While a checklist to guarantee a long, healthy life is still a far-off dream, studies have identified groups of people in locations known as the Blue Zones who regularly live to be 100. So can their diet and lifestyle habits help us, too?
We all want to know the secret to staying younger for longer. A flick through any glossy magazine will highlight our obsession with youth. But although there’s no magic bullet when it comes to fighting the signs of ageing, there’s a lot we can do to stay healthier for longer.
Our chances of long-lasting health are, of course, partly to do with our genes. But they’re mostly determined by the lifestyle choices we make every day – and there’s a raft of evidence at our disposal to help us make the best decisions, whether that’s how much exercise we do or the types of food we eat.
According to Dr Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die, up to 80% of the top killers in the UK –including cancer, diabetes and neurological diseases – may be down to lifestyle choices; the rest are determined by our genes.
‘Statistically speaking, our genes are not our destiny,’ says Michael. ‘With the discovery of a field called epigenetics, we now know we can turn the disease-causing genes on and off. This discovery has been a game changer.’
The long and the short of it
In particular, it’s the discovery of structures called ‘telomeres’ that has allowed scientists to have a better understanding of the relationship between a healthy lifestyle and longevity. Telomeres are found on the ends of each strand of DNA, where their job is to protect the strands from damage (a bit like the plastic tip at the end of a shoe lace). Each time cells divide, these telomeres become shorter. Eventually they become so short that they can’t do their job properly and so the cells age, in turn causing our body to age.
While this is a normal part of the ageing process, things like stress, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and poor diet also shorten our telomeres, helping to explain why all these are linked to premature ageing. ‘Under a microscope you can actually watch people’s telomeres grow longer or shorter based on their lifestyle choices,’ says Michael.
Secrets of the Blue Zones
So what are the rules for an age-defying lifestyle? ‘There are some excellent long-term population studies that have taught us much about longevity. Some of these focus on five geographic regions known as the Blue Zones (Barbagia – Sardinia, Ikaria – Greece, Nicoya Peninsula – Costa Rica, Seventh Day Adventists – California, Okinawa – Japan), where the populations enjoy exceptionally long and healthy lives,’ says Michael. ‘Based on these, and other similar studies, we know certain behaviours are associated with a longer lifespan. These include eating a mostly plant-based diet, incorporating daily movement or exercise, not using tobacco, using little or no alcohol, and being part of a community.’
Sound familiar? In fact, this echoes the advice public health experts in the UK have been giving for years, and the people of the Blue Zones are living proof it works. Here’s how to become a healthy centenarian…
Eat mostly plants
‘The evidence suggests the most important habit westerners should adopt right now is to eat a mostly wholefoods, plant-based diet,’ says Michael.
The older inhabitants of Okinawa in Japan have eaten a largely plant-based diet for most of their lives, made up of stir-fried vegetables and sweet potatoes, with plenty of soy-based foods like tofu and miso soup. Sardinians eat wholegrains, beans, home-grown veg and save meat for special occasions. But how many of us here in the UK even hit our target of five servings of vegetables and fruit every day? According to the British Dietetic Association, adults get just three portions a day, with only 15% of us meeting the target.
More evidence: There’s an ever-growing body of evidence linking plant-based diets to a reduced risk of chronic diseases. In fact, recent research by Imperial College London found eating a diet where at least 70% of food comes from plant sources is linked to a 20% lower risk of dying from heart disease and stroke.
Live-longer tips: Add more veg: think of them as a main rather than a side; double up on the quantity you normally serve; and add a veg or fruit-based snack to your morning routine.
Learn to love pulses
in most western diets the bulk of carbohydrates come from starchy crops such as maize, wheat and rice, and we make less of more nutritious foods such as pulses. While carbs supply us with energy, they don’t always provide us with a wide range of vitamins and minerals, especially if we’re eating processed or white carbs.
