There are many places around the world where people live longer and know how to be happier than the rest of us. Instead of depriving yourself, researchers say it's better to look at cultures and regions around the world where diets are not just healthy, but also have highly protective qualities against scourges like cancer, depression, diabetes and heart disease. There are time-tested lifestyles that promise to protect us from a wide range of diseases. The key is knowing why they work and how to adopt them yourself.
Researchers have long tried to understand why some regions are much healthier than others. Epidemiological studies have looked at disease rates in conjunction with environmental and eating patterns in order to understand which factors are the most influential. This started in earnest in the 1980s, when researchers began studying the Mediterranean diet and found that it had significant health benefits.
Additional researchers began employing a vast amount of data in the quest to determine what these people do that’s unique and how we can adapt their secrets to fit our lives.
While these lifestyle from around the globe offer useful lessons, they must be accompanied by routine and rigorous exercise.
Eat fresh food; follow traditions like communal eating; get sugar from whole foods like fruits; get salt from natural and unprocessed sources; if you must eat meat and dairy, make sure it comes from animals naturally raised; incorporate fats from whole nuts, seeds and grains; use fermented and pickled foods; and use spices when possible.
Also, populations living by the sea generally report rates of good health more than similar populations living inland. Coastal environments may not only offer better opportunities for its inhabitants to be active, but also provide significant benefits in terms of stress reduction. Access to 'good' environments may have a role in reducing inequality in health between the wealthiest and poorest members of society.
Japan has relatively low rates of prostate and breast cancer. The Okinawans practice calorie restriction, which has been linked to improved longevity. They also load up on in-season vegetables like bok choy, mustard greens and kale. They drink green tea rich in antioxidants, and get their fats and vitamin D from fish.
Lessons from the Okinawans:
- Develop a strong sense of purpose, called ikigai, or that which makes life worth living, by keeping family ties strong and maintaining close groups of friends. The Okinawans call these moais.
- Stay active, and maintain a vegetable garden.Not only do gardens provide natural sources of healthy foods, but also an outlet for daily physical activity. Because of the temperate climate, Okinawans can garden all year round and get plenty of bone-health promoting Vitamin D!
- Maintain an herb garden. People living in homes or apartments can grow and maintain herb gardens. Include ginger and turmeric to get the same health benefits as the Okinawans.
- Eat a plant-based diet. Use vegetables from your garden, a farmer’s market or even a grocery store. Okinawan centenarians consume soy products, such as antioxidant rich tofu for additional health benefits.
- Hara hachi bu. This old agage, translates as “eat until you’re 80% full.” The Okinawans say this before every meal to remind them to eat moderate amounts of food.
- Smile! Okinawan centenarians embrace a positive outlook on life, in spite of or because of the hardships they endured throughout their lives.
The Mediterranean is famed for its healthy cuisine, so it may come as no surprise that Grecians have fewer cases of heart disease. Staples, including virgin olive oil, greens like arugula and Swiss chard, carbohydrates like chickpeas, lentils and whole-grain bread, and herbs like oregano, parsley and chives, are great for heart health. The traditional diet also minimizes meat consumption with no more than one red meat dish per week.
Lessons from Ikaria:
- Get your antioxidants! Ikarians eat a variation of the Mediterranean diet, which consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and a little fish. One key feature of the Ikarian diet are wild greens, many of which have ten times the level of antioxidants in green tea or red wine!
- Drink tea! Regular herbal tea consumption is common of Ikarian centenarians. Many of the teas here act as mild diuretics, prescribed by doctors to lower blood pressure.
- Take regular naps. People who nap at least five times a week for half an hour have 35% reduced chance of cardiovascular disease. Stress hormones also decrease when you’re napping.
- Make walking part of your daily routine. The hilly land lends itself well to burning calories. The Ikarians exercise without thinking about it just by walking to church or work.
