LONGEVITY: World’s Top 5 Zones and Why
Food is a complex universe of interrelationships. It is art and science. Chemistry and biology. History, culture and psychology. It is politics, economics, water, power, fossil fuels, infrastructure, agriculture, land and animal welfare, transportation, advertising, packaging, imports, exports, global agreements.
It is BIG business. Food is the largest sector of the global economy – worth almost 30 trillion NZ dollars. 10 companies control the world’s food supply: its quality; its seeming choices. Would you like Pepsi or Coke with that? You will recognise most of the other names too: Nestle (often #1); Unilever; Danone; General Mills; Kellogg’s; Mars; Associated British Foods (owning Burgen, Tip Top, Patak’s, Twining’s and more); Mondelez (owning Kraft, Heinz, Cadbury and many others).
And food is intimate. We take it inside our bodies and it becomes our flesh, mind, mood and energy. Food is early memories, sentimental favourites, family, celebrations, traditions, birthdays, Christmas dinner, Diwali, Chinese New Year, community, dining out (and the budget to do that), creativity, duty, and gestures of love. And for all of us – from earliest hominids to today – food is about life and death, health and disease: survival.
So what should we eat? I would like you to do a little visualisation and picture a table overflowing with classic Italian dishes. What would it hold? There might be pizza, lasagne, polenta, spaghetti with clams, peppers and eggplant stuffed with rice, herbs, nuts and dried fruit. Next picture a table covered with Japanese food. Perhaps sushi, sashimi, agedashi tofu, noodle soup, tempura seafood and vegetables.
Most people, even many children, if stood before the two tables could immediately determine which one was Japanese and which one was Italian. Right? However, the dishes are fundamentally the same. The deception lies in the presentation and seasonings. In terms of the foods used and the nutrition delivered, they are far more similar than different.
Both traditional cuisines share a foundation in minimally processed plant foods. There are 4 types:
1) Fruit, veg, herbs and spices;
2) Grains (eg wheat, rye, oats, barley, maize, rice, millet);
3) Legumes (eg dried peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, soy products);
4) Nuts and seeds (eg sesame, sunflower, almond, pistachio).
These 4 groups contain plant protein, carbohydrate, fat and they are our only source of fibre: the favourite food of a healthy gut microbiome. Plant foods are important sources of vitamins, minerals and thousands of antioxidants offering unique benefits.
Traditionally these cuisines include small amounts of animal foods (meat, fish, eggs; plus a small amount of dairy for Italians from buffalo, sheep, cow and goat milk). They both use herbs and spices. And they include fermented foods. For Italians: coffee, cheese, wine, wine vinegars, anchovy sauce, pickled vegetables. For the Japanese: tea; miso; natto; soy sauce; sake; pickled veg, fruit and ginger.
The diet and health statistics of the Japanese and Mediterranean populations have been well studied, starting in the 1950s. They live long and they live well. Tellingly though, when these nationalities move to western nations and jettison their traditional diet and lifestyle, they have the same sorry statistics as everyone else following the SAD approach (yup, it’s a thing and stands for Standard American Diet). In contrast those who move overseas, but maintain their cultural traditions, then also maintain health and longevity. So they aren’t relying on genetic good fortune.
In 2004, Dan Buettner of National Geographic, along with longevity researchers identified 5 Blue Zones which had the world’s most centenarians. Here people lived measurably longer and better: Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California (an intentional community of Seventh Day Adventists). There were 8 shared principles.
- Eat mostly plants: foods that are whole or minimally processed.
Related research has been done by scientists based in the US and UK. Their international Human Gut Project follows existing hunter-gathers (such as the Hadza in Tanzania) and assesses their more healthy and diverse gut microbiome compared to westerners. The scientists recommend a minimum of 25 different plant foods daily; ideally 50-75 for a healthily diverse gut microbiome.
This might sound close to impossible, but here is an example. My typical breakfast has about 25 plant foods. I bulk soak and cook cereal such as a mixture of barley, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, linseed, almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, cinnamon, ginger, raisins. On top is stewed fruit such as plums and figs, or apples and prunes. Next homemade or artisan bread made with wheat, rye, walnuts, sesame, caraway, thyme. Instead of butter it is spread with homemade Dynamite (my easy version of Vegemite; see my recipe) made with yeast and other plant foods. On top is peanut butter perhaps mixed with smoky sweet paprika and chilli. All preceded by herb tea of fresh mint or lemon balm with whole cloves.
2. Stop eating when you are 80% full.
I carry a small container with me when dining out and regularly put a half portion or more to take home. This can also multiply your pleasure by letting you enjoy more later. Indicatively, especially since the 80s, many bakery and restaurant portions tripled. As did people’s corresponding girth.
3. Moderate alcohol. In all but one Blue Zone (Loma Linda), alcohol was consumed, but only in small amounts at any one time.
4. Move regularly and use daily activities as exercise.
Set an achievable goal such as 30 to 60 minutes of exercise 6 x weekly. This can be broken up into 10 minute segments, say before each meal (eg walk around your home, garden or office). Increased weight gain in western populations became common in the 80s. Being overweight is linked with less incidental exercise (eg more lifts, less stairs); more highly processed food and larger portions.
