I often marvel and get inspired at people's stories of a seemingly happy life in the presence of, and in spite of, their daily challenges.
So when a TED Talk revealed an opportunity to learn the daily habits from the longest healthy living humans on Earth, I hit the brakes and had to listen. Researcher and author Dan Buettner teamed up with "National Geographic" to find the world's longest living people to study. His team discovered five places in the world — dubbed Blue Zones where people live the longest and are the healthiest: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
Out of these Blue Zones, 10 simple dietary guidelines evolved reflecting how the world's longest-living people eat.
Retreat from meat
Meatless meals are a mainstay for the longest living people of the Blue Zones. Blue Zone centenarians eat about 2 ounces or less of meat five times per month, using it as a celebratory food, a small side or a way to flavor dishes. Consider the meatless meals you are already incorporating into your home such as lentil soup, meatless chili and tacos made with beans and rice. Could we consider expanding our palate to introduce one to two new meatless meals such as a Mediterranean grain bowl served with chickpeas, greens, quinoa and sunflower seeds or a black bean and corn salad?
Easy on the fish
Staying true to the vegetarian diet, the people from the Blue Zones consumed fish, on average fewer than 3 ounces, up to three times a week. In most cases, the fish being eaten are small, relatively inexpensive fish such as sardines, anchovies, and cod — middle-of-the-food-chain species not exposed to the high levels of mercury or other chemicals like PCBs that pollute our gourmet fish supply of today.
A natural evolution for the aging population is difficulty digesting lactose (as high as 60 percent) as we age. Of the most common dairy consumed in the Blue Zones, goat and sheep milk products are consumed, not as liquid, but fermented as yogurt, buttermilk or cheese. Fermented food products offer probiotics, a rich food supply to keep our gut bacteria healthy and able to tackle the bad stuff to help regulate bowel health.
Easy on the eggs
People in all of the Blue Zones eat eggs about two to four times per week. Usually, it's just one as a side dish with a whole-grain or plant-based dish. Blue Zone's eggs come from chickens that range freely, eat a wide variety of natural foods and don't receive hormones or antibiotics. Slowly matured eggs are naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids known for its anti-inflammatory properties and help lower the bad cholesterol.
Daily dose of beans
Eat at least a half cup of cooked beans daily. Beans reign supreme in the Blue Zones, the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa. Beans are the consummate superfood, an excellent source of fiber, cheap and versatile, come in a variety of textures and are packed with more nutrients per gram than any other food.
Consume only 28 grams (7 teaspoons) of added sugar daily. People in the Blue Zones eat sugar intentionally, not by habit or accident. They consume it naturally in fruits, vegetables and even milk. Skip any product that lists sugar among its first five ingredients including sodas and sweetened beverages.
Snack on nuts
Eat two handfuls of nuts per day. A handful of nuts weighs about 2 ounces, the average amount that Blue Zone centenarians consume. The optimal mix of nuts: almonds (high in vitamin E and magnesium), peanuts (high in protein and folate, a B vitamin), Brazil nuts (high in selenium, a mineral found effective in protecting against prostate cancer), cashews (high in magnesium) and walnuts (high in alpha-linoleic acid, the only omega-3 fat found in a plant-based food). Walnuts, peanuts and almonds are the nuts most likely to lower your cholesterol.
Sour on bread
Eat only sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat. Blue Zone bread is unlike the bread most Americans buy. Whole grains have higher levels of fiber than most commonly used wheat flours. Some traditional Blue Zones breads are made with naturally occurring bacteria called lactobacilli, which "digest" the starches and glutens while making the bread rise. The process also creates an acid — the "sour" in sourdough. The result is bread with less gluten, a longer shelf life and a pleasantly sour taste that most people like.
Go wholly whole
We should pay heed to learn from the people of the Blue Zones, who traditionally eat a "whole food" that is made of a single ingredient, raw, cooked, ground or fermented, and not highly processed. Blue Zone dishes typically contain a half dozen or so ingredients, simply blended together. Almost all of the foods consumed by centenarians grow within a 10-mile radius of their homes. They eat raw fruits and vegetables; they grind whole grains themselves and then cook them slowly. And they rarely ingest artificial preservatives.
Drink mostly water
With very few exceptions, people in Blue Zones drank coffee, tea, water and wine, and nothing else.
WATER: Adventists recommend seven glasses of water daily. Being hydrated facilitates blood flow and lessens the chance of a blood clot.
COFFEE: Sardinians, Ikarians and Nicoyans all drink copious amounts of coffee. Research associates coffee drinking with lower rates of dementia and Parkinson's disease.
TEA: People in all the Blue Zones drink tea. Okinawans nurse green tea all day. Green tea has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and several cancers. Ikarians drink brews of rosemary, wild sage and dandelion — all herbs known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
RED WINE: Our Blue Zone friends drink one to two small glasses of dark red wine per day, often with a meal and with friends. It provides an opportunity to practice a mentally relaxing social time with a side benefit of consuming polyphenols known for its heart health qualities.
Alma Hopkins, RD, LD, MEd is a registered dietitian and wellness navigator with Capital Region's Corporate & Community Health. She does individual coaching for employee and corporate wellness, leads chronic disease and diabetes self-management group classes.