Sardinians maintain a positive attitude towards their elders and take time out of their days to stop and enjoy the simple beauty of their surroundings. They foster a sarcastic sense of humor, and a unique outlook and perspective on life. This attitude helps them shed stress and diffuse arguments before they start. You don’t need to run marathons to get and stay healthy! Sardinian centenarians walked long distances their entire lives and suffer from half as many fractures as their Italian counterparts. Men here work typically as shepherds, walking miles a day over the rough terrain with their flocks.
Lessons from Sardinia:
- Eat a plant-based, bean rich diet accented with pecorino (sheep cheese) and goat’s milk, using meat as an accent, rather than the main dish.
- Put family first. People who have strong family ties have lower rates of depression and stress.
- Respect and celebrate elders. Grandparents can help raise healthier, better adjusted children by providing love, wisdom and motivation.
- Take a walk. Sardinian shepherd walk 5 miles a day. Regular exercise can boost mood and benefits muscle and bone metabolism.
- Drink a glass of red wine. Cannanau, a Sardinian red wine, has three times the level of antioxidants and flavonoids compared to other wines. This makes it particularly beneficial for heart health.
- Laugh with friends. The word, ‘sardonic,’ or wry sense of humor, originates in Sardinia. Gathering daily to laugh with friends is key to shedding daily stresses.
Nicoyan centenarians feel needed through fostering a plan de vida, or reason to live. This sense of purpose often centers around spending time with and providing for their family. This often results in centenarians retaining an active lifestyle, reaping the benefits of physical activity and exposure to the sun.Â Like the Adventists, faith plays a strong role in the Nicoyan lifestyle. Relinquishing control of their life to God helps relieves stress and anxiety related to well-being. They, like those in the other Blue Zones, eat rich, colorful fruits. The maronon, a red-orange fruit with more vitamin C than oranges and the anona, a pear-like fruit rich in antioxidants provide Nicoyans with nutrient dense, longevity foods. Their gardens flow rich with rice, beans and corn, all staples in the diet.
- Have a plan de vida. Similar to Okinawans ikigai, Nicoyans always nurture their plan de vida, or reason to live, which encourages them to contribute to their community.
- Drink hard water. High amounts of calcium and magnesium, essential for bone and muscle strength, abound in Nicoya’s water. By drinking and cooking with this water, people here get their daily intake of calcium throughout their entire lives!
- Focus on your family and friends. Having a good relationship with their family and maintaining a strong social network contributes greatly to centenarian’s sense of purpose and well-being.
- Work hard. Nicoyan centenarians maintain a strong work ethic, which keeps them active and healthy while contributing to their sense of purpose.
- Plan your meals. Nicoyans eat their biggest meal in the morning and their smallest meal at night.
- Get some sun. Nicoyans enjoy healthy doses of daily sun, enriching their bodies with Vitamin D. Getting at least 15 minutes every day can decrease the risk for osteoporosis and heart disease.
In Cameroon, experts have concluded that the diet--which consists largely of fiber, fermented foods, wild greens and healthy fats, and rarely includes meat--is essential to cancer prevention. The reasons? Vegetables and other fiber-rich foods have been shown to positively affect colon cancer risk. Fermented foods like yogurt and pickles provide beneficial bacteria for the gut. Wild greens and healthy fats found in fish, nuts and unrefined cooking oil may also be protective.
Are omega-3 fats essential to preventing depression? Iceland is a country known for its bleak winters but where depression rates are low. The Icelandic diet, which includes fish as a staple, is rich in omega-3 fats. Other sources of the healthy fats are pasture-raised lamb and wild game. To further support brain health, Icelanders also consume plenty of antioxidants in black tea, vegetables, wild berries and whole grains like barley and rye
Copper Canyon, Mexico
In this very remote region of Mexico, Miller sought out the Tarahumara Indians, who have impressively low blood sugar and cholesterol levels. After studying their traditional diet, exeprts found that Tarahumara benefited from a diet that emphasizes slow-release foods, sending sugar into the bloodstream at a much slower rate than other foods. Their staples include whole corn, beans, squash, jicama and cumin. While the Tarahumara have struggled with poverty-related malnutrition, the slow-releasing carbohydrates help prevent an overproduction of insulin and aid in maintaining blood sugar levels.
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.