LIVING to your 100th birthday seems like a far cry for some, but perhaps solutions can be found if we adopt some of the food and lifestyle habits that stretch beyond our borders.
Enter the Blue Zones — a concept popularised by American writer and researcher Dan Buettner back in 2009.
Working with key researchers in the field of anthropology, epidemiology and dietitians, Buettner’s work grew to identify five unique geographic and cultural regions in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the US where people lead active lives beyond 100 years, have the least chronic disease and the greatest vitality.
Here are the top lifestyle habits common to these populations.
Eat real food, close to nature, mostly plants.
We all know that vegetables are good for us, but how many of us are eating the recommended five serves a day? A plant-based diet heavy on legumes (chickpea, lentils), ancient wholegrains, nuts, fruit, vegetables, and tofu is a common dietary trait, supplemented by smaller amounts of animal protein foods among blue zone inhabitants. Plant-based eaters are shown to consume more disease-fighting antioxidants, heart healthy fats and fibre — a key nutrient that fills you up on fewer calories. This is likely one reason why people in the blue zone have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, dementia and cancer.
What can you do: Change up the ratio of your plate.
Rather than meat being the focus, treat it more like a condiment or side dish. Fill two-thirds of your plate with fresh salads, veg and wholegrain foods and the remaining third with fish or meat.
Incorporate movement naturally.
Many of us sweat it out at the gym for 45 minutes a few times a week, whereas most Blue zone residents undertake regular, purposeful activity all day long, such as running errands on foot, doing chores with their hands, and practising types of exercise they enjoy such as tai chi, gardening, or playing games with friends.
Research shows that finding ways to move more over the course of the day (compared to a dedicated bout of exercise with long periods of sedentary activity around it) adds to longevity by improving heart health, improving resilience to stress, and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
What can you do: Think of movement as an opportunity, not a time-wasting inconvenience.
Practice portion control
Residents in Okinaya (Japan) practice an eating philosophy of ‘hara hachi bu’, which encourages eating until you’re 80 per cent full. It’s a cultural habit that helps keep portions in check, in contrast to the more Western behaviour of clearing our plates (and then having a second helping). This means you eat less without having to count calories or grams of fat — a simple practice that can improve health and shrink the waistline.
What can you do. Rather than bolt your food from a brown paper bag while doing something else, drop all distractions (e.g. tablets, phones, TV) and be mindful of each bite. This makes eating more like a ritual, not to mention a much more pleasurable experience.
Have a strong support network
People in the blue zones have strong social connections and family bonds. This sense of belonging reinforces healthy, positive behaviours and reduces stress — one of the biggest contributors to “emotional eating”.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behaviour that can add inches. Stressed people also sleep less, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to excess weight.
What can you do: Besides spending quality time with family and close friends, surround yourself with like-minded people that share similar values that will support, guide, and inspire you toward the best possible health outcomes.