The secrets of the world’s healthiest diets and Blue Zones
It’s not primarily about living longer, but living healthily for longer. Because when illness is postponed, the ageing process slows; a longer life is the end result, but it is really just a bonus. We have come to think that illnesses like Alzheimer´s and cancer are inevitably linked to old age. But there are societies with diets and lifestyles different from ours that show that’s simply not true.
Dan Buettner collaborated with National Geographic demographers and longevity experts and identified the following longevity ‘hot spots’. He calls them ‘Blue Zones’ [bluezones.com] and has written a book about them with the same title. Inclusion on the list is based on either the highest life expectancy or the highest percentage of people to reach 100.
The Blue Zones
• The mountainous Barbagia region of Sardinia which has the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
• The Greek island of Ikaria with one of the world’s lowest rates of both middle-aged mortality and dementia.
• Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica has the second highest concentration of male centenarians.
• Loma Linda, California (unexpectedly!). The town is mainly inhabited by Seventh-Day Adventists who live 10 years longer than the average North American.
• Okinawa, Japan. The longest-lived population in the world.
[Other oft-quoted longevity hot spots have been claimed as Abkhazia in Georgia, Vilcabamba Ecuador, and Hunza Valley in Pakistan. However, serious scientific study has failed to confirm the basis for these claims.]
These are very different societies, but all the ‘Blue Zone’ communities include significant numbers of people over 90 years who are upright, fit, have excellent vision and hearing, few signs of heart disease, memory loss or osteoporosis. They don’t retire but continue to enjoy life and relationships fully.
Contrast that with the comparatively rare individuals in our society who may make it to 90 years old, but are too often frail and weak, and sustained in care homes through endless medications. It is surely quality of life we are interested in.
Blue Zone common denominators
• Natural, home-grown foods strongly featuring raw fruits and a wide variety of vegetables at almost all meals, without pesticides or other chemicals – and virtually NO processed food. This diet provides a high intake of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant nutrients and a low intake of pro-inflammatory foods.
• Complex unrefined carbohydrates and fibre
• Protein mainly from fish, whole grains or beans – little meat
• Fat mainly from oily fish, nuts, seeds or avocados
• Almost no refined sugar – sweetness comes from fruits and berries
• Plenty of physical activity, walking, gardening, climbing hills – ie burning calories steadily and naturally and staying fit.
• A strong, supportive community with close family ties
• Simple, low-stress, mostly village lifestyle and with a sense of purpose or usefulness
• Clean atmosphere and water
Top Blue Zone Okinawa – “The Okinawan Diet”
The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, in an article entitled “The Okinawan Diet” specifically noted its features as:
• Rich in anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory polyphenols such as the flavonoids
• Low in calories, but nutritionally dense
• Plant-based: very rich in vegetables and fruit
• Limited intake of meat and poultry, refined grains and sugar
• Plenty of food from the sea, including fish and seaweed – therefore rich in minerals like selenium and zinc. Seaweed is also high in folic acid, carotenoids and anti-inflammatory polyphenols.
• Few dairy products
• Rich in vitamin D
• High soy intake (anti-inflammatory isoflavones)
• High intake of curcumin/turmeric, rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols with cancer-fighting properties
• Practising “Hara hachi bu,” the habit of eating until just 80% full
Long-lived healthy diets are anti-inflammatory
The term ‘anti-inflammatory’ is emphasised in both the National Geographic Blue Zone article (and book) and in the Okinawan Diet article. The significance is that the latest health science has identified ‘chronic, sub-clinical inflammation’ as a key driver of age related diseases. Chronic merely means long term and sub-clinical means unseen and unfelt – ie. normally undetectable.
As Russell Tracy, Professor of Pathology and Biochemistry, University of Vermont College of Medicine expresses it:
“Inflammatory factors predict virtually all bad outcomes in humans … having heart attacks, having heart failure, becoming diabetic … becoming fragile in old age … cognitive function decline, even cancer to a certain extent.”
Scientific American, in a key article, confirms:
“Inflammation is an underlying contributor to virtually every chronic disease… rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and depression, along with major killers such as heart disease and stroke.”
The problem is that this type of inflammation builds up in tissues over time and causes the tissue to decay and eventually fail. That’s why internal inflammation is now thought to be not merely a cause of degenerative disease, but a key driver of ageing itself. And from the age of about 50, we are almost all at risk.
It is no coincidence that the Blue Zone ‘healthy longevity’ diets are high in anti-inflammatory compounds and low in the pro-inflammatory compounds contained in so many of the common processed foods. Indeed the anti-inflammatory elements appear to be the key protective factor contributing to extended health. In contrast, the typical Western diet is far too high in pro-inflammatory foods and far too low in anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Taking the best from the Blue Zone diets
The common denominators of the Blue Zone lifestyles will probably be no great surprise to you – apart perhaps from the absence of modern drugs and medical technologies! It means that the choice of a long and healthy life is largely in our own hands.
You’ll notice no mention of supplements. Yet Dr Paul Clayton, former Chair of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Forum on Food and Health, who has included these and other healthy longevity examples in a 30-year study of healthy lifestyles (the best-selling book Health Defence), strongly recommends them.
Why? Because he points out that realistically few of us could or would want to live the Blue Zone lifestyle. It’s healthy, but it would be intolerable for most of today’s urbanised sophisticates. Not all modern advances are bad! Interestingly, aside from the foods themselves, he identifies two other problems with our Western way of life:
1: We don’t eat enough!
This sounds counter-intuitive when obesity has become such a scourge. But the truth is that our urbanised, sedentary society means that we use far fewer calories a day than the healthy societies do, or than we did ourselves 70 years ago before the motor car arrived.
2: We don’t move enough!
Because we are so physically inactive, typically we need a mere 2000 to 2500 calories a day to maintain ourselves. To get the high level and wide range of protective anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant nutrients that feature in the Blue Zone diets, would mean a much higher calorie intake than most of us could sustain without putting on weight.
Beyond the Blue Zones
Dr Clayton is a Visiting Professor of Pharmaco-Nutrition and a Fellow of the Institute of Food, Brain & Behaviour at Oxford. His 30-year research goes well beyond the Blue Zone study. He has formed his conclusions from thousands of peer-reviewed studies on the positive impact of individual nutrients to create a ‘best of the best’ supplement.
The supplement that Dr Clayton designed is NutriShield. It includes polyphenols from green tea, grape seed extract and curcumin, together with Omega 3 fish oil, beta carotene, lycopene, lutein and soy isoflavones – all of which are powerful anti-inflammatory nutrients. The vitamins and minerals are at a level that equates to a high-energy vegetarian diet. But it also includes other key nutrients such as Co-Enzyme Q10, vitamins K2 and D3, and betaine. All of these have persuasive evidence for long term health.
A comprehensive nutritional supplement can add back those nutrients that are hard to get from the sorts of foods we eat. But you have to do some work too!
• Make the commitment to get out and be active at least three times a week. Exercise strengthens muscles, bones, the heart and the immune system. None of the people in the National Geographic study went to a gym – their main exercise was walking and activity as part of their normal life. Simply taking a walk every day can give you the same benefits.
• Try to reduce stress. Sustained high levels of cortisol, the hormone produced in response to stress and anger, harm our bodies, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. Yoga, simple meditation techniques and even gardening can help.
These lifestyle changes are not so easy to start, but they become progressively easier the longer you go on … we promise. Finally, what you won’t see on the common denominator list is high income. None of the Blue Zone societies is particularly acquisitive.