In the United States, the average life expectancy is 78; the worldwide life expectancy is slightly lower at 67. However, in Okinawa, the life expectancy is 81 and higher. Research indicates the reason for this is fairly simple: they eat a better diet. In another location, this time the San Blas Islands which are located off of the coast of Panama, high blood pressure and heart disease are very rare (9 in 100,000 compared to 83 per 100,000 in Panama’s mainland) (Source: Jaret).
The difference between the Okinawans and the San Blas Islands residents is not genetic or some special medical treatment, it is their diet that keeps them healthier and stronger for far longer than their peers. In the United States, that same benefit is seen in the Seventh Day Adventists who typically eat a vegetarian diet and live, on average, four to seven years longer than those in the same community.
The diets that are most commonly eaten by those who have longer lives are low in saturated fats and high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Most of these diets are high in fruits and vegetables, getting the bulk of their protein from vegetarian sources rather than from meats. While there are some healthy, low-fat animal proteins, the typical American diet has far too much emphasis on red meats, which are loaded with saturated fats, cholesterol and calories which can clog arteries, cause massive weight gain and lead to higher risk for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
Some of the foods that are suggested by these so called “longevity diets” might be a shock, while others are pretty obvious. Of course, fruits and vegetables of all kinds should be eaten; however, there are other suggestions as well. These include:
Whole grains, especially in place of processed and too easily digested simple carbohydrates. According to studies, you can cut your risk of heart disease in half if you include plenty or whole grains in your diet. Whole grain foods also protect against Type II Diabetes, which also lowers heart disease risk. When choosing your whole grain foods, make sure that you are reading the label carefully. The first ingredient that is listed should be the whole grain. If the first word is “enriched,” then it is nothing more than white flour with a little coloring or molasses for flavor and color. The fiber content for these foods should be fairly high as well. A warning about whole grains, especially bread: some of them can have fairly high calorie counts per serving, so again, carefully reading labels and knowing what your personal dietary needs are is the key.
Nuts are a surprising thing to find on a list of the foods that you should be eating, but they are surprisingly beneficial to good overall health, especially the heart. They are high in calories though, so the serving size that you should be consuming is very small, but for every few nuts that you eat, you are getting heart healthy fats and additional fiber. They are also surprisingly high in other nutrients, including Omega-3 Fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, protein, fiber, potassium, plant sterols, vitamin B6 and arginine. There are several different types of nuts which have been proven to be very beneficial, including walnuts (the highest in overall antioxidants), almonds (best nut source of vitamin E and containing more protein than a large egg, long considered to be the perfect protein source) and pistachios (highest in dietary fiber per serving and most nuts per one ounce serving size) (Source: Pratt and Matthews, 2004).
If you think that you can only have bland and blah foods when you are eating healthy, with no snacks or treats, you are wrong. In fact, dark chocolate has polyphenols which are thought to both lower blood pressure and to improve the flexibility of the blood vessels themselves. A study using dark chocolate and subjects who already had high blood pressure showed an improvement in their blood pressure readings and their insulin sensitivity after only fifteen days of eating dark chocolate every day.
While most fruits and vegetables are suggested by these healthy diets, blueberries may be the king, according to a number of studies. They are high in antioxidants and have been proven to protect against the age-related changes in the brain that can lead to serious memory impairments and dementia. Blueberries are considered to be one of the “super foods” and have been listed several times in books and diet plans as such. They are so beneficial that in a book called Super Foods RX, the authors suggest trying to eat as much as one to two cups of these and other members of the family, including grapes, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, currants and other berries on a daily basis. Blueberries and the others in this category can be fresh or frozen. Another benefit of blueberries: they relieve both diarrhea and constipation because they are high in pectin and are also good for urinary tract health (similarly to cranberries) (Source: Pratt and Matthews, 2004).
Everyone knows that the Okinawa diet, as well as other heart-healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet, is high in fish, especially fish that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats protect the heart, including from irregular heart rhythms which can potentially cause heart failure. Fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, in fish oil may also protect against depression and age-related memory loss. ALA, another fatty acid, is found in flaxseed and may also have the same benefit. However, men should only get the marine based Omega-3 fatty acids, because the other sources can lead to an increased risk of developing prostate cancer.
Some of the best fish sources for these fatty acids are salmon, canned albacore tuna, sardines, Alaskan halibut, herring, sea bass, trout, oysters and clams. The recommendation is to eat fish two to four times a week, however, there are certain groups who may be restricted to how much fish they are eating, especially particular varieties. The concern with some types of fish is the increased level of mercury, which can lead to mercury poisoning.
The debate over coffee has gone back and forth a million times. It is bad for you; it makes you nervous, jumpy or jittery. It is good for you, especially before a workout. The latest information suggests that coffee may protect against both Type 2 diabetes and mental decline associated with age.
Protein is important in the diet as well, especially plant-based protein like soy and soy products. However, Americans are busy people and protein supplements are often the way that they get the bulk of their protein intake.
Peter Jaret. Eating for Longevity: Foods to Keep Your Heart, Brain and Bones Healthy WebMD
Steven Pratt, MD and Kathy Matthews Super Foods RX: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life. Harper Collins Publishing, New York, New York 2004