A new study published in the 2017 March issue of JAMA found that poor diet is responsible for an astonishing 45 percent of all deaths from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes in the US. The researchers attributed this high mortality rate to the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and unprocessed red meats.
During 2012, out of the 702,308 adult deaths from cardiometabolic diseases, 318,656 — about 45 percent — were linked with over-consumption of certain unhealthy foods, as well as low consumption of specific nutrient dense edibles.
Excess consumption of sodium was associated with the highest percentage of death. Consuming high amounts of processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and unprocessed red meat were also linked with high mortality. Americans also don’t eat enough of certain health-promoting foods — like fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, polyunsaturated fats and seafood omega-3 fats.
With annual US healthcare spending hitting $3.8 trillion in 2014 and $3.2 trillion in 2016 — heart disease and stroke costing nearly $1 billion a day in medical costs along with lost productivity, and diabetes totaling $245 billion annually — the results of this study come as a stark reality check.
The good news is, just as diet can be our downfall, it’s also just as powerful in promoting exceptional health and longevity — as seen in “Blue Zone” cultures.
For inspiration, we can also look to cultures and communities that have outstanding health and longevity for guidance — and a perfect place to start is with the Blue Zones who are known for their extraordinary lifespan and phenomenal vitality.
Just off the coast of Turkey, very close to Samos, where Pythagoras and Epicurus lived, is a Greek island named Ikaria that is renown as “the island where people forgot to die” because of the exceptional lifespan of its inhabitants. Included in what is referred to as the Blue Zones — five regions in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the US with the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world — the people of Ikaria live about eight years longer than average and have exceedingly good health. These communities are also largely free of health complaints like obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Moreover, they’re sharp to the very end, whereas in the US, almost half the population over 85 suffers from dementia.
Diet is a key ingredient to their robust health and longevity. In Ikaria, they’re eating a variety of a Mediterranean diet, but with lots of potatoes. They also consume high amounts of beans. One unique foodstuff is called horta, a weed-like green that’s eaten as a salad, lightly steamed or baked into pies. Goat’s milk, wine, honey, some fruit and small amounts of fish are also enjoyed. Other foods include feta cheese, lemons and herbs such as sage and marjoram, which are made into tea.
Lifestyle also comes into play. Plenty of sex (even in old age) and napping are integral aspects of the culture, as is physical activity. There are no treadmills or aerobic classes here. Instead, exercise involves planting and maintaining a garden, manual labor (houses in Ikaria only have hand tools) and walking to run errands.
Another Blue Zone region is Sardinia, Italy where goat’s milk and sheep cheese are staples along with moderate amounts of flat bread, sourdough bread and barley. They also eat plenty of fennel and fava beans, tomatoes, chickpeas, almonds, milk thistle tea and wine from Grenache grapes. Half of these above mentioned foods are considered super-foods; nutrient dense foods.
All Blue Zones follow the same characteristics:
- Only eat until 80% full;
- Smallest meal of the day is in the evening;
- Eat mostly plants – especially beans – eat meat once a week;
- Drink 1–2 glasses of wine each day; and
- Close social bonds – community.