Including pulses such as beans and lentils in your diet is a low-fat way to boost fibre and protein, as well as minerals such as potassium, which can help lower blood pressure, and iron, important for healthy blood. Plus, an 80g (3tbsp) serving of pulses counts as one of our five-a-day. Note, though, that it counts as one portion no matter how much you eat because pulses contain nutrients that are more similar to protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and eggs than fruit and veg. People across the Blue Zones eat, on average, a cupful of pulses a day.
More evidence: In 2004, a cross- cultural study found that elderly people who increased their daily legume consumption by 20g reduced their risk of mortality by 7–8%. The researchers ruled that legumes are the single defining food group to protect against mortality in older people.
Live-longer tips: Stock up on canned beans in water without any added sugar or salt for an inexpensive source of fibre and protein. Turn them into mash with a little garlic and olive oil, toss into salads and stir-fries or use them to bulk up soups and stews.
Cut back on meat
While the western diet is generally big on meat, the Blue Zones view it as an occasional food, focusing on plant-based main meals. Meat features, on average, five times a month, with small servings (3–4oz or the size of a pack of cards). Sardinians save meat for Sundays, Okinawans for ceremonies, and Californian Seventh-day Adventists are mostly vegetarian or have meat only occasionally.
More evidence: Studies continue to show that eating too much meat (particularly red or processed meat) is a risk to health. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends we eat no more than 500g cooked meat a week (around 700g raw weight) and avoid processed meats such as ham, bacon and sausages. In the UK, the Department of Health recommends no more than 70g cooked red and processed meat a day.
It’s good advice to heed if you want to reduce your risk of certain cancers, especially bowel cancer, which has been linked to high intakes of red and processed meat.
Live-longer tip: Eat less meat: make meat-free Mondays a regular diary date and look at making plant-based foods the hero of your dishes. Steer clear of sausages, bacon, chorizo and deli meats most of the time – even regular intakes in the region of 50g a day have been shown to increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.
Eat from the sea
It’s no coincidence the Blue Zones are all located on coastlines and islands. Access to fresh oily fish means inhabitants’ brain-boosting omega-3s are regularly topped up. Indeed, several studies have found a link between good intakes of fish and a reduced incidence of disease such as Alzheimer’s.
More evidence: Using data from the landmark Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, researchers found that of 4,676 disease-free women, over 30 years those who ate a Mediterranean diet of leafy green vegetables, olive oil, nuts and oily fish had the longest telomeres.
Live-longer tip: Eat at least two portions of fish a week – at least one of them oil-rich, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines. Fresh and canned both count (except canned tuna).
Munch on nuts
Nuts are a fantastic source of protein, fibre, heart-healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. They’re a healthy on-the-go snack and keep the lid on your hunger. ‘Interestingly, the overwhelming evidence is that the food most tied to longevity is nuts,’ says Michael. ‘In one study, women who ate just two handfuls of nuts a week appeared
to get benefits equivalent to four hours of jogging!’
Research into the Seventh-day Adventist diet in the 1990s found those who ate nuts at least four times a week compared with those who ate only one portion or less a week halved their risk of heart disease. Now numerous recent studies also show that eating a handful of nuts a day may help to extend life.
More evidence: The PREDIMED study, the world’s most detailed clinical trial of the Mediterranean diet, found eating 30g mixed nuts a day reduced the risk of cardiovascular diseases by 30%.
Tune in to your body
Okinawans recite a mantra called ‘Hara hachi bu’ before every meal to remind them to stop eating when they’re 80% full. In most western countries, however, our culture is about clearing our plates – even if we’re already full – and then still having a dessert! It’s thought this 20% leeway is the difference between losing or gaining weight, so being able to recognise when we’re satisfied is crucial in helping to maintain a healthy weight.
More evidence: Adventists eat their largest meal at the start of the day and end on a light meal in the early evening. It’s thought this avoids bombarding the body with calories during inactive parts of the day, which seems to promote a lower BMI – as well as better sleep
Live-longer tips: Slow down when you eat: it takes around 20 minutes for your brain to register your stomach is full. Choosing crunchy foods that need more chewing can also help prevent overeating. Use smaller plates to help control portion size.