A long, healthy life is about much more than good genes; it’s highly dependent on building healthy habits. Habits—both good and bad—are an integral part of your everyday life. Part of forming healthy habits is to become intentional with them until they become ingrained into your daily routine. It will take effort on your part, but if the payoff could be a long, healthy life, then it’s worth it, right?
So what’s the formula for success? Well, what better way to find and adopt healthy habits than from those already practicing them? Let’s take a look at the healthy habits practiced by people living happily into their hundreds, in parts of the world known as “Blue Zones.”
In 2004, author and explorer Dan Buettner rounded up a bunch of anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists, and other researchers to travel around the world to study communities with surprisingly high percentages of centenarians. Funded in part by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, the study’s findings, highlighted in National Geographic by Buettner, discussed five hot spots—called “Blue Zones”—where there is a high rate of centenarians who enjoy a healthier lifestyle. These places were:
- Loma Linda, U.S.
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Sardinia, Italy
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
Buettner and the researchers found that seniors in these widely separated regions share a number of key habits, despite many differences in backgrounds and beliefs. These universal healthy habits can be broken down into the following:
- Having a healthy diet
- Having a purpose
- Staying active
- Focusing on family/community
This first article in the series will focus on the first factor, having a healthy diet.
A Healthy Diet
It’s widely known that what you eat is important to your health and well-being, but with all the new diet trends and research, it can be difficult to figure out just exactly what eating healthy means. Another complication is that each of us is unique—we each have individual tastes, dietary restrictions and allergies, and cultural influences.
With that said, the Blue Zone study found that the majority of centenarians practice similar healthy eating habits. Here are some centenarian dietary best practices to try.
1. Eat More Plants
There is a clear theme across the Blue Zone communities to eat fresh, organic food, high in proteins and healthy fats. In general, the centenarians eat a large amount of vegetables and fruits, and small amounts of red meat. The fruit and vegetables tend to be high in antioxidants and fiber, such as tomatoes, onions, squash, roots/tubers, and beans. Whole grains are also often included in the Blue Zone diets in the form of breads or cereals.
2. Eat Locally/Home-Grown Food
The majority of centenarians eat fruits and vegetables that are home-grown or locally grown organic products. Picking up food at local farmers markets not only fosters a sense of community (another factor in longevity), but also allows you to eat seasonally, which means the fruits and vegetables will be more nutritionally dense. The same principles apply for growing your own food—a little more work, but you will be able to control what goes into your food—and what does not (i.e., pesticides).
3. Practice Portion Control
Consuming excess calories leads to weight gain and potential health risks. Learning to control your portions like many centenarians (and those following an Ayurvedic diet) can be a healthy eating habit.
For example, Okinawans practice “Hara hachi bu,” a Confucian mantra said before a meal that reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80-percent full. The 20 percent gap between not being hungry and feeling full could help with losing weight. “Rituals like this and other forms of saying grace also provide a pause in everyday living, forcing people to slow down and pay attention to their foods,” says Buettner. “Ikarians, Saridinians, Costa Ricans, and Adventists all begin meals by saying a prayer.”
The Okinawans also eat off small plates to limit the amount of food consumption. Take a look at what size dishes are in your cupboard—you may want to invest in smaller plates to help with portion control.
4. Have a Meal Routine
When you eat is also important because it can help with digestion and ensure your body gets the energy it needs to perform. People in the Blue Zones tend to eat three meals a day and don’t make a habit of snacking. Their smallest meal is usually dinner and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day, but adopting this habit will depend on your life schedule (dinner may be your first meal of the day, depending on your work hours).
5. Practice Moderate Alcohol Consumption
American alcohol consumption is on the rise—including increases in its abuse. Drinking alcohol in excess can cause liver damage, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health risks. It can also increase the chance of violence, motor vehicle accidents, and injuries due to falls.
That’s not to say alcohol consumption is off the table—just that the health risks of alcohol consumption tend to outweigh the benefits. If you drink, do so in moderation. Many centenarians in Okinawa, Sardinia, and Icaria enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol (wine and sake), while others such as the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda refrain from drinking all together.
6. Eat with Family and Friends
Eating is best as a social experience where you can slow down, be present, and connect with others. “I’ve eaten countless meals with people in the Blue Zones, and they were often three-hour affairs with a succession of many small plates punctuated by toasts, stories, jokes, and conversation,” says Buettner. “Mealtimes are celebrations, a time to give thanks, talk out problems, and bond as a family. As a rule, people in the Blue Zones never eat alone, never eat standing up, and never eat with one hand on the steering wheel.”
By forming healthy eating habits you can optimize your lifestyle and may gain an extra decade of good life you’d otherwise miss. Adopting these six healthy eating habits practiced by centenarians may help to improve your life expectancy at any age.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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