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Want to live until you’re 100? Expert who’s spent decades exploring ‘blue zone’ phenomenon reveals why bread and beans could help you live longer


There is no miracle pill or supplement that is going to be your ‘panacea’ to living to 100.

That’s according to Dan Buettner, who has spent decades discovering the secrets of healthy living among the world’s oldest folk.

Leading ‘Blue Zone’ researcher Buettner, an explorer and National Geographic fellow, believes the secret to longevity is much simpler — a healthy diet.

Blue zones — like Sardinia in Italy and Okinawa in Japan — are geographic areas that are home to unusual amounts of centenarians. 

As such, some believe the key to long, disease-free lives is by replicating the eating and activity patterns of people in the zones. Although first pushed 20 years ago by Buettner himself, the concept has since exploded, with hundreds of books and even a Netflix documentary dedicated to exploring the phenomenon.

Yet some experts question the blue zone theory, saying it is ‘nonsense’ and arguing that Buettner does not have a medical or research background.

What is unquestionable, however, is that people in places like Sardinia and Okinawa do tend to eat slightly differently… 

People live about eight years longer with no discernible dementia in Ikaria an island in Greece (pictured)

Men in Sardinia (pictured) are statistically living the longest in the world

People live about eight years longer with no discernible dementia in Ikaria an island in Greece (pictured left). Men in Sardinia (pictured right) are statistically living the longest in the world

Beans 

It may surprise you that it’s not just leafy greens at the heart of every longevity diet on the planet. Pulses, Buettner says, should come top of the pile. 

Pulses such as beans, lentils and peas are both simple to cook and cheap.

What’s more, they provide essential nutrients, being filled with fibre and protein.

‘The cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world is beans,’ Mr Buettner told ZOE Science and Nutrition podcast. 

‘And if you’re eating a cup of beans a day, it’s probably associated with about four extra years of life expectancy over less healthy sources of protein.’

He suggests the real food that helps people live a long and healthy life is ‘peasant foods’ and ‘cheap stuff everybody can afford.’

Fibre filled and protein rich pulses such as beans, lentils and peas may be simple and cheap, but they provide essential nutrients. they can even add fur years to your life expectancy

Fibre filled and protein rich pulses such as beans, lentils and peas may be simple and cheap, but they provide essential nutrients. they can even add fur years to your life expectancy

In many African countries they will eat beans and rice, Latin Americans make beans and corn tortilla and Italians make pasta fagioli, which consists of pasta and beans. 

All these dishes contain fibre, complex carbohydrates and amino acids, Mr Buettner explains. 

Professor Tim Spector, a renowned dietitian and co-founder of ZOE, explains beans and pulses can improve our gut health and in turn strengthen the immune system. 

Fibre rich foods feed the microbes in our gut, so do polyphenols, a plant compound with antioxidant properties. 

These polyphenols improve our gut health which is vital for a health immune system, Professor Spector said on the podcast. 

‘If you can have a healthy immune system, then that immune system is repairing your body continuously, it’s fighting early cancer, it’s repairing the cells, it’s making sure that you do live to an old age by picking up problems early,’ Professor Spector said. 

Sardinia in Italy , Okinawa in Japan and Ikaria in Greece are all home to some of worlds oldest populations

Sardinia in Italy , Okinawa in Japan and Ikaria in Greece are all home to some of worlds oldest populations

Diversity

Variety is a key part of diets for people living in blue zone locations. 

It’s not the spaghetti and noodles that feed these healthy nations, but it’s the spices, herbs and vegetables that are added to it, Professor Spector says. 

For example, in Japan there are hundreds of varieties of mushrooms and onions, beans, pickles and other fermented foods which add variety to their food. 

Mixing this range of ingredients into rich soups and casseroles is common in blue zone regions. 

Eating a variety of foods means you are more likely to get the different vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need, the pair of experts said.

The longest lived family in history eats the same minestrone full of a variety of vegetables and beans every day.

Mr Buettner found the Melis family in Sardinia, that had nine siblings and a collective age of 860 years, makes the soup with three beans, vegetables, carrots, celery, onions, oregano, red pepper, potatoes or barley and extra virgin olive oil.

Dietary surveys done in all five blue zones over the last 100 years show people in these areas do not eat a huge amount of meat. About 90 per cent of the food they eat is whole plant based food.

Dietary surveys done in all five blue zones over the last 100 years show people in these areas do not eat a huge amount of meat. About 90 per cent of the food they eat is whole plant based food.

Fermented food

Eating cheese could also give your gut and immune system a boost.

Professor Spector explains that many Mediterranean countries, including those that have lots of blue zones, eat lots of goats cheese, yoghurts and other dairy ferments. 

Similarly in Japan, fermented soy products such as tempeh, soy sauce and miso are popular.

Until about 1960 people in Sardinia mostly ate bread and cheese, Mr Buettner explained.

Fermented foods can improve digestion and lower your risk of certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to ZOE. 

Research has also shown that fermented dairy products such as yoghurt and kefir can provide good strains of bacteria adding diversity to your gut helping to prevent these diseases, according to a 2018 study by researchers in Switzerland. 

Less meat

Historically people living in blue zone locations would only eat meat about five times a month and rarely eat fish, Mr Buettner says.

Dietary surveys done in all five blue zones over the last 100 years show people in these areas do not eat a huge amount of meat, he explained on the podcast. 

About 90 per cent of the food they eat is whole plant based food. 

‘The five pillars of every longevity diet in the world are whole grains, wheat, corn, and rice, greens, and of course garden vegetables,’ Mr Buettner said. 

Although meat is a good source of protein, eating too much red meat can raise cholesterol raising your risk of coronary heart disease, according to the NHS

But Mr Buettner stresses you don’t need to eat meat to be healthy. As shown by many blue zone locations across the world, you can get all the protein you need out of plant-based sources such as beans and pulses.

Professor Spector also argues that eating meat takes ‘room on your plate’ leaving less space for other vegetables and legumes that keep these populations so healthy. 

A communal meal encompasses many aspects that are important for longevity, such as eating slower and de-stressing, Professor Spector explains

A communal meal encompasses many aspects that are important for longevity, such as eating slower and de-stressing, Professor Spector explains

Communal eating

Blue zone populations prioritise family and social connections and they are not just eating well, but doing it as part of a community. 

A communal meal encompasses many aspects that are important for longevity, Professor Spector explains. 

In Mediterranean countries people will come together to enjoy a glass of wine with food and spend two or three times longer than the average American on a meal. 

He believes this contributes to better digestion, the ability to communicate with others and de-stress. 

Professor Spector adds there are studies that show mental stress can have a physical effect on the body and increase inflammation, which affect your overall health. 



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