Almost 15 years ago, Dan Buettner first wrote in our magazine an article about the long-livers of the planet. Today the author continues to study the secrets of centenarians in the regions, which he calls "blue zones". Dan recently traveled to such zones again to find out which foods contribute to enviable longevity. Buettner collected time-tested recipes and found out why certain foods can prolong life.
Home to a record number of men over 100
99-year-old Assunta Podda vigorously interferes with something in an earthen pot and smiles broadly. “Minestrone,” she explains, waving her hand at her creation. I look into the pot. Beans, carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes, fennel, kohlrabi and herbs are languishing under a film of olive oil. From the window behind Assunta, evening light falls on the table, illuminating this medieval dinner.
"Sit down," invites Assunta. I join her family and Gianni Pesu, an epidemiologist who studies the region.
Assunta is dressed in a traditional embroidered shirt and black sweater, and a choker adorns her neck. This image does not match at all with her dexterous movements. With a firm hand, she easily pours wine into pot-bellied glasses and pours the steaming soup into bowls: "Now eat."
We are located on the eastern slopes of the Gennargentu mountains in Sardinia in Arzana, a village famous for the largest number of long-lived men.
Gianni Pes, discovering this phenomenon in the late 1990s, conducted a thorough survey of over 300 centenarians using lengthy questionnaires. Gianni believes that longevity can be explained by steep streets, love for family, respect for elders, matriarchal culture (mostly women are responsible for loved ones here) and a simple traditional diet. And Gianni also made an interesting discovery: it turns out that spouses of centenarians live longer than their brothers and sisters - that is, diet and lifestyle influence longevity more than genes.
Sardinia, Italy. Franca Piras (right), with the help of neighbors Angela Loya and Marisa Stokino, as well as her daughter Michela Demuro and her granddaughter Nina, prepares culurgiones, a traditional dish of the province of Ogliastra. A pocket is formed from the pasta dough into which potatoes, sheep cheese and mint are placed.
Gianni has blue glasses and a gray beard. He tastes a spoonful of soup: "Delizioso!" Tasty! Gianni looks at Assunta, and she, closing her eyes, just shrugs.
Minestrone contains essential amino acids, a cocktail of vitamins and various types of dietary fiber. Gianni discovered that there are strains of bacteria in the digestive system of centenarians that convert fiber into large quantities of fatty acids with an odd number of carbon atoms in the molecule. These saturated fats reduce the risk of heart disease and help prevent cancer.
Sardinian minestrone has cabbage, in particular kohlrabi. These cruciferous vegetables are also important for longevity. Gianni has observed a large number of centenarians with goiter, a disease that accompanies hypothyroidism. From this observation, he concluded that when kohlrabi was consumed consistently, thiocyanate levels decreased thyroid function. Metabolism slows down and Sardinians live longer. Gianni draws a parallel with a lighter: if the flame is small, the lighter will last longer.
Sardinians make sourdough bread dough. Carbohydrates from such bread enter the bloodstream more slowly than carbohydrates from regular white bread.
In Seulo, another village with an enviable percentage of centenarians, Gianni and I visited a century-old bakery. In it, a dozen women prepared traditional bread, which is served here with every meal. The process was watched over by the senior baker in a black dress and shawl, short and very active 80-year-old Regina Boi. She shared tips and talked to others when the dough was ready and the oven was hot enough.
Following the family's long tradition, Regina made the sourdough herself. The starter culture is made up of yeast containing the Lactobellus bacteria. Yeast and bacteria give off carbon dioxide, which raises the dough. Lactobacilli also break down carbohydrates and thereby produce lactic acid. It is because of her, explains Gianni, that bread tastes sour. Most importantly, carbs from sourdough bread enter the bloodstream 25 percent slower than from regular white bread.
At dinner at the Assunta's, amusing village gossip is vividly told. In the heat of fun, Gianni raises his glass and makes a traditional Sardinian toast in the local dialect: "A kent 'annos!"
“And so you come to count these years,” shout family members. During the time that passed after that dinner, Assunta managed to celebrate its centenary.
