* This is part of a year-long weekly series called “52 Weeks to Eating better than Ever”.
Click on the side bar for more information and to read the previous essays. Chania, Greece A fantastic book was written back in 2008 called “The Blue Zones” about the people in the world who live the longest, each group living in what the author titled Blue Zones. I highly recommend the book. In it, the author profiles the reasons why these places are incubators of a long and healthy life. Part of the discussion of course, revolves around food. Perhaps not surprisingly, all these communities focus on a plant-based diet and eat small amounts of meat or none. What is surprising is how many other commonalities they share. Again, I recommend reading the book yourself, if for no other reason than for the inspiration these places provide.
Blue Zones profiles the following places:
Loma Linda, California
Nicoya, Costa Rica
When it comes to eating, these are some of the takeaways from the world’s healthiest places.
Eating Secrets of the Blue Zones
- Hara Hachi Bu is a Japanese expression which means “eat until you are 80% full”. As the author mentions, if you’re not used to it, it takes about 15-20 times to get there, to the point where you feel like you can eat only to 80% full. Especially if you’re accustomed to eating until you’re completely full or even stuffed like most Americans. This is one reason Okinawans live on average about 10 years longer than we do, because they practice Hara Hachi Bu. I know I’m guilty of this, getting hungry and then overeating and ending up feeling tired and sluggish after eating.
- Eat less meat, and fewer animal products. Again, and again and again, a plant-based diet is healthier. You can eat meat, but prioritize fruits and vegetables over everything else. There was a long-term study done called “The China Study” which proved that people who ate less meat and animal products overall, lived longer and had fewer health problems. It’s not that you have to give it up completely, but cutting way back on animal products is helpful for a variety of reasons. One reason that most people lose weight on high protein diets is because they are getting a full feeling from the protein, but also because they are cutting out fried foods and high calorie sugary drinks. It’s not because of some magical product of meat or protein. Regulating blood sugar, cutting back calories, and eating to feel fuller requires only that you make wise choices, not that you go overboard on protein. Try to eat meat only once per day. Protein requirements vary, depending on how active you are, but you more than likely eat plenty.
- Eat sitting down and undistracted, like people in the blue zones do. Often what we do, including eating junk food, we do unconsciously. This is one of the main reasons we do things we don’t want to do. We’re sleepwalking through life. Take a minute, relax, and think about what you’re doing, that way you’ll make better decisions with food. Eat with other people and make it a communal experience, not something to gorge on. Don’t eat while driving, standing around, or doing something else. Slow down, eat slower, and eat sitting down, and you will eat less overall, just like they do in the blue zones.
- Bigger Meals in the First Part of the Day– I remember when I was growing up in a rural area there was a family I worked for in the summers, and they ate a huge lunch. The older couple were very healthy for their age, and very active. Even though they didn’t officially live in a Blue Zone they were practicing one of the key tenets- eating bigger meals earlier in the day. It makes sense if you think about it. The bigger meal eaten earlier will give you time to burn it off. If you eat a big meal before bedtime, it won’t necessarily hurt you, but you will not be active afterwards. Plus, eating a bigger meal earlier will decrease how much you eat the rest of the day. The Blue Zones eat bigger earlier, and decrease as the day goes on. I think we should too.
- Remove Unhealthy Things from Site– One simple things that Blue Zone people do is not have junk food around. Without the temptation to eat empty calories like cookies, ice cream, heavy crackers, and chips, you’ll be much less likely to make poor choices. You can save the occasional desert or French fries for a special occasion, but keep the junk out of your house.
- Make Food Look Bigger– This is huge. Only in America, where everything is bigger, do we have huge plates, huge portions, and huge appetites. Start making everything smaller by making the plate, and even the glass smaller. Blue Zones eat on small plates, and eat a lot of vegetables, which take up a lot of space, and we should as well.
I remember visiting Chania, Crete in Greece back a few years ago and being blown away at the healthy culture there. The neighbors are all close with each other, practicing a bonding and traditional Orthodox Christianity, they swim in the ocean in the morning, and eat a diet of fresh fish, tomatoes, plums, and all sorts of greens and feta cheese with olive oil and onions. And they drink plenty of red wine, and eat together as families in the evenings. I’m sure like any other place it has challenges, but I got to see firsthand why the Mediterranean diet and culture is one of the healthiest. It wasn’t specifically mentioned in the Blue Zones book, but two other places nearby, Sardinia, Italy, and Ikaria, Greece were.
Start a Movement. Start Your Own Blue Zones.
Why should we not strive to create our own Blue Zone wherever we live? Let’s build a culture of health, based around community and eating food that’s good for us. Let’s eat less and focus more on the culture of eating than gorging ourselves. Let’s eat and drink with our neighbors and enjoy life. Let’s throw out the junk food, and start a movement. There are too many fast food places, and not enough home-cooked meals in the US. There is too much busyness, and not enough conscious eating in America. There’s too much mindless and overindulgent inebriation and not enough sober sipping of pleasurable communal wine. There is too much hostility and not enough food-centered neighborliness in our country. I believe we can change. Let’s turn small town Georgia or Alabama, the heartland, Atlanta, Birmingham, Auburn, Nashville or wherever you live into Blue Zones too.
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