What we can learn from the places with the world's longest lifespans.
How is a person to make sense of the conflicting nutrition messages that they read and hear about each day? Sugar is toxic. Wheat is the devil incarnate. We are designed to eat like our Palaeolithic ancestors. Glycaemic index is the key to health. Carbohydrates cause weight gain. Intermittent fasting is the best way to lose weight. Coffee is bad for you. Coffee is good for you. I could fill up pages with all of the variations of different health messages, some of them coming into and out of vogue as time moves on.
Working in nutrition for many years, I’ve seen all manner of fads come and go. I’ve read thousands upon thousands of research studies looking at foods, nutrients and health. And you know what?
The entire field of nutrition and health can be distilled down to some pretty simple basics that are not that difficult to grasp.
A dietary pattern that is made up of mostly unprocessed plant foods and which is low in highly processed foods and sugar consistently comes out on top in offering the best long-term health. There is no one food or food group that deserves demonising. A dietary pattern is a flexible way of eating, not a set of rules that has to be followed to the letter of the law.
But there is more to life and health than just food. Just like nutrients are part of the food we eat, food is part of the lifestyle we live. And when it comes to lifestyle, you don’t have to go much further than looking at the similarities between communities around the world that enjoy the longest and healthiest lives.
Introducing the Blue Zones
Blue Zones are areas in the world where more people enjoy remarkably long, full healthy lives than anywhere else on the planet. People in the longevity hot spots are three times more likely to live to 100 than Australians are.
Where are these Blue Zones? Okinawa in Japan, the Italian island of Sardinia, the Greek island of Ikaria, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
Health secrets revealed
What do people in the Blue Zones do differently from the rest of us? Looking from the outside in, some very clear and consistent patterns emerge. People in the Blue Zones nurture strong social networks, consume a mostly plant-based diet, and incorporate daily, natural physical activity into their lives. They also do not overeat, learning to stop eating before they feel full.
Long-lived people are not necessarily vegetarian, but they do eat mostly plant foods. And if they do eat meat, they do so sparingly. Beans, wholegrains, and garden vegetables are the cornerstone of all the longevity diets. Nuts are also a common food eaten.
Yet even between the different Blue Zone communities, there is diversity in the foods they eat, showing there is no one single ‘right’ way to eat, only flexible guidelines. Choosing mostly seasonal fruits and vegetables and a variety of beans, nuts, seeds and grains is the foundation of their dietary pattern.
The long-lived people in the Blue Zones don’t avoid dairy foods or gluten. They don’t calculate the glycaemic index of their meals. They don’t ruminate on whether the grains they are eating are stopping the absorption of other nutrients. They don’t take supplements. They eat. They move. They enjoy. They socially engage with their community in person. They live.
You don’t need a PhD in nutrition to be able to make sense of the all the nutrition messages you hear in the media. When it comes to your health, take a step back. Learn from the people in the world who have got this mastered.