To increase incidental movement, I walk around whenever I am on the phone. Just like saving or spending, little bits of exercise add up. Movement helps blood sugar and therefore mind, mood, joints, metabolism, sleep and more. The well studied and #1 exercise for blood sugar and thus weight management is to move for 2 minutes after every 20 minutes of sitting. Get water, go to the loo, dust, file and so on. There are always tasks beckoning.
5. Commit to family and loved ones.
6. Have a sense of higher purpose and daily purpose.
For both numbers 5 and 6, an example of their influence has been called the Roseto Effect. In the 50s and 60s this was the healthiest town in the US. Initially, researchers did not know why it achieved far greater longevity and half the heart attack rate. Towns nearby had similar water and health facilities for instance. The men did dangerous slate mining work. Food was cooked in lard. However, the population was mostly of Italian heritage. Three generations would live, eat and go to church together. That is until the 70s when single dwelling houses were built, young people moved away, old people lived alone, and increasingly worship was done at malls by conspicuous consumption. Roseto then had the same sorry health statistics as neighbouring towns. Researchers declared “social cohesion” as the missing tonic.
7. Maintain an application or ritual to downshift your way out of stress. Some used gardening, singing, calisthenics or contemplative practices.
8. Find your tribe. Four Blue Zones were born into their tribe. Tellingly, in Loma Linda they created one – so you can too.
From as far back as 1938, Harvard started studying its students and alumni for factors that led to good health and long lives. #1 was healthy relationships. (Interestingly, the initial cohort included the student, John F Kennedy – and for many years, no women, until they were permitted at Harvard). Research from longitudinal Framingham studies shows that smoking, obesity and happiness are what they termed, “contagious”. So if a new person joins a group that is primarily made up of happy people or smokers, they too will tend to be/do likewise.
It is estimated about 40% of people will be well served by the Blue Zone/Mediterranean diet. However, no one diet can ever fit all. Roughly 30% will need to emphasise more animal protein and fewer starches; more in the so-called Paleo direction. While 30% need to be more vegetarian with increased raw food.
So how do you know what serves you best? Alert experimentation is a good start; you could try out an approach for at least one month and make daily notes. One indicator that can be evident in 10 to 30 minutes after a meal is mood and vitality changes. A meal should leave you in the ideal zone of feeling alert, yet calm. If it leaves you anxious and unsatisfied, or grumpy and tired: that meal has not served you.
The other option is to find out exactly why you have these patterns, via a tailored clinical assessment. I create a full symptom profile. For example the nature of your hair, skin, nails, digestion, aches and pains, energy levels, sleep and more help tell the story of which foods work for or against you. Your basic body shape also suggests metabolic weaknesses and strengths. One assessor is where you hold your greatest strength or bulk. Or if you gain or lose weight does it first affect your face and upper body, your lower belly, or hips and thighs? All these aspects of physical appearance suggest particular hormonal and metabolic factors and thus specific dietary requirements.
Just one example of each person’s unique constellation of factors is the nature of their SNPS or single nucleotide polymorphisms. These are the most common type of genetic variation and used as markers to study the diversity of your 30,000 genes. Nucleotides are subunits of DNA: repeating base pairs called A and C, G and T (in full: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, Thymine). A SNP might affect one of those pairs, and play a subtle or direct role in that related gene’s function. It is estimated that on average a person’s genome has about 4 million SNPs. That is how unique you are.
An example of one potential SNP that might affect you adversely is in regards to a process called methylation. Every cell needs adequate methylation for growth and repair. Methylation tags toxic substances so they can be eliminated via bile, urine or sweat. Methyl groups are made of 1 carbon atom and 3 hydrogen atoms. They trigger or inhibit genetic expression. According to your SNPs, you might be prone to undermethylation. Without animal foods and their high methionine content (an amino acid that increases methylation) you won’t feel stable and grounded. Your vitality drops and you might turn to stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and starchy carbs to give you brief reprieve.
With overmethylation, you need lots of folate from plant foods, which are especially high in raw fruit and veg. Folate helps lower excess methylation. Although you might like the brief power burst that salty, fatty, savoury foods deliver, too many high methionine animal foods will leave you tired and heavy. A rough estimate is that perhaps 40% of people easily have balanced methylation, while the remainder tend to under or over methylation.
So ignore extremists who say that everyone should eat in any one particular way. It is illogical. Remember too that many of the lessons of the Blue Zones have to do with social health. A practical plan is to be specific in your choices at home, and relaxed when out socially.
At home, a good starting point is to minimise highly processed food. Each time you shop, focus on one type of food purchase – say, crackers – and read every ingredient list to find ones that list wholefoods only. So no refined sugar, non-cold pressed oils, or artificial additives (tip: there are commonly only about three worthy types of crackers on the supermarket shelves!).
Shopping is powerful. Each time you make a purchase you are voting for the world you want to see. Your choices are highly scrutinised by big corporations who then redirect their resources accordingly.
When I came to NZ in the 70s and helped open a health food store, people hadn’t heard of free-range eggs, yoghurt, avocado, beansprouts, herb tea, tofu, hummus, plant milks, sushi, extra-virgin olive oil, gluten-free products and many more. Look how extensively the social norms have changed.
You, as a consumer, are powerful. Vote with your wallet to create a better you and a better world.