The average lifespan of an American is 78.8 years, with women typically living to around 81 and men making it to 76. It’s the highest this statistic has ever been in our country…a testament to modern medicine and our nation’s overall prosperity. While these numbers are probably considered a ripe old age to most people, it bears noting that women in Japan have the world’s longest average life expectancy at 87 years. The Japanese people doesn’t have better medical care or greater wealth than we do, so why are they outliving us?
First-World health issues
Although we are living longer than ever, that quantity of years is not always high in quality. You’ve likely read the statistics that roughly two-thirds of adults (and about one-third of children) in the United States are considered overweight or obese, a rate that has far-reaching effects on those people’s health. A few alarming facts from the CDC:
- Obesity-related conditions (e.g., heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer) are among the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S.
- The estimated annual medical cost of obesity-related conditions was $147 billion in 2008 in the U.S.
- In that same year, medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of people in the normal weight range.
There are many factors that are contributing to these increases in obesity, including more sedentary lifestyles and more processed foods high in saturated fat, calories, and refined sugars. But if doesn’t have to be this way.
When we look at areas of the world with long lifespans, we find common denominators that have nothing to do with access to state-of-the-art modern medicine or even a strong gene pool. In fact, the long lives of the people in these regions primarily have been attributed to something most of us can control: diet and exercise.
Living longer in the Blue Zones
People who live in the so-called “Blue Zones”–which researchers have identified as having the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world and include Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica–have several “secrets” to their longevity. According to a recent NPR story, seniors living in the Blue Zones “move their bodies a lot. They have social circles that reinforce healthy behaviors. They take time to de-stress. They’re part of communities, often religious ones. And they’re committed to their families.” But the food puzzle piece is among the most intriguing and convincing to researchers.
People in the Blue Zones do not deprive themselves of food or even of alcohol, in many cases, but rather it is how they eat and what they are consuming that are likely their “golden ticket” to a long life. In a nutshell, based on the researchers’ findings, these Blue Zone centenarians’ diets often look like this:
- They stop eating when their stomach is 80 percent full to avoid weight gain.
- They eat the smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or evening.
- They eat mostly plants, especially beans, and eat meat rarely (only a handful of times per month), in small portions.
- They drink alcohol moderately and regularly–approximately 1-2 glasses per day.
Improve your diet to make it to 100
The saying goes, “You are what you eat.” So are you ready to make some simple changes to your diet in order to increase your odds of making it to 100? Here are few of the common foods (which are available at American mainstream grocery stores) that were popular among the centenarians in the Blue Zones:
- Legumes (especially chick peas, lentils, and fava beans)
- Goat and sheep milk and cheese
- A variety of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal
- Small amounts of fish or other lean meats
- Herbs and spices like turmeric, fennel, and garlic
- Green tea, soy milk, and red wine
Increase your quantity and quality of life
With delicious foods like these, the “Blue Zone diet” is one that just about anyone can follow! Improved nutrition and eating habits can help manage weight and thus reduce seniors’ incidence of preventable, obesity-related conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.