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They may seem like disparate regions scattered across the globe, but five small localities can teach us much about healthy lifestyles, argues Deakin nutritionist Associate Professor Tim Crowe.
What do Okinawa in Japan, the Italian island of Sardinia, the Greek island Ikara, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, have in common?
These places are home to the longest-living and healthiest people in the world. Described as 'Blue Zones', they are areas in the world where higher percentages of people enjoy remarkably long and full lives.
And it is to these communities that we should look for diet and lifestyle guidelines, claims Associate Professor Crowe. He says that the public is bombarded with conflicting nutrition messages and sensationalist health warnings about particular foods or nutrients - whether the claims are 'sugar is toxic', 'carbohydrates cause weight gain', 'avoid fat', or the myriad of other directives that we are regularly confronted with.
“Working in nutrition for many years, I’ve seen all manner of fads come and go. I’ve read thousands upon thousands of research studies looking at foods, nutrients and health. And you know what? The entire field of nutrition and health can be distilled down to some pretty simple basics,” Associate Professor Crowe says.
He recommends a dietary pattern that is made up of mostly unprocessed plant foods and low in highly processed foods, sweets and drinks. This approach 'consistently comes out on top' in offering the best long-term health.
“There is no one food or food group that deserves demonising. A dietary pattern is a flexible way of eating, not a set of rules that has to be followed rigidly,” he says.
Traits of three of the world’s healthiest regions
Associate Professor Crowe’s research shows that there is more to life and health than just food, with lifestyle just as important. And a look at the similarities between the world’s healthiest and longest-lived communities shows some clear cut lifestyle factors.
“Looking from the outside in, some very clear and consistent patterns emerge. People in the Blue Zones nurture strong social networks (leading to improved mental health), consume a mostly plant-based diet, eat in moderation and incorporate daily, natural physical activity into their lives. They also do not overeat, learning to stop eating before they feel full,” Associate Professor Crowe says.
He adds that long-lived people are not necessarily vegetarian, but they do eat mostly plant foods. If they eat meat, they do so sparingly.
Yet even between the different Blue Zone communities, there is diversity in the foods they eat, showing there is no one single 'right' way to eat, only flexible guidelines to work around. Choosing mostly seasonal fruits and vegetables, and a variety of beans, nuts, seeds and grains, is the cornerstone of their dietary pattern.
“These communities don’t exclude all sugar or calculate the GI of their meals. They don’t ban dairy foods or take supplements. They eat. They move. They enjoy. They socially engage with their community in person. They live,” says Associate Professor Crowe.
“You don’t need a PhD in nutrition to effectively choose the best diet for you. Take a step back. Learn from the people in the world who have got this mastered.”