Starting a study dedicated to centenarians, Gianni marked blue zones on the map where there were enough elderly people. Almost the largest number of 100-year-old citizens were in the province of Nuoro in Sardinia. This area Gianni began to call "blue". Gianni and I met when I was traveling in search of places with a high concentration of centenarians. I found such territories on the Costa Rican Nicoya Peninsula, on the Greek island of Ikaria, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, and in the Seventh-day Adventist community in Southern California.
I looked at dietary studies in each region and wrote down all the foods that were consumed there over the past century. Until the 20th century, diets consisted almost entirely of plant foods with minimal processing. These included whole grains, vegetables, nuts, root vegetables, and legumes. Meat was eaten on average five times a month. They drank most often water, herbal teas, coffee and a little wine. With the onset of globalization, when convenience foods, animal products and fast food began to prevail over traditional food, chronic diseases began to spread in these places.
A healthy diet is just one of the many factors that contribute to longevity. The rest are from another area: friends, having a purpose in life, an environment that constantly encourages a person to move more.
All these factors I found in Nicoya, a region of Costa Rica that gets its name from the peninsula on which it is located. The healthiest breakfast in the world is also served here.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Life expectancy is higher here than in other countries of the Americas
City of Santa Cruz, cafe and Coopetortilla shop. Every morning at dawn, Maria Elena Jimenez Rojas and several other women put wood in the clay ovens and stir the hot beans in the cauldrons. Maria Elena puts on a splattered apron over a boiled white shirt, plucks off a piece of corn dough, throws it on waxed paper and forms a circle - even, as if made by a machine. Then he puts the circle on a komal, a special hot clay plate. The tortilla first rises, turning into a plump pancake, and then falls off and becomes the perfect tortilla.
Three women stir black beans with onions, red peppers and herbs. The beans are simmered until tender and then mixed with rice and toasted peppers, onions and garlic. This creates a unique Costa Rican version of gallo pinto, a traditional Central American dish.
Costa Rica's "Blue Zone" is a 50-kilometer strip that runs along the ridge of the Nicoya Peninsula. Until 50 years ago, locals were mostly farmers or wage laborers on a ranch. Their diet consisted of corn, beans, tropical fruits, garden vegetables, and occasionally game and fish.
The Chorotega Indians who lived here formed the local diet. The Chorotega have eaten the same food for thousands of years. This, experts say, explains why local residents boast the highest life expectancy in the Americas, and men over 60 have the lowest mortality rates for their age group in the world.
On Nicoya, pineapples and papayas are grown in gardens, and a plant-based diet can be followed throughout the year.
Corn tortillas can also contribute to longevity. Whole grain tortillas are rich in fiber, minerals, vitamins and complex carbohydrates. While soaking corn, women add wood ash to it, which breaks the walls of the kernels and releases nicotinic acid. This substance controls cholesterol.
Black beans contain antioxidants with the same pigment as blueberries. It is also rich in fiber, which helps cleanse the intestines.
When you combine corn and beans, something incredible happens. To build muscle, our bodies need 9 amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Animal products such as meat, fish and eggs contain all 9 amino acids, however, along with amino acids, they also contain cholesterol and saturated fat. Corn and beans also have all the amino acids, but there are no unhealthy fats in them.
Nicoya, Costa Rica. Paulina Villegas serves a hearty breakfast to her 102-year-old father Paquito and nephew Sixto. Breakfast includes coffee, eggs, rice with beans and tortillas cooked in a traditional wood-fired fogo'n oven.
Researchers these days are trying to find out if this combination of foods can keep cells healthy. Stanford epidemiologist David Rehkopf and Costa Rican demographer Luis Rosero-Bixby found that the inhabitants of the peninsula, on average, have longer telomeres than other Costa Ricans. Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of the DNA strand. Over time, they wear out, and they can roughly determine the biological age of a person. Rehkopf told me that the Nikoians are biologically about ten years younger than their chronological age.
