Incorporate more plants in your diet; avoid meat and processed foods.
Welcome to La Vie en Bleu a series where I share what Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, reveals as powerful and simple lessons that can help put anyone on the path to a healthier and happier life. We continue with the third of nine lessons from the Blue Zones, five unique communities that have common elements of diet, lifestyle and outlook on life that have led to not only an amazing number of years lived, but also a better quality of life.
Lesson Three: Plant Slant
Most Blue Zone centenarians never had the chance to develop the habit of eating processed or junk foods. Traditionally, many ate what they produced in their gardens and supplemented with staples like durum wheat, maize and sweet potato. They avoided meat, or more accurately, didn’t have access to eat except on rare occasions.
Studies of thousands of vegetarians have found that those who restrict meat are associated with living longer. However, that is not to say that all vegetarians are equal. There are many vegetarians who take in more cholesterol through dairy (cheese, milk, etc.) and other processed foods than some non-vegetarians who eat meat at modest levels. I personally learned this many years ago.
I’ve been a vegetarian most of my adult life. As a child, I just never liked meat or fish very much, so when I became an adult I just removed it from my diet. Many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I was surprised to find out that I had slightly high cholesterol. How could this be? I asked my doctor, I’m a vegetarian! I was shocked; and, so began my education to eating wiser and making healthier food choices.
Finding out my cholesterol was higher than I would have liked shook me up a bit. So, like inspector Renault’s famous line in Casablanca, I decided to “round up the usual suspects” and identified the “offenders” in my diet. Although I was not eating meat, I was eating a lot of cheese, ice cream, milk shakes, junky chocolate, processed foods and french fries. Hardly any greens or fresh fruit were passing my lips. I analyzed what I could remove from my diet, or at least eat less of, and did some reading to find out what I needed to include to bring more balance to my diet. I immediately increased my intake of a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and legumes, got rid of many of the “offenders” and started moving (exercising) more. By my next doctor’s visit, I was happy to find my cholesterol levels were great!
The key to eating well is not just to eat less meat, but also to find a healthy balance—consume what your body needs and avoid the extremes. Although not all Blue Zone centenarians are vegetarians, they consume limited quantities of meat. Beans (legumes), whole grains, and garden vegetables make up the bulk of all longevity diets.
Also, studies indicate that nuts, eaten in balance and moderation, may help protect the heart by reducing total blood cholesterol. Studies also showed that persons eating nuts at least five times a week, in two-ounce servings, lived on average about two years longer than those who didn’t eat nuts. However note, a one ounce serving of nuts typically ranges from 165-200 calories, so two ounces could easily be almost 400 calories. Think carefully of portion size if you have concerns about weight.
At home, we add organic almonds or walnuts to our oatmeal every morning. I don’t always eat as many fruits and vegetables as I should everyday, but reading The Blue Zones has been a gentle reminder for me to try harder. So far, I’m raising my son as a vegetarian. When he is older he can later decide if he wants to add meat to his diet. For now, I’m happy to train his taste buds to love and appreciate a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes from an early age. Fortunately, he likes a variety of healthy foods. I can’t help but smile every time he picks up his vegetables and puts them in his mouth with his little pudgy fingers and says, “mmmm!” I hope his early love of plant foods remains with him throughout a long, healthy and happy life.
Tips and strategies to incorporate more plants in your diet
Eat four to six vegetable servings daily
Blue Zone diets always include at least two vegetables at each meal.
Limit meat intake
Try to limit meat intake to twice per week.
Lead with beans
Make beans—or tofu—the centerpiece of lunches and dinners.
Eat nuts everyday
Although all nuts are considered good, the best nuts for longevity seem to be almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, and some pine nuts. Others such as Brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamias are less desirable as they have a little more saturated fat. Toss nuts in salads, pasta or yogurt. A small handful of unsalted raw nuts can make a nice snack, but as nuts are a high-calorie and high-fat food, practice eating them in moderation.
Have you started to put the lessons from the Blue Zones to work in your life? If so, I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences. La Vie en Bleu will continue with lesson number four from the Blue Zones on how to live a healthier and happier life. Won’t you join me?
The Blue Zones include:
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Loma Linda, California