What Is the Common Denominator Among the Five Healthiest Diets
If you want a long life, an important step to take is to clean up your diet. But which diet do you choose? Scan the shelves of any bookstore or library and you will see a wide variety in what “experts” think you should eat.
Scientists have long studied regions around the world where people live to be 100 and older. The five regions – communities known as the Blue Zones – are places in Europe, South America, Asia, and even the US that contain the highest proportion of centenarians.
These “hotspots” of health are Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra, Sardinia; Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
“They live an enviable standard. They live long, they prosper,” says David Katz, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. “That’s as good as it gets.”
Okinawans, for example, have the highest population in the world for those older than 100. In 2007, there were 457 centenarians, or an average of 35 for each 100,000 inhabitants. But even more impressively, Okinawa people age with much less chronic disease, including having lower rates of heart attack and stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Diet is a big part of why these folks live so long. Diets are mainly plant-based – lots of vegetables and rice. For protein, fish is a common entrée. Most dishes are low in both fat and calories and rich in antioxidants.
The residents of the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica are twice as likely as the average American to live to the age of 90. The food they consume is minimally processed and includes beans and native tubers, such as yams.
"It's not just the type of food, but the amount that is important," says Lu Qi, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Less calories are very beneficial."
Those in Sardinia, Italy and Ikaria, Greece eat traditional Mediterranean diets, which again, focus on fresh plant foods such as vegetables and whole grains. They are also hard working people who produce their own food in gardens and on farmland.
The people in these regions live eight years longer than Americans and experience 20% less cancer, according to the Blue Zones project. The rate of heart disease is half and there's almost no dementia.
We do have a “Blue Zone” in the US as well – the community of Loma Linda California. The community consists of Seventh-Day Adventists, a Christian group with strict dietary rules - Meat and dairy products are avoided. They follow a more "biblical diet" of grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables and drink only water. Vegetables such as legumes -- for example, peas, beans and tomatoes -- are a regular component of meals.
Do you see the theme?
Plant-based, low calorie, minimally processed meals appear to be the best diet to follow if you want to live a long life with minimal chronic disease. If you want to be active well into your 80’s and 90’s, try incorporating some of these tips into your daily diet:
• Avoid red meat and processed meat for most meals. If you want to continue to enjoy these foods, make them a rare treat rather than a daily main course.
• Poultry can be a good lean meat, but again, watch portion sizes and make it an accompaniment to a meal rather than the main focus. Cook with healthful thoughts in mind – meaning put down the fryer and choose to bake or broil or stir fry your meat.
• Eating more fish appears to be beneficial, especially fish that are caught wild and are rich in omega-3’s.
• EAT YOUR VEGETABLES. Too often we are stuck on potatoes and corn as our “go-to” veggies, but incorporate more color into your meals. Dark leafy greens, richly colored squash – the deeper the color, the more rich it is in antioxidants. Make half of your plate non-starchy vegetables.
• Steer clear of the boxed dinners and ready-made foods. Yes, they are convenient when you have had a hard day. But remember how much more healthful a home prepared, fresh meal can be.
• Eat smaller portions. Remember that a portion of meat is about the size of the palm of your hand. A ½ cup is a serving size for a starch.
• Season with fresh herbs and spices and limit salt or fatty sauces and gravies.
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