I pounce on my breakfast at Café Coopertortilla. Fresh tortillas with beans and a drop of chilero sauce, I greedily wash down my coffee. Beads of sweat appear on the forehead, and tears are pouring down the face. Maria Elena looks at me with extreme concern.
- Are you okay?
“Don't worry,” I say. - These are tears of joy.
Locals are three times more likely to live to be 100 than Americans
On the other side of the world, in Okinawa, I'm preparing to try another candidate for the healthiest breakfast in the world. I ended up at the Daiti Hotel in Naha with Craig Wilcox, another researcher who is also looking for products that promote longevity. Compared to Americans, Okinawans have a three times higher chance of living to be 100 years old. Women here are half as likely to suffer from breast cancer. Both men and women are 25-30% less likely to suffer from heart disease. And only 10-12% of older people die from Alzheimer's disease.
The founder of the hotel, Yoshiko Shimabukuro, is 91 years old. Every morning, along with Katsue's daughter Watanabe, a skilled chef, Yoshiko prepares 50-ingredient vegetable dishes, half of which are only available in Okinawa. There are small snack plates in front of us, and on them are a variety of products.
Craig, a professional anthropologist and gerontologist, draws my attention to the fact that a 20-course breakfast is actually low in calories. This includes tofu soup, carrot salad, boiled fern (called otani-watari), and fried papaya. Okinawan dishes, according to Craig, are very nutritious, but low in calories, while in the United States, for example, the opposite is true.
Craig, his twin Bradley and their partner Makoto Suzuki are writing books about traditional food on the island. The Wilcox brothers came to Okinawa in 1994. They wanted to study centenarians and thus got to know Makoto. The Trinity has been carefully recording what the locals eat for 25 years and trying to understand why food helps to avoid disease. Now my practical lesson will begin.
Craig points his stick at the fried tofu with green bits of bitter melon. Goya is the main ingredient in Goya Champuru, a traditional Okinawan dish. Craig says this melon is rich in vitamins A and C, folate, and powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage. The anti-cancer product is safe for the liver and cell membrane. Goya is a free radical scavenger that can get rid of E. coli bacteria and lower blood sugar. I take a bite of the melon, my mouth filling with the bitter taste of aspirin, only slightly more piquant. Craig takes tofu, which is denser than usual here and strongly resembles cheese. For Okinawans, it is the main source of protein, and it often replaces the less healthy proteins found in meat or eggs. In Okinawa, tofu is traditionally cooked in seawater, so it is rich in calcium, magnesium, zinc and other minerals that Americans and Europeans lack in their diets.
Bitter melon goya is a favorite delicacy in this area. It is rich in vitamins, protects cells and lowers blood sugar.
Craig lifts the porcelain cup of the bright yellow drink and explains, "This is turmeric tea." Dozens of studies have proven that the active ingredient in turmeric helps protect against many ailments. Including cancer, heart disease and dementia. Most recipes are based on dashi, a rich broth made from dried flakes of Atlantic bonito or seaweed. Thanks to dashi, the dish has fewer calories than a hamburger, but 5 times more nutrients. And it is so delicious that you want to eat it every day.
While I take my supplements, Craig focuses on a viscous mass of algae, reminiscent of green spaghetti. Okinawans eat more than ten different types of seaweed, which Craig calls "sea vegetables." Craig's passionate mozuku is especially rich in fucoidan, an anti-cancer and antiviral substance that can stop inflammation, stabilize blood sugar, and strengthen blood vessels.
And another component of these algae, astaxanthin, acts on a gene that, when activated, causes cells to get rid of unnecessary substances and reduce inflammation (and in fact, inflammation is the cause of most age-related diseases).
I look at a pile of empty plates - I ate for two hours, constantly discovering something new for myself.
- What a glutton I am! - I am amazed.
“It's not your fault,” Craig replies immediately.
And he explains: The entire breakfast we just ate contained less than 600 calories. About the same as in one large cookie.
