There are numerous studies and books on diet and health. Fill in the blanks: _________ is good for you. __________ is bad for you. _________ causes cancer. Sometimes you’ll even see a study that concludes ___________ is good for you and why. Then another study will come out later that concludes that it’s bad for your health and/or causes cancer. How can you make sense of it all?
As I stated in my previous blog, I am more of “What’s working elsewhere and why?” type of guy. This would be Sardinia, an autonomous region of Italy, who has the highest percentage of centenarians (people living 100 years or more) in the world. And specifically male centenarians. Genetics are believed to only play a minor role in their longevity.
Italy ranks 6th overall in the world in average life expectancy (82.7 years) and 5th overall in Health Adjusted Life Expectancy (72.8 years). The Health Adjusted Life Expectancy (HALE) adjusts overall life expectancy by the amount of time lived in less than perfect health. The average American’s life expectancy is 79.3 years and the HALE score is 69.1 years.
So the average Italian is getting about 3 1/2 more quality years of life than the average American. And Sardinians outlive their mainland Italian countryman despite drinking and smoking more.
What are the keys to their longevity?
1) Vegetable-based diet – with emphasis on low-glycemic vegetables (i.e. tomatoes, artichokes, zucchini)
2) Meat once or twice a week – with an emphasis on grass-fed, not grain-fed livestock
3) Bread and pasta – made from whole grains (Barley) or Semolina wheat durum
4) Legumes (i.e. Fava beans and Chickpeas)
5) Pecorino cheese – made from sheep’s milk
6) Wine – dry, red Cannonau wine (high in antioxidants)
This is essentially Sardinians diet and I will go into more depth on this in a future blog as there is a lot of misinformation out there. And I will explain how radical their diet is compared to the average American’s diet and how we can best adapt. I realize that my blog has worldwide readers, that various countries influences our diet and culture, and that the US’s diet and culture influences others. Especially American fast-food. We are all in this together.
Although diet is a huge key to Sardinians longevity, “You are what you eat” as they say, it’s more than diet. It’s also due to lifestyle and environment. I will explain:
Exercise – you probably guessed this would be important. The number of steps taken per day by the average American ranges somewhere between 5,117 and 6,540. This equates to 2.5 to 3 miles per day. The average Sardinian walks somewhere between 5 and 8 miles a day. This shouldn’t be surprising, since for centuries sheep herding was the primary profession of Sardinian men. Walking rolling hills, tending to their sheep and goats, this explains why their diet is comprised of 50% carbohydrates.
You don’t really need a gym membership to get the right type of exercise. Sardinians don’t go to gyms, they get exercise naturally by walking and gardening.
Stress – Yep, stress is lower in Sardinia than the U.S. This may be due to the fact that they have been somewhat insulated from the Corporate World that tries to squeeze every ounce of beet juice from the beet. The fact that their work day is often divided by two-hour lunch breaks. A little vino and a nap anyone? And no road rage, traffic jams on their way to work. A Vespa scooter weaves well through traffic.
But seriously, stress is very damaging to your health. I recommend reading this article (link). Stress weakens your immune system, it releases cortisol hormone that increases belly fat, it predisposes you to diabetes, heart disease and digestive problems. Stress increases your risks for heart attack and stroke. Just very bad overall. If you are in a high-stress job or relationship, you’ve got to reevaluate how this may take years off of your life and whether it’s worth it. It’s probably not.
How to reduce stress? Well I am sure that Yoga is good but Sardinians value family and friendships, they talk and vent to each other. The average Sardinian also drinks three to four 3 oz glasses of wine per day with meals. Moderate alcohol intake helps you deal with stress as it is a depressant that slows down the brain and Central Nervous System’s processes. And this leads me to my next common core finding in Blue Zone region longevity that reduces anxiety and stress.
Faith – According to Buettner’s Blue Zone research, all but five of the 263 centenarians they interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. That works out to be 98%. Denomination didn’t matter. Although it is really hard to quantify, they believe that attending faith-based services adds 4-14 years of life expectancy.
Valuing Elderly & Having a Purpose in Life – The Sardinian culture respects and looks up to the elders much more than American culture that seems to value youth. Having a purpose in life, something that occupies your day and makes you feel valued, is another key to longevity. I think this becomes more important when someone develops chronic health problems as often happens when we age. If you don’t have something to live for, something to fight for, you won’t live long. I have always believed that the mind is more powerful in a person’s well-being and health than we can ever truly appreciate.
My next blog will go more into detail on the Sardinian diet. I recently made a Sardinian pasta dish that was fantastic. However, I want to make it one more time and fine-tune the recipe before posting it. Stay tuned!
Ciao for now,