My columns of the past few months have all been about the Blue Zones. Those areas on Earth where many citizens live longer, healthier lives than most people in the United States. Greece, Japan, Sardinia, and Costa Rica all qualify as Blue Zones. Even Loma Linda, California, where most people are vegetarians, live an average lifespan of ten years longer than the rest of the United States as a whole.
First of all, almost all of the Blue Zones are in areas that Americans tend to think of as “underdeveloped” and cut off by water. When I look at the Blue Zone areas (with the possible exception of Loma Linda, California) I sometimes think that just living in such a beautiful area , surrounded by gorgeous, blue unpolluted water would be enough to lead to a better life. And these places have plenty of natural sunlight without smog. And few roads. I’m reminded of the couple (he was a doc and she was a judge) on my Costa Rica trip who wanted “the roads fixed.” That would, of course, brought in a bigger population and totally changed the character of Costa Rica. I was there twenty years ago. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe our worldwide population is already growing that rapidly.
The average person in the United States eats about 80 lbs. of fat per year and most of it from vegetable oils used in fast food cooking! The Blue Zone areas use mostly olive oil and lard, natural sources of brain reviving fats. And there are no fast food places in “underdeveloped” places. Most Americans consume 8,000 teaspoons of sugar a year, most of it hidden in breakfast cereals and packaged foods. And then there are the 60 gallons of sodas consumed per year. Yikes! And we wonder what’s wrong?
A couple of generations ago our grandparents and great-grandparents burned at least five times more calories than we do now. There was no Internet, TV, cellphones, microwaves, or dishwashers, among other so-called “timesavers” that sometimes aren’t “saving” any time at all. Blue Zones rarely have those “helps.” Food is kneaded or blended by hand, cast iron pots are lifted into brick ovens or open fires, dishes are washed by hand, sometimes in community troughs. I loved the sight of the children washing doll clothes in those community troughs during the day. In one month spent in the outlying areas of China I saw exactly one TV and it was black and white. Most areas only had electricity for two hours per day.
In America most of us live a life of abundance and ease–can openers, microwaves, computers, and fast food. Yet it is entirely possible that this is part of our downfall. Because we are NOT the healthiest nation on the planet; nor are we the happiest. We do, however, spend the most on healthcare! Here we rush through our frazzle-dazzle lives to get to the next thing, never savoring where we are now. We stress about health and yet spend the most on healthcare; yet we suffer more cancer, diabetes, and heart disease than people in the Blue Zones. We put value on money but not on lifestyle.
In order to spend less money, we cut food costs in general. Americans spend less on food than most other industrial countries. In the Blue Zone area, most food consumed is grown in backyard gardens and markets there are used mostly for cleaning supplies and staples like flour. In the United States we buy packaged food with all its extra packaging and wonder why we have a garbage problem. But we worry that it might not be organic or gluten-free. Maybe it’s time we open our eyes.
We seem to have lost perspective on reality. Most food from the supermarket tastes like the cardboard it’s packaged in! And, why not? It’s packaged and has been on the shelves for weeks longer than it would take to pick it from your trees and gardens. Do you really think food comes, delivered mind you, only from grocery stores? We get little enjoyment from most of what we eat.
We also get little energy from what we eat. All areas of Blue Zones rely most heavily on fresh, and I do mean fresh, fruits and vegetables. Maybe meat or fish one to three times a week. Eggs, if home-raised. A little wine, but no more than one or two glasses per day. Lots of slow-cooked beans, soups, and stews. Now that’s inexpensive food. Also some hand-kneaded, home-bakes mostly sourdough bread. Handmade cheeses.
Rates of dementia are half what they are in the United States in Greece. Half of their diet is vegetables. Women live a long time in Okinawa, where seaweed and sea veggies, as well as beans (pulses) and vegetables make up close to 50% of the diet. Sardinia, Italy and Costa Rica boast the longest lived men on Earth, where vegetables and grains make up 50% of the diet; and in Loma Linda, California, a very Biblical and unprocessed diet of a whopping 72% is beans (pulses), vegetables, and fruits.
There are lessons to be gleaned here. We need to stress less. Maybe garden more, sing, and dance. Move every hour and put down the phone, turn off the TV. Instead slow down and commit to what really matters in life, family first, friends next, community as well. And make a commitment to create less garbage, less technological use, less consumerism. Perhaps consider more yoga, more foreign meals less Facebook and Twitter time.
Make it fun. Go slow and enjoy more. Try one new food a week (but not packaged). Reduce your garbage by buying in bulk, at farmers’ markets, not so much in the dollar-oriented grocery store. Drive less. Take up music, sewing, reading. Play with the kids—outside. And remember to always be grateful.