The Dietâand LifestyleâMay Help Boost Brain Health
Because people in Blue Zones seem to live so much longer, you might expect them to have higher rates of dementia and other age-related cognitive issues. But, surprisingly, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Just the opposite is true. In some Blue Zones, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease rates may actually be lower than in the rest of the world, despite the age of the population. In Ikaria, Greece, for example, some research shows that as much as a third of the population lives past the age of 90. Yet, the island has some of the lowest dementia rates in the world. This is less surprising when you realize that the MIND diet, designed to reduce age-related cognitive decline, incorporates characteristics central to the Blue Zones’ way of eating. Both diets eschew red meat and dairy and incorporate whole grains, beans, nuts, and lots of vegetables while avoiding unhealthy fats and added sugar. Other factors of the Blue Zones lifestyle, such as frequent socialization and regular physical activity, are also important to keep the brain healthy as we age.
It’s Not a Strict Diet, but an Adaptable Way of Life
Despite its name, the Blue Zones diet is less of a strict diet and more of a way of living. Those who want to benefit from the Blue Zones lifestyle can take lessons from what and how the people in the region eat and then adapt them to their own life. The guidelines are simple and straightforward. Eat more food from plants and less from animals. Cut down on sugar and unhealthy fats. Drink mostly water with the occasional wine, coffee, and tea. Eat plenty of legumes, vegetables, nuts, and whole foods. Don’t want to follow all of the rules? No problem. Even if you choose not to adhere strictly to the diet, you still can add core elements of the Blue Zones diet to your own. Swap out some meals with hearty plant-based dishes. When you reach for a snack, opt for nuts instead of chips and fresh fruit instead of candy. You can also find which of the Blue Zones region’s diets best suit your preferences. For example, maybe you’d prefer the inclusion of more seafood and lean meats in the Okinawan diet or the bright tropical flavors of the Nicoyan diet.
Although none of the Blue Zones are strictly vegetarian, they all rely heavily on plant-based foods. An average of around 95 percent of the foods eaten in these regions are from plants. That includes fruits and vegetables, of course, but also fiber-rich grains, hearty legumes, and protein-packed nuts and seeds. This plant-based diet has many health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. In addition, sticking to a plant-based diet can help reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation, all of which lead to better overall health and healthier aging. And if you think staying plant-based with be boring and flavorless, think again. Here’s an example of what you would eat during the day on a plant-based Blue Zones diet:
Breakfast: Oatmeals with cinnamon, berries, and nuts
Lunch: Greek orzo salad
Dinner: Hearty lentil and vegetable soup with sourdough bread
Snacks: Greek yogurt with honey, fresh fruit, a handful of nuts
A simple way to begin transitioning to a Blue Zones diet is to start reducing meat and dairy in your diet. The health benefits of both are well-documented. Eating too much red and processed meat has been associated with an increased risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes as well as colorectal and breast cancer. Some studies show that reducing meat consumption, especially red meat, in an otherwise healthy diet makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight. If you must eat meat, opt for poultry and lean cuts of meat with less than 10 grams of fat per 100 grams. Reducing dairy, particularly cow’s milk and milk products, in your diet can also boost your health. Research suggests that dairy-free diets may be associated with better digestion, healthier skin, and increased energy levels. Because the Blue Zones diet is loaded with calcium-rich leafy green vegetables and beans and can include vitamin D-enriched fish, eggs, and fortified dairy substitutes, it’s easy to make sure you get all the necessary nutrients.
If you’re wondering where you’ll get protein after cutting meat and dairy on the Blue Zones diet, then look no further than legumes. The diverse food group contains beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. They may be small, but legumes are nutritional powerhouses. Legumes like chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and fava beans are excellent sources of protein and are naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free. Packed with fiber as well as protein, legumes help you stay full and curb hunger, which is important in managing weight. High-fiber diets promote healthy digestion, help control blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and reduce inflammation. Legumes are also one of the sources of folate, a B vitamin that supports the production of DNA and new blood cells. There is also some evidence that diets high in folate may help protect against stroke, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer. A single serving of lentils contains 90 percent of your daily recommended value of folate.
Fish is the one animal product that is consistently a part of diets in Blue Zones, albeit in smaller portions. The diet guidelines recommend no more than three small servings (three ounces or less) of fish a week. Typically, the fish eaten in this diet are small, inexpensive fish like cod, tuna, and sardines. Despite their modest appearance, these fish pack a serious nutritional punch. White fleshed fish is loaded with B vitamins, including niacin (vitamin B3), which helps boost digestion, brain health, and energy, and folate (vitamin B12), which supports healthy red blood cells. Bluefish like tuna are packed with vitamins and necessary nutrients like potassium and magnesium. Fish are also the best source of omega-3, which helps supports heart health and may lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Skip the Butter! Choose Healthier Fats Like Olive Oil
One of the trickiest things about trying to eat healthier is figuring out how to use fat in your food. In many places, butter is the most popular source of fat. While butter adds lots of flavor to food, it also adds saturated fat. The Blue Zones diet uses olive oil as the primary fat in cooking. Research suggests that replacing butter with extra virgin olive oil cuts down on saturated fat and may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Olive oil also has a host of health benefits all its own. The oil is a good source of oleic acid and antioxidants, which may help reduce inflammation and the risk of developing chronic diseases like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There’s also some evidence that making olive oil your fat of choice could be better for your brain. Studies suggest that olive oil reduces signs of Alzheimer’s disease in animals. The Mediterranean diet, closely related to the Blue Zones diet, has also been linked to slower cognitive decline. Multiple large studies have found that olive oil is also associated with lower stroke risk.
