Effect, the phenomenon that grandparents living with their grandchildren, and great and even great-great grandchildren contribute to the longevity of both the elders and the children. This effect also has been documented in whales and non-human primates who live past reproductivity and into old age contributing to the wellbeing of the youngest community members. In addition, the experience and support of elders relieve a lot of the day to day stress of parenting for the generation between the grandparents and the grandkids.
An Active Life
People who live past 100 in these areas don’t really exercise so much as keep active; Dan Buettner describes this as “moving naturally.” They walk, work on their gardens or homes, play, ride horses or bicycles, and generally do what makes them happy. Many of them have never really retired, doing jobs they love as long as they are able, and that is a long, long time. They stop during each day, usually about fifteen minutes, to spend time relaxing, meditating, praying or in some other way stepping outside of themselves and any day-to-day concerns. They also surround themselves with friends as well as family and are members of their wider community. Their close friends, often more than three, gather regularly for mutual support and sharing of experiences and ideas. These friendships usually last decades, and the friends are not only like-minded, but equally dedicated to being healthy, happy and active. Obviously, smoking or other use of tobacco, drinking to excess, and use of recreational drugs don’t contribute in a positive way to health and long life.
My personal lifestyle includes horseback riding, gardening, running up and downstairs doing chores and walking in the park. I also write, sew, knit, and camp whenever a can. I’ve given up on the gym—it was too boring. Many of my family have passed and one of my best friends (one I was sure was going to live to 100 right along with me) was recently killed by a speeding driver, so I have to keep the friends and family I have remaining close and must make new friends, and perhaps even build a new family. Dan Buettner said in his TED Talk about the Blue Zone people, it is important to belong to the right tribe—people who support you and have the same healthy goals you have. Creating a community or finding and joining one that nurtures you, I have found, is important to happiness, and happiness is one of the keys to a long life.
The point, of course, is not really to live to be older than 100, but to live well, happily, and in good health for your own sake and for the sake of those who depend on your and upon whom you depend. The point is to enjoy the years we have and to share them with the people you care for. To do this, walk lots. Do your best to reduce stress. Do the things you love. Enjoy being with your family. Worship with those you love and respect. Have several close friends you share things with. Have a good reason to get up every morning. And, as Michael Pollan said in his book In Defense of Food, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”