In honor of Fathers Day and men everywhere, we’ve come to our final Blue Zone. Not that there aren’t other places and other peoples who live long on this earth, but this Blue Zone is where, proportionally speaking, men live longer than anywhere else on our planet! In America only one in 5,000 people live to the age of 100; in the Ogliastra villages of Sardinia, Italy, five people out of 2,500 live to be 100 years old. Blue Zones are those areas where it was discovered that people lived longer than other areas of habitation. Circled in blue ink by researchers, they became the Blue Zones.
In most of the world where a man reaches the age of 100, there are five women who do so. In Sardinia that ratio is one to one, probably because men are able to stave off heart disease longer. But how do they do that? For starters older people don’t retire they just change jobs. In America it is not uncommon for a man to die of a heart attack within three years of retirement. However, changing what work men do keeps them alert and active and using their brains. Not sitting in front of a computer or the TV and just sitting.
I recently went to lunch at Bob’s Red Mill with friends and who was standing in line behind me but Bob Moore himself. I took that moment to shake his hand and thank him for the thousands of dollars he’s donated to the medical school I attended–NUNM (National University of Natural Medicine) formerly known as NCNM (National College of Naturopathic Medicine). Bob is now 90 years old and still goes to work every day, though he may be considering lunch as “work.” Such a deal.
Sardinians claim their longevity is due to clean air, local wine, and, despite the movie “Never on Sunday”, physical intimacy at least once a week. It is also important to note that electricity and roads didn’t come to the area until the 1960s, bringing other changes and a taste for carbs and sugars. At the same time we saw an increase in diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Prior to the 1960s most men worked as shepherds slowly following their sheep in the sometimes steep hills, while women traditionally cared for children, elders, gardens, and home.
We tend to think of the Mediterranean diet as the best diet in the world. (See April column, Where Women Live Long). There is no question that the Mediterranean diet is healthier that the Standard American Diet (SAD). Almost half of the Greek Mediterranean diet is greens, pulses (beans and legumes), and vegetables. Yet in Sardinia, Italy that same portion of the diet is grains. Dairy, in the form of sheep’s mild cheese comprises over a quarter of the daily diet. None of the Blue Zones use much sugar.
Protein comes primarily from the beans and legumes (the pulses), mostly as Fava beans and Ceci beans as they are called in Italy. They are known as chickpeas in the African areas of the Mediterranean and in the United States. A low protein diet is associated with decreases risk of diabetes and cancer in people under the age of 65. However for people over 65, a high protein intake was associated with a 28% decrease of those diseases. This at the age when many elders are onto the “tea and toast” diet usually due to a decrease in the ability to smell food, whether from nasal surgeries, injuries, or just aging. In Sardinia, meat was consumed no more often than weekly and mostly from festivals. Barley and the pulses the main sources of protein otherwise.
Fava beans were grown extensively in England and in the United States as John Seymour tells us in his gardening classic. Barley was the grain found to be most closely associated with living to be 100, at least for the Sardinian male! Ground into flour for bread it has a much lower glycemic index than wheat bread. Barley was also added to daily soup as well as the addition of tomatoes, the beans (Fava and chickpeas) and sheep’s cheese.
Other breads include a high protein, low gluten bread made with hard duram wheat that is high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. This bread does not cause the spike in blood sugar found with many of our quickly-manufactured American breads. On the other hand, sourdough bread make with whole wheat and using live lactobacilli (see April column) converts the sugars and gluten to lactic acid, thereby lowering the glycemic index.
A dark red wine made locally in Sardinia from the Grenache grape is consumed almost daily by adults. At the level of three 3oz glasses per day it does not usually lead to disruptive behaviours. This does NOT mean you can save up your quota of wine for the weekend and consume more. And of course, if you don’t imbibe alcohol there’s no need to begin the habit at all.
Americans consume about 2,000-3,000 calories a day, but we sit a lot–in cars, at desks, in front of the TV. It is now known that the second worst thing you can do your health is sitting (1st worst thing is smoking). Sardinians of Italy consume about 3,000 calories a day but they move more. They engage in more cooking, gardening, walking and chasing kids, whether human or sheep. The latest studies show that even 10 minutes per hour while awake can extend your life. So set your computer alarm, get up after every chapter or with each commercial on the TV. At the very, very least move your arms and legs at least once an hour. Then feel energized and go back to whatever you were doing.