LONGEVITY: World’s Top 5 Zones and Why

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.

  1. 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.

Food and Travel in Africa

Food and Travel in Africa: South Africa, Egypt and Morocco

South Africa

No matter where you live, genetically speaking, a trip to Africa is a journey home.

Local women might have the world’s most inventive hairstyles. Less attractive are the unemployment figures of 27%. And for the young, make that 56%. South Africa has the world’s greatest economic disparity between rich and poor. And it is a shining achiever of courageously sought democracy and justice.

In Johannesburg we visit the Apartheid Museum and spend the day in Soweto where blacks were forcibly removed from former mixed areas. There are about 3 million people in homes that range from comfortable brick houses to abject lean-tos with streams of sewerage. There is also dancing, singing and a nearby church reverberates with passionate gospel. Without African roots there would be no blues, jazz, reggae, rock, samba, salsa, tango and more.

Cape Town is Joburg’s beautiful older sister. The coastline is spectacular with crashing waves, sharks, baboons, ostrich, pods of whales and colonies of penguins. I join a walking history tour and later one focussed on cuisine. We sample local cheeses, impala sausage, seafood, sweet Afrikaans curries and custard-mad desserts, stewed antelope, springbok carpaccio with pickled figs, sophisticated wines, and gin with rose petals. South Africa is not yet a significant food destination – unless you are a four legged carnivore. As a marker, this nation on a major coffee growing continent has had artisan cafes and baristas for less than 10 years.

Next we safari at Kruger. This national park is larger than Israel. Each day at 5:30 am and near dusk a ranger takes us out in high-sided, open-air jeeps with tiered seating for 3 to 7 hours. Train your bladder as there is no exiting the vehicle except for lunch in a secure compound. There are repeated warnings that viewing game is a gamble like going to Vegas. Fortunately the weather is dry and cloudy, which animals prefer for heading to waterholes.

Amazingly, we see ibex, antelope, impala, hippo, rhino, eland, zebra, Nile crocodile, warthog, mongoose, honey badger and wildebeest. Many are less than 2 metres away. Lions creep through long grass to eye Cape buffalo. A hyena family plays with their cubs. They have jaw strength second only to crocodiles and they’ll take on a lion. A leopard holds onto his kill encircled by vultures. Giraffes playfully press necks while nearby sentry birds monitor for predators. Mother elephants and baboons nurse their babies. We live half a world away and yet grew up with stories of African animals. Big magic.

A typical greeting is Sawubona, which is Zulu for “I see you”. See you next in Cairo.

Egypt

Cairo is home to over 25 million people. All of them are on the road at once.

As usual in a new city, I join a walking food tour and try tamarind juice; cardamom coffee; mint and vinegar drink; flat bread filled with hummus, fresh coriander patties and super crisp potato; deep fried brains (a cross between scrambled egg and chicken) and numerous nut pastries, sticky with honey. We visit a 14th century market where Al Fishawi’s has served mint tea since 1773. It is now well over 40 degrees. Summer temperatures can reach 55. Businesses and even doctors cater to clients at a milder 1 am.

No one got the memo about the dangers of smoking. But there is lots to be awestruck over: the pyramids of Giza with their somehow manoeuvred stone in seamless symmetry while the Sphinx stands guard; Karnak Temple lit up at night in regal indigo; the Egyptian Museum with its towering statues and King Tut’s gold coffin.

On my birthday, ‘Mariapatra’ is exotically on a 4 day cruise down the Nile. The world’s longest river is more than 4 times the length of New Zealand. The Egyptians invented the 365 day calendar to predict its flooding. Female commoners then could own property, run businesses and initiate divorce.

When travelling, I love my hour long buffet breakfasts. Though most Europeans are GDW (Guilty of Dining White) and stick to familiar pale starches, plus eggs. There are such usual items while I sample the many pickled fish, fruits and vegetables; herb and spice seasoned soft curd cheese speckled with caraway; eggplant everything; halva and comb honey; legume stews with a side of couscous and whole grilled chillies; filo parcels with spiced lentils. In the evening I try a national favourite: whole pigeon stuffed with rice and raisins.

Whether on the pool deck or out the open window of my elegant stateroom, there is a changing scene of banana palms, water buffalo, donkeys pulling carts of raw sugarcane, children swimming, and men fishing out of small sail boats. We stop and visit the Valley of the Kings and its tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and other rulers with their hieroglyphics telling tales from 3,300 years ago.

At night, the all-male crew play traditional instruments and show us men’s dance moves with lots of arm and shoulder action. On the river, young men will hire an open air boat, play music and dance together just as our youths might get together over beer and pizza.

Morocco

“Come with me to the kasbah”.

The Kingdom of Morocco is mint and mosaics; cedar wood forests, coastal life and snowy mountains; serpentine 9th century market places; and the towering dunes of the Sahara.

If you ask for a cup of tea you automatically get a glass filled with green tea and fresh mint leaves. It is Africa’s top tourist destination and second only to Hollywood as a film set. Over 70% of the population is under 30.

The current King Mohammed VI is progressive and upon ascension immediately improved employment, democracy, human rights, women’s rights and increased universities from 3 to 24 – and all free.

Arriving in Casablanca, I go on an old city walking tour. Sampling a popular fermented milk drink I notice that glasses are merely rinsed in a bucket. Good thing my immune system is old and invincible. We try prickly pear – a type of fruit from a cactus plant; rounds of polenta with butter and honey; ground almond, peanut and sesame cookies from a tiny adobe nook with praise from the New York Times on its wall.

We head north and east to exotic Fes. Its Medina has the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, which was started by women. The lanes are the narrowest I’ve seen with endless small shops selling intensely coloured ceramics; live chickens; 5 kilo blocks of nougat and hanging camel heads. From an ancient wood fired community oven, rounds of hot bread come out on a paddle. I pull off sweet, nutty chunks.

Compared to Egypt, this is greener, cleaner. More prosperous and socially integrated. We dine at a riad, meaning a private home with a tree and fountain-filled central courtyard. Riad Arabesque is also a guest house with photos of visiting celebrities and royalty. There are vaulted ceilings, intricate tiles, chandeliers and a rooftop dining room to admire the city from. An array of eggplant, fig and other salads precede a succulent tagine (a conical clay pot cooked over charcoal) of spicy beef and dates, served with couscous.

Another day we stop to admire the King’s palace. Outside a joyful Jewish Moroccan bride and groom invite us to join the singing and dancing. Judaism preceded Islam here by 6 centuries. Later the French contributed bureaucracy, language and the best patisserie and honest bread of my trip.

Near dusk we take a jeep and drive to the Sahara. The dunes shimmer like sculptures of caramel meringue. Camel drivers undulate in the distance as I walk through the sands – checking for snakes and scorpions – and watch the sun set.

We drive past the pink, striated, Grand Canyon-like sheer rock of the Atlas Mountains; the shock of green oases thick with date palms; forests of cork; nomadic shepherds tending sheep and goats; fields of argan fruit and roses for oil production. Morocco’s wealth is not from oil or gas, but water for agriculture. This securely feeds its people and export economy.

Marrakesh is softly beautiful with its buildings pink from local clay. The vast souk or market here is a celebration of art, craft and human enterprise with its snake charmers, palm readers, drummers and lively vendors.

The seaside gem of Essaouira is known for its walled Portuguese core. Numerous outdoor seafood restaurants offer views of weathered fishermen in vivid blue boats and parasailing youths. I enjoy spicy, stuffed, palm-sized sardines with a glass of local chardonnay and toast the end of the journey.

A bientot