Loma Linda, California
Vegetarian Adventists live longer than meat eaters. The Adventist vegetable diet is based on Bible quotes - and is in line with modern dietary guidelines
The final destination on my journey is Loma Linda, California, where the Seventh-day Adventist community has long followed the Bible's diet. The dietary rules are based on quotes from Genesis 1:29: “And God said,“Behold, I have given you every herb that sows seed, which is on all the earth, and every tree that has tree fruit that sows seed; - this will be food for you."
Adventists who follow this diet live longer. One study found that Adventists from California were 7, 3 years longer than men and 4, 4 years longer than women living in the same state.
When I asked dietary researchers to find people following the diet, they referred me to 90-year-old Dorothy Nelson. The door was opened for me by a woman with a girl's bangs over brown eyes. My gaze involuntarily lingered on her bright red T-shirt and sneakers. Dorothy, meanwhile, greeted me and ushered me into the brightly lit kitchen.
And then she quickly began to prepare dinner. And at the meal she told me about life. In her youth, she had an unusual profession - a nurse on the planes of church missions. One day, when he and a colleague were traveling in the Arctic, the plane's engine hissed and they flew down, aiming at a flat area on the ice floe between Canada and Greenland. Dorothy, she said, thought, "If God still needs me, then everything will end well." After landing, the plane skidded, but kept its balance. “I went out, got down on my knees and thanked the Lord,” says my interlocutor. The frozen nurses were picked up five days later. The rescuers gave the girls hot coffee. “I’ve never tasted coffee before,” admits Dorothy.
Today Dorothy's adventures only happen in a small vegetable garden where she grows vegetables. We can say that the vegan ex-nurse is a direct “culinary” descendant of Ellen G. White, a writer, theologian, one of the iconic people of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, White was the first to formulate the nutritional principles that are followed by today's American centenarians.
White encouraged the consumption of whole grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. “They need to be eaten, they give strength, increase endurance and mental activity,” she never tired of repeating. White warned about the dangers of cooking with lard, overusing spices and salt. The recommendations turned out to be somewhat prophetic: today, exactly the same rules are followed in the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
Loma Linda, California. Crystal Gin and her three-year-old son Austin harvest beets for dinner in their vegetable garden. Krystal makes a menu of seasonal vegetables. Like many other residents of mainland Southern California, the Gin family are Seventh-day Adventists. They follow a vegetarian diet as prescribed in the Bible.
Gary Fraser, an Adventist and researcher at Loma Linda University, is sharing the latest information on the Adventist diet with me. Gary is a vegetarian, but sometimes he allows himself fish. Gary is a physician by training and now leads an Adventist health research project involving tens of thousands of Americans.
The study found that vegetarian Adventists were 12% less likely to die at an unyielding age than those who ate small amounts of meat. Conversely, 46% of young Adventists who eat meat are at risk of premature death compared to those who get protein from nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Gary argues that the future belongs to plant foods.
I mentally agree with him, inhaling the scent of the food Dorothy has prepared - the smell makes me hungry. Dorothy mixes black beans with stews and cauliflower and then adds brown tofu chunks, sesame seeds, a dash of soy sauce. This healthy blend is loaded with complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, with fewer calories than a serving of fries. Nelson reveals that she has an ideal blood pressure and heart rate of 60 beats per minute at rest. Dorothy walks 5 kilometers every day.
From all this it follows that the vast majority of calories in traditional diets of people from the Blue Zone are found in whole, plant foods. Seeds, vegetables, nuts and beans are the four pillars of all diets that promote longevity.
Nearly half of Americans destined to die this year will die of cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes. In the Blue Zones, far fewer people suffer from these diseases. Why is it like this? Because they have eaten simple, affordable foods all their lives that are (fortunately for them) whole plant foods. Somewhere here lies the secret of longevity. If you want a good recipe for a start - contact me, I know one smiling long-liver who makes an excellent minestrone.
Diet for the planet
Will we be able to feed all 10 billion people in 2050 without harming our planet in any way? A group of scientists from 16 countries argue that this is possible. They already know the targets for nutritious and sustainable foods for the entire earth. World consumption of fruits and nuts will double, and red meat and sugar will halve.