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.

Why Pain Is Your Best Friend

…and when positivity can work against you.

Here is a challenging question for you. Which would you prefer in your life: more pleasure or more pain? While most people might reply, “Pleasure”, their life choices often ensure, “Pain”.

Pain can be searing and unmistakable, or be defined by discomfort – physical or psychological – such as disturbed or inflamed function. This includes skin, hormonal, weight, mood, digestive, muscle, joint problems and more (for a full list of inflammatory markers, see my TIPS article: Inflammation). Some people are born with a genetic defect so they feel no physical pain. This may sound advantageous but it makes life far more dangerous. Such people have been easily burned and scalded; have bitten their lips and tongues idly until plastic surgery was needed. Most suffered fractures or bone infections that were only noted when they started limping. So pain is a useful message that warns of danger.

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Which Food Culture Are You From?

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1775-1826; French gastronomy writer)

What are your favourite foods and associated memories? Let’s say you enjoy eating and preparing Italian dishes. This is far different though to thinking and identifying as an Italian. If you are unsure as to the true nature of your food culture, then examine your behaviour when under pressure. Psychologists state that under stress we revert to the familiar. Out may go noble aspirations and in come the takeaways, packet biscuits, or microwaved frozen slab.

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The Dark Side of Science: Contagious Blindness and How This Infects Your Life

Imagine if you could travel through time.

Quantum physics tell us that ‘space-time’ is one stretchy, unified substance that makes this possibility completely achievable – as soon as we develop the required technology.

Say you travelled back less than 200 years ago to the 1800s. This was a time when rapid industrialisation, new invention and the power of science enthralled with its possibilities. Perhaps you met with scientific leaders and tried to explain the modern world. You could tell them how most people have in their living rooms a box where – at the flick of a switch – small people emerge on screen and offer entertainment and world news. Many have another type of box in their study or workplace which – by moving their fingers over it – can instantly communicate with others through words, moving pictures and sound, accessing information live from anywhere in the world.

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The Person Next To You May Live In A Different Universe

How This Relates To Cancer, Modern Medicine and What You Spread On Your Toast

For over 1,000 years the human body was viewed as animated by an invisible ‘vital force’. Then in the 1600s Isaac Newton declared in contrast, “The universe is a machine”. Another Renaissance figure, Renee Descartes, viewed with equal certainty that the mind and body were separate and spirit was the realm of the Church. This Cartesian Dualism is evident in medical schools of today. Their textbooks define a human being as, “A biomedical machine controlled by genes”.

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Are Vitamin Supplements A Commercial Con?

At the start of the twentieth century among the industrialised nations, the life expectancy at birth ranged a mere 40 to 50 years. The top killers were infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and diarrhea, not heart attacks or cancer. People worked hard yet material goods were proportionately more costly to access. To earn enough for a bicycle took 260 hours of labour (7 hours today) while equivalent effort now would buy a car. Processed sugar consumption averaged 2.5 kilos, while we annually eat and drink a staggering 60 kilos worth.

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Have You Been Conned By A SOYBURBAN MYTH?

Benefit from the lessons of history and international research.

What is the secret ingredient to:

· The nation with the greatest longevity?
· The differing lifespan of people within that nation?
· Steady blood sugar regulation and easy weight management without restrictive, monotonous diets?
· Lowered risk factors for cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, sub-fertility, PMS, menopausal problems, breast, prostate and many other cancers?

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Fads and Fallacies about Health and Nutrition

Avoid all saturated fats. This is not only foolish but close to impossible. However it is a handy way to disqualify those who issue such sweeping nonsense. Every one of your 50 trillion cell membranes needs enough saturated fat and cholesterol for a firm, protective surround and enough unsaturated fat for flexibility. It is the quality of your fats that is most critical and the proportion of one type of fat to another in relation to your body-type and symptoms.

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