Everyone thinks about the fountain of youth from time to time. How do you make life last longer and, more importantly, how do you ensure that life is of good quality over the years?
People in the Blue Zones may have the answer – and part of that has to do with their diet. It’s not just what they eat, but how much and when. They stop eating when their stomachs are about 80% full, which helps prevent weight gain. They eat their smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or early evening and stop eating after that. They eat a lot of beans and other plants. They don’t avoid meat, they just eat it sparingly, as part of their lifestyle. They even drink wine in moderation, up to a few glasses a day.
The Blue Zones are five disparate areas identified by researcher Dan Buettner where people live up to 100 or more in much higher concentrations than anywhere else: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California. ; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
People in these areas are not only living longer, they’re getting the most out of their lives, and what they put into their bodies goes a long way, research shows. So what eating habits will help you reach the age of 100 healthy?
1. Watch the meat.
The inhabitants of the Blue Zones aren’t necessarily vegans or even vegetarians, they just don’t eat a lot of meat. They get their protein from other sources: tofu, soybeans, beans, fish. When they eat meat, the portions are very small: 2 to 3 ounces. For comparison, if you went to a restaurant and ordered a steak, the smallest size is 6 ounces. Meat just isn’t the centerpiece of the meal like it is in the United States, and it improves longevity, so look for meat substitutes. Remember, this is not a structured rule against meat. It’s easier to change your diet naturally rather than through rules and regulations.
2. Stock up on plants.
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Without the beef, pork, and chicken, you might find extra space on your plate. Fill it with vegetables or plant products. The inhabitants of the blue zones eat a 90% plant-based diet. Many plants are high in protein, including beans, green vegetables, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. To keep enough protein throughout the day, try to keep a mixture of nuts and seeds for snacking. Almonds are high in vitamin E and magnesium, walnuts contain the only omega-3 fatty acids found in plants, peanuts are high in vitamin B and Brazil nuts and cashews complement the health benefits with selenium, folate and magnesium.
In addition to these hearty herbs, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale help reduce free radicals in the body and can help extend life. Not only that, but studies have shown that people who eat cooked green vegetables have sharper cognitive and memory function as they age.
3. Leave the dairy behind.
While Americans have been getting their calcium and protein from dairy products like milk and cheese for centuries, people in Blue Zones consume very little cow’s milk products. They get these same nutrients from the plant-based diet that we talked about before. For example, a cup of cooked kale or half a cup of tofu gives us as much calcium as a glass of milk.
People are not equipped to digest milk very well, and up to 60% of us have problems processing lactose. What’s more, almost 50 percent of the calories in milk (and 70 percent of the calories in cheese) come from fat, most of which is saturated.
The dairy products that the inhabitants of the blue zones consume come from sheep and goats rather than cows. They are also primarily fermented milk rather than liquid milk, like yogurt, cheese, and sour cream.
4. Beans have their own chip.
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Although we mentioned them in the herbal section, beans are so important to Blue Zone diets that they get their own detailed explanation. People in the Blue Zones eat more than four times as many beans as a typical American. Eating half a cup a day will meet most of your vitamin and mineral needs.
Beans are high in fiber, which helps the body replenish probiotics for gastrointestinal health. They’re also filling, so you won’t be hungry for processed sugars and carbohydrates. Make no mistake, beans contain 77% carbohydrates, but they are natural and complex carbohydrates, the building blocks of energy that we all need. They contain over 20 percent protein and very little fat. Studies show that eating 20 grams of beans per day reduced the risk of death by 8%. Don’t know how to increase the consumption of beans in your life? You can puree them to thicken soups or sauces, or just make one of these dozens of recipes.
Eating like you live in the blue zones could extend your life no matter where you currently reside. Most importantly, you will be healthier and happier in your later years, and your body will thank you.
Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and professor at the University of Florida with degrees in communications and ecology.
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