The key to living a healthy life could be as simple as adopting the diverse dietary habits of people who live longer than the rest of us. These areas that have the people who live the longest are known as Blue Zones.
We are always being told that a healthy diet and regular exercise are good for our health. But surely the real proof lies in analysing the dinner plates of people who are still skipping about in their nineties and are as sharp as a pin as they sail pass 100.
Back in the early 2000s, researchers identified communities around the world where people live longer and better lives. These so-called Blue Zones include the Greek island of Ikaria; the Okinawa Islands of Japan; the mountainous Ogliastra province of Sardinia; a group of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda in California, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
You’d think there would be very little to link these far-flung destinations, but studies consistently show that ‘Blue Zoners’ live to a ripe old age free from chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity. And one factor which crops up again and again is what they eat.
1) Eat a plant-based diet (most of the time)
The big linking factor for all Blue Zoners is the fact that their diets are 95-100% plant-based – and they eat a really wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Top longevity foods in Okinawa, for instance, include sweet potatoes, seaweed, bitter melons (a kind of cucumber) and shiitake mushrooms. In Sardinia, centenarians eat plenty of fennel and tomatoes; and in Costa Rica staples include papayas, yams and bananas. Research shows that variety is the best way to build a happy and diverse population of gut bacteria, which we now know to be key to good mental and physical health.
2) Say ‘no’ to processed foods
You won’t find pizza, burgers, kebabs or Pop-Tarts on the Blue Zone table. These people eat food that is cooked from scratch and rarely touch highly processed junk food. This means their diet is free from artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers and additives, which can feed the ‘bad’ pro-inflammatory microbes that live in the gut. Research shows that it’s these highly processed foods that trigger cravings and override your normal, “I’m full, I’ll stop eating now” signals.
3) Get pulsed up
Plates are filled with beans in all five of the Blue Zones: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo and white beans in the Mediterranean, and soybeans in Okinawa. Pulses and legumes are a great source of vegetable protein and might protect against heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes; they also contain soluble fibre, which your gut bacteria loves. Mix them up and eat a different type each day.
4) Go nuts
You won’t find Blue Zoners wolfing food with their coffee or crunching crisps before dinner. If they do snack, it will be on nuts, which are a great source of fibre and nutrients such as heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and disease-fighting antioxidants which could even extend your life span. Diversity is key – aim for a mix of walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds (favoured by Ikarians and Sardinians), pistachios (much loved by the Costa Ricans) and cashews to get a good spread of beneficial nutrients.
5) Drink water – and sometimes, wine
If you want to live a long and healthy life, you might want to keep away from fizzy drinks and cut back on the cocktails. Research suggests that most Blue Zoners drink tea and coffee. In Okinawa, they enjoy green tea with jasmine flowers and turmeric; in Ikaria they favour tea steeped from fresh herbs, while in Sardinia the tea of choice is milk thistle. Sardinians, Ikarians and Nicoyans drink copious amounts of coffee, which contains compounds that are good for heart health, and their boozing is restricted to wine (no more than two glasses a day).
Looking for some nutritious health ingredients that you can add to your diet or your recipes? We have seven new health ingredients that you can incorporate into your lifestyle.