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Diet: The Secret to Living

Diet: The Secret to Living

For a long time, humans have known that a good diet is the key to longevity and health. Along the way, we have also discovered which foods are detrimental, and which foods promote good health, vitality, and longevity. Over the past two decades or so, public interest has been aroused by the finding that people in certain areas of the world tend to live much longer and healthier lives than the average human being of today. These areas have come to be referred to as the “Blue Zones”. 

There are five so-called Blue Zones: (1) Okinawa, Japan; (2) Sardinia, Italy; (3) Icaria, Greece; (4) Nicoya, Costa Rica; (5) Loma Linda, California (particularly among the Seventh-day Adventist residents). The residents of these five areas have several things in common: they engage in regular moderate physical activity; they live their lives with a purpose; they take active measures to reduce stress; they have an active social life with family and friends; they consider spirituality to be an important part of their life; and, above all, their diet is plant-based, with calories kept at a moderate level, and a moderate consumption of alcohol, mainly in the form of wine. Of course, the specific elements of the diets in each of these five zones varies, depending on the types of foods available in each geographic region. The two regional diets that have gained public attention in the United States have been named the “Mediterranean Diet” and the “Okinawa Diet.”

The Mediterranean Diet is not a single diet, since cuisines vary along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, where local conditions determine what is included in the diet. However, these cuisines have some things in common. Plant-based foods feature prominently: whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, and a variety of fruits. Fat in the diet comes from olive oil, nuts, and seeds, all of which contain monounsaturated fats. Fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines, salmon, and albacore tuna, are a source of polyunsaturated fats in the diet. Dairy products in the form of cheese and yogurt are eaten in moderation, as are poultry products. Red meat is included, but only on occasion. Sugary desserts are not a regular part of the diet. Wine, especially red wine, is drunk in moderation as a part of the meal. Fruit is eaten for dessert, rather than sugary confections.

The Okinawa Diet consists of foods rich in nutrients and antioxidants. The main source of calories is the sweet potato, augmented with whole grains, legumes, and fiber-rich vegetables. Okinawans eat plenty of orange and purple sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin, Chinese okra, seaweed, kelp, bamboo shoots, and daikon radish. Fruits include bitter melon and green papaya. Grains include millet, wheat, and rice. Soy products feature prominently in the form of tofu, miso, natto, and edamame. Animal products are mainly white fish and other seafood, with small amounts of pork added in occasionally. Antioxidant-rich spices, such as turmeric, are used frequently as seasoning. Alcohol is consumed in moderate amounts, but tea, especially jasmine tea, is drunk freely and frequently.

What is common to these diets in the Blue Zones is the avoidance of highly processed foods, added sugars, sweetened drinks, added sodium (salt), refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats. The Blue Zone diets, especially the Mediterranean Diet, has been shown to prevent heart disease and stroke, and to reduce the risk of developing diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, all of which are among the many health problems that affect elderly Americans today. Most of all, a healthy diet has been shown to contribute to brain health and improve our ability to think, remember, and process information as we age. As the experience of the healthy, active, vigorous senior citizens in the Blue Zones has proved, making the right dietary choices is indeed the secret to living a long and healthy life and making the most of the last few decades of our lives.