Would you like to live longer and healthier? What if you know that your longevity is mainly up to you? Would you change your everyday habits?
Scientific studies of Danish twins suggest that only 25 percent of our life span is depended by genes, and the other 75 percent is determined by our lifestyle.
Longevity expert Dan Buettner has travelled the world to meet the planet’s longest lived people in unique communities called Blue Zones, to find what is common to all of these places.
Let’s see what we can learn from the Blue Zones!
In his book “The Blue Zone”, published by the National Geographic Society, Dan Buettner writes about 5 places in the world where people live longest. That’s Sardinia Island (Italy), Okinawa Island (Japan), Loma Linda (California, US), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), Ikaria Island (Greece). I guess it’s easier to keep up with traditions and a lifestyle when you live in an island or belong to some sort of community, like Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda. However, no matter where we live I believe that all of us can take healthy habits of people from the Blue Zones and to adjust them to our lives.
All the five zones rely on a plant-based diet. However, none of them follows a vegan diet. People drink goat or sheep’s milk (which is easier to digest than a cow’s milk) and eat cheese. When it comes to meat, it is common in all the zones to consume it only on Sundays or for a special occasion, like lunar New Year in Japan.
Some people worry that a plant-based diet may not provide enough protein and iron. However, Dr. Leslie Lytle says, that those of us over 19 years old need only 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram (0.16 stones) of our weight, which for most of us would amount to only about 50 grams of protein a day. Doctor also adds, that our bodies can’t store protein and excess protein eventually becomes fat. When it comes to iron – tofu, legumes and dark leafy greens have plenty of iron, which is absorbed easier when getting with foods rich in vitamin C. Also, it’s better to avoid caffeine and high-calcium foods when eating iron-rich foods.
The classic Sardinian diet consists of whole-grain bread, beans, vegetables and fruit. That’s not a surprise that Okinawans eat a lot of tofu, stir-fried vegetables and sweet potatoes; whereas Californian Adventists’ diet looks more like Sardinian’s – whole grains, fruits and vegetables as well as nuts. Like the people in most other Blue Zones, Nicoyans eat plant-based diet, rich in legumes. Also, their meals consist of corn tortillas at almost every meal and a huge quantities of tropical fruit. Ikarians eat a variation of the Mediterranean diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes, and olive oil.
Surprisingly, even though all of the Blue Zones are either in the island or near the sea, none of their diets consist a huge amount of fish. Fish, same as meat, is eaten more in moderation rather than as an everyday main meal.
To follow a healthy diet, it is important not just what to eat but how much to eat too. A tendency to not overeat has been noticed in all the Blue Zones. For example, Okinawans stop eating as soon as they no longer feel hungry – they don’t eat until their stomachs feel full. Dr. Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating”, says that we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being aware of it. And that 20 percent swing is the difference between losing weight and gaining it.
The good news is that we don’t have to exercising for the sake of exercising. There is much easier and more pleasant way to be physically active – it’s to move naturally. People in the Blue Zones have an active lifestyle. They tend to walk a lot, they enjoy gardening and a physical work. Little things, like getting up to change the TV channel or taking the stairs, or cycling to the store, can add up to our more active lifestyle. Even tidying our homes is a physical activity! So next time we do it, let’s think about it not as a chore but as a health benefit!
Nicoyans call it plan de vida, and Okinawans call it ikigai, but in both cultures it means the same – “why I wake up in the morning”. A sense of purpose may come from something as simple as seeing that children and grandchildren grow up well, or it can come from a hobby or a job. Try a new activity or learn a new skill and you’ll be looking forward for the next day.
The Blue Zones author Dan Buettner once asked Raffaella, the 107-year-old woman, if she had any advice for younger people. And she did – “Life is short. Don’t run so fast you miss it.” When we slow down we find more time for friends and family, we eat more mindfully, and we create things that bring purpose. Try to reduce stress in your life by reducing excess noise and clutter around you and making nature walks with your friends or family a priority.
LOVED ONES FIRST
People in the Blue Zones put their families first. And that’s not a hard task to do! Consider living in a small house to create an environment of togetherness (or have a family room). Make a ritual to eat one or two meals together with a whole family. Visit parents and grandparents regularly and keep in touch with your close friends. Make your loved ones a priority and your actions will follow naturally.
We are not getting younger. But it is up to us if we live a shorter life with more years of disability, or the longest possible life with the fewest painful years. What’s your call?