Creating a Blue Zone for Yourself

September 8, 2015 in Fitness, Foodland Chronicles, General, Health, Health Claims, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

I’m guessing September 8th is a little late for suggesting a book for summer reading. “Good guess,” you say, since there’re only 14 days left before Wednesday, September 23, 2015 (Autumnal Equinox 2015). If you’ve been reading this blog for years, you know this is an exciting time of year for me and I’m usually writing something about the harvest of glorious fruits and vegetables. But today I’m getting to that subject very circuitously.

So I’ll jump right in and suggest a book for your last two weeks of summer reading; what the heck, why not start a new fall reading tradition? The book is: The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People (published April 7, 2015).

If you want to decide in just a few moments if you’re interested in his writings (Dan Buettner has written several books.) you can watch a TED Talk to see if you’re sufficiently energized. In essence, Buettner got together with three other guys from the National Geographic (He works for NatGeo.), and the National Institute of Health on Aging. For the past eleven years, this team went around the world where the people live the longest with the lowest rates of chronic disease. The places these people lived got named the “Blue Zones.” Four of these are the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; the highlands of Sardinia (an island off Italy to the East); Okinawa (a large Japanese island south of Japan proper); and Loma Linda, California. Can you believe that Loma Linda made the list? That’s especially surprising since the US has only about 4 in 10,000 Americans that reach the 100-year mark; while, Sardinia, for example, has 21 centenarians per 10,000.

Since you know that my blog is almost always about nutrition or exercise, I’ll tell you up front that one of the factors Buettner and his buddies (or more properly colleagues) discovered is that all the “Blue Zones” ate a plant-based diet. As a matter of fact, more than 65% of what people in the blue zones ate came from complex carbohydrates. (Just one more piece of evidence to support last week’s article.) No big surprise there for me; but it is always nice to have research confirm research, confirm research and confirm research. Their diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other carbohydrates. On average they eat a small amount of meat about five times a month, usually on celebratory occasions.

Another thing on the subject of diet, they also found that all the “Blue Zones” ate beans - the humble bean. Buettner calls it the cornerstone of every longevity diet. He even cites a five-country study that found that beans were the only food that predicted a longer life; interestingly it was only 20-grams (about two tablespoons) a day. The beans were black in Costa Rica; soybeans (tofu) in Okinawa; in Sardinia both fava (broad beans) and green beans (think minestrone); and in Loma Linda, it’s all varieties of beans (based on Genesis 1:29 - seed bearing fruit). One of the benefits of beans is their high fiber, in addition to their high protein. The fiber serves as ‘gut compost’ (as named by Buettner), enabling healthy bacteria to thrive. Science is learning how much the gut bacteria are contributing to our health. One of the results of this work is that the humble bean (aka legume) is elevated to its proper status as a star in nutrition. It supports my contention that you don’t need to be wealthy to eat healthily; we all know that beans are not generally expensive.

Of course, there’s more to Buettner’s findings than just how they eat (although he finds the eating pattern very important); he says that the elderly are valued for their wisdom and celebrated for their age. They’ve even named a societal benefit of the elderly’s value in these cultures, “The Grandmother Effect;” which benefits the children. It probably comes as no surprise to you that Dr. Grandma embraces this concept.

Many people have told me that they don’t want to live a long time. I usually discover that those people fear living a long time chronically disabled by diseases of old age. But many of the people in the “Blue Zones” live disability-free into their tenth and even eleventh decade.

In Okinawa, they say the elderly have something to teach us. One of the Okinawans’ Confucian beliefs is that you should stop eating when you’re 80% full. Being a science major and an American, I’ve had difficulty thinking about how to know where the 80% line is. But I guess it could be a real help to me to just stop before my historical full and then I’ll be closer to 80% than 100% (and especially, further from 110%). It’s worth the effort. In addition to eating on small plates and only to 80% full, the Okinawans also have a system of lifetime friends. They don’t retire – actually, they don’t even have a word for retirement. They celebrate their reasons for waking up every morning, even as the particular reasons vary over stages of life; they have a word for that too.

I somewhat slipped over how Loma Linda made the list. Since I lived in that area for a time in my late teens, I knew that Loma Linda was a Seventh-Day Adventist stronghold and that Seventh-Day Adventists are frequently vegetarians. What I did not know was about their nature walks to enjoy fresh air and sunshine, and how close their community is. I could have easily guessed, however, that they have tremendous trust in Divine Power.

All the groups have some things in common.

  • One of the biggest surprises is that none of them embrace exercise as an activity separate from living their lives. They all have exercise built into their lives. They walk around their often hilly terrains and have a garden. The ladies gather and knead bread together; and so on. The people in the ‘blue zones’ were nudged into physical activity about every 20 minutes. Besides burning up 500 to 1,000 calories a day, it also kept their metabolisms buzzing at a higher rate.
  • They all take time to downshift. The researchers point out that the triggers for the inflammatory process that takes such a toll on Americans is partially a result of our hurry-up and stress triggers.
  • They have a sense of purpose.
  • They eat a plant-based diet; full of nuts and beans.
  • They keep families first – they’re really dedicated to their families.
  • They belong to a faith-based community.
  • They are aligned with an active group. Buettner says they belong to the right tribe. They do things with their tribe that keep them moving their bodies as required by activities they enjoy together.

Buettner says that there is no short-term fix. It’s not going on a diet or starting some dreaded exercise program. It’s changing the way we live on a regular basis. He reminds us that the average life expectancy is about 78 years in America, so we’re leaving about 12 years on the table when compared to what he considers a real possibility.

One of my great friends of life died about five years ago. She died at the age of 103. She was fully cognizant until the end of her life. She attended a ladies’ luncheon on my backyard deck just a few weeks before she passed on. She had recently moved her bedroom downstairs because she had become weaker, but….. Hey, she was 103. The reason that I bring up my friend, Iris, is that at her funeral, her daughter when sharing many things about Iris said, “Mom never thought it was dinner without green beans.” I knew many things about Iris, but I never knew her green bean inclination. Now, I’ve always assigned Iris’ longevity to her genes, but maybe the green beans had something to do with keeping her telomeres (the biological secret to healthy ageing) happy and healthy. I should also mention that Iris was very involved in her faith-based community; still gardened in her late nineties; moved her body in her routine calisthenics; was very social and valued for her knowledge. She received a Master’s Degree in the 1930s. She remained informed, interesting and a resource to her community up to the end. It was my privilege to be her friend.

Maybe Buettner can inspire us to make a single decision – a place to start until, we as a country, figure out how to design life differently. The decision to find a way to fit the humble bean into our eating might be a great place to start. If we don’t know how to fit kneading bread for 45 minutes into our life, nor how to schedule several friends to talk with, maybe we should stick with our exercise plan. The one step at a time concept seems to be a good one to me.

Can I say “P.S.” in a blog? Yesterday, I prepared a huge pot of green beans, all from our garden, and onions. It’s our third huge harvest of green beans. It’s challenging to keep up with the garden, but fresh green beans are a taste treat. Oh, yes, also maybe a treat for a telomere or two. We don’t need to be a Seventh-Day Adventist to benefit from eating beans frequently.