We often pattern our eating based on information that is presented to us. This information comes by way of articles we read, interviews we watch, or simply tips from our family and friends. It’s quite common to jump on the bandwagon of the latest diet trend or workout plan because we hear and see “authority figures” tell us it’s such a healthy way of living.
In the past several years countless ways of eating and living have hit the mainstream. The Paleo diet, intermittent fasting, a cornucopia of cleanses (we’ve all heard about the cayenne pepper and maple syrup cleanse right?), have developed a widespread and passionate following. What hasn’t exactly hit mainstream yet, and what bears our consideration is how people in the world’s Blue Zones are eating and living.
You are no asking yourself, what the heck is a Blue Zone? A Blue Zone is a concept used to describe specific geographic regions on Earth where people are living longer and healthier lives on average. Blue Zone inhabitants regularly surpass the century mark and experience far less incidences of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other quality of life reducing ailments.
On this entire planet, scientists have identified just five areas considered to be Blue Zones:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Loma Linda, California, USA
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Icaria, Greece
As expected, inhabitants of these areas enjoy significantly longer lifespans, suffer just a fraction of diseases commonly killing others around the world, and have more healthy and active years of life.
For me, the greatest benefit of living like a Blue Zone’r isn’t the direct increase on life expectancy. It’s the effect it has on quality of life and healthy years. Here in America, we probably have a vision of what an 80, 90, or 100-year-old looks like. Wrinkled, hunched over, inactive, spending a lot of time in bed – generally not leading a very active or productive life.
In these parts of the world, this couldn’t be further from the truth. What if you were living in your 80’s just like you were in your 20’s. Wouldn’t life be so much more enjoyable and meaningful?
It’s time we revise the traditional Western view on aging. Life doesn’t have to be spent laying in bed, each day the same as the one before it. We CAN stay active. We CAN stay healthy. And we CAN lead productive and meaningful lives well into our 90’s and beyond.
The question is…how do we do it?
Living Like The Healthiest People on the Planet
At present, that honor would go to either the people of Sardinia, Italy or Okinawa, Japan. While all Blue Zone’rs share similar dietary traits, we’re going to focus on one group in particular for practical purposes. The people from Okinawa, Japan, an island located several hundreds kilometers off the southern coast of Japan, have widely been considered to be the healthiest people on the planet.
It can be said that the Okinawan lifestyle is almost a polar opposite of the American way of life. Healthy traits that scientists believe result in longer longevity and less disease among Okinawans are:
- Hari Hachi Bu – eating until only 80% full. The consumption of fewer calories is the concept behind intermittent fasting and has been backed by modern science as a method to increasing longevity. It’s no surprise to see this concept working in action.
- Diet heavy in green/yellow vegetables. Okinawans eat nearly 7-9 servings of vegetables a day, along with 2-4 servings of fruits.
- Moderate protein consumption, mainly coming from fish. Okinawans get most of their meat-protein from fish. Eggs, red meat, and poultry make up a small portion of their total diet. Dairy is also something most Okinawans do without.
- Strong belief in ikaigai, or sense of purpose. Okinawans all hold thing(s) close to them that make life worth living. Maybe it’s their work, family, community service, or other activity. They believe having something of importance to wake up for everyday will bring about positive health effects.
- Although traditionally the Japanese diet is quite high in white rice, Okinawans have largely replaced this insulin-spiking food for the sweet potato, a complex carb high in anti-oxidants and other nutrients.
- Low sugar consumption. Okinawans consume roughly 75% less sugar than the average mainland resident.
- Daily activity. Whether its yoga or a walk with friends, Okinawans believe in daily activity. Laying, sleeping all day, and being sedentary is viewed as lazy and wasteful. Finding a reason to incorporate daily activity and movement into one’s life is very important to Okinawans.
These traits are common amongst inhabitants of all five Blue Zones around the world. To sum it up, it’s quite simple. Eat less meat, eat more fish, eat more vegetables, eat less processed foods, stay active, maintain a supportive social network, and do your best to keep a positive attitude towards life.
While living this lifestyle may seem overwhelmingly difficult in American society, it really doesn’t need to be. The residents of Loma Linda, California, a town of 23,000 located less than an hour from Los Angeles (without traffic of course!) are showing that in even our modern Western world, this type of lifestyle can be done. It’s quite simple…
- Eat local, fresh produce
- Lower sugar consumption
- Replace factory-farmed meats for wild fish and seafood
- Replace simple carbs for complex, i.e. whole wheat bread for white bread
- Consider a fast day or two each week, or simply eat 80% fewer calories than you typically would each day.
Making Sense Of It All
So, what’s the big take away from all of this? It all goes back to patterning your eating and lifestyle after the right model. As we discussed above, there are more diets/healthy living programs than one could try in two lifetimes. I’m not here to debate the effectiveness of these diets and programs – I’m here to say, I would much rather adopt a lifestyle that has been shown for hundreds of years to improve longevity, improve quality of life well into old age, and give me a chance to remain an active and productive member of society well into my 90’s. Can the Paleo diet do that? Can the cayenne pepper/maple syrup cleanse do that? I have no idea one way or the other; these trends are relatively recent and there simply hasn’t been enough time to study their long-term effectiveness. I do know however that living like a Blue Zone’r can greatly improve your life, and has been demonstrated to do so across entire populations, going back many years.
Perhaps the biggest take away of all, is that these people aren’t living by the constraints of a “diet”. This is their lifestyle. This is an important piece to understand. Lasting change in your own life will never come as a result of a diet with a ton of rules and guidelines to follow. Anything that is so restrictive will inevitably become too hard or time-consuming to follow. Adopting subtle changes into your life, as mentioned above, is the best way to incorporate a lifestyle change and positively effect your health and well-being.