The Blue Zones diet is full of foods rich in polyphenols, a diverse group of antioxidants that help protect your cells from damage and reduce inflammation. Some research suggests that it may reduce the risk of developing heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. There are over 8,000 different types of polyphenols, most found in fruits and vegetables. Here are just a few examples of the important role that polyphenols play in staying healthy and what foods they can be found in:
Green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, grapes, citrus fruit, and beans are all excellent sources of flavonols, as are chocolate, green and black tea, and red wine. Perhaps the most well-known polyphenols, flavonols promote healthy blood flow and brain health.
Anthocyanins are abundant in dark red and purple food, including eggplant, berries, rhubarb, red wine, and red cabbage. Research suggests that polyphenols may help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, some cancers, and cognitive decline.
Hydroxybenzoic acids, found in berries, protect against inflammation and may be beneficial for cardiovascular health.
Soy and soy products are the primary sources of isoflavones, which have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce cancer and heart disease risk.
Bread sometimes gets a bad reputation as “empty carbs.” The reality is that bread can be part of a healthy diet, but it’s important to choose the right bread. The Blue Zones diet incorporates bread that is as tasty as it is nutritious. Whole-grain bread and sourdough are particularly popular and for a good reason. Bread made from whole grains like whole wheat and rye has more fiber and protein than white bread and is a better source of some vital nutrients. Sourdough is a simple bread, typically made with only four ingredients, that can help support gut health. The basic formula for sourdough is as simple as 1, 2, 3. That is to say, one part sourdough starter, two parts water, and three parts flour. Add a bit of salt, and you have everything you need for a delicious, nutritious sourdough. The recipe below, from Natasha’s Baking blog, uses this tried and true method and incorporates whole-grain wheat flour, which adds flavor, fiber, protein, and other valuable nutrients.
Foods on the Blue Zones diet are typically not processed, and low sugar and saturated fat–and snacks are no exception. While it’s easy to reach for a bag of chips or a cookie, the Blue Zones diet encourages eating foods that are more nutrient-rich and will keep you feeling full longer. So, what types of snacks fit into the diet? A bit of dark chocolate, Greek yogurt sweetened with honey, fresh berries, or tropical fruit may be a healthier way to satisfy your sweet tooth. A handful of nuts, roasted chickpeas, or avocado on whole-grain bread can tame your craving for a salty snack while also providing you with fiber and protein. Craving something sour or spicy? Try pickles! Pickled and fermented vegetables are great low-calorie snacks packed with antioxidants that have been shown to aid digestion. Also, don’t overlook how often thirst masquerades as hunger pains. Drinking a cup of tea or coffee can satiate hunger and may also help reduce inflammation.
Cut Your Portion Size and Follow the 80 Percent Rule
Like many diets, the Blue Zones diet emphasizes keeping your portion sizes moderate and not overeating. Eating smaller portions packed with nutritious foods allows you to feel satisfied without eating too much. Foods eaten in the Blue Zones tend to be simple (made with five ingredients or fewer), wholesome, and picked for maximum nutritional impact. Filling your plate with foods bursting with fiber, protein, and water is a proven way of keeping hunger at bay without adding extra fat or sugar. Another tradition of some Blue Zones is eating only until you are 80 percent full. In other words, they avoid overeating by putting down their forks when they are no longer hungry rather than eating when they are completely full. This easy-to-follow rule can help reduce digestion issues like indigestion and heartburn and generally make you feel better after you eat.
Although wine, tea, and coffee are all part of the Blue Zones diet, water is far and away the most important drink. Most guidelines recommend 6 – 8 glasses of water per day. Coffee and tea can also be good sources of water but should be consumed without added sweeteners and cream. Staying hydrated and avoiding sugary drinks have lots of health benefits. Our bodies are between 55 to 50 percent water, most of which our organs use to perform properly. So, it’s not surprising that drinking water boosts your energy and helps keep your organs healthy. Drinking sufficient water daily keeps your blood, bones, joints, and organs hydrated and regulates your body temperature. It also supports healthy digestion and promotes good brain and cardiovascular function. Dehydration can cause you to overheat and may lead to kidney damage. Extreme dehydration can cause severe illness, such as sudden drops in blood pressure and seizures, and even death.
A glass or two of red wine with your meal is standard in Sardinia and Ikaria. Similarly, it’s common for Okinawans to have a bit of sake, a rice-based wine. Alcohol is by no means a necessary part of the Blue Zone diet. For example, the Seventh-Day Adventist community of Lomo Linda eschews all alcoholic drinks. But the diet demonstrates that alcohol can be included in a diet in a healthy way. Three features are consistent in the way that people in Blue Zones drink alcohol. First, alcohol is always consumed in moderation. A glass of wine or cup of sake is fine but drinking in excess is not. Secondly, the drinks of choice have profound health benefits. Dry red wines are full of antioxidants that protect cells and may help promote heart and brain health. Moderate consumption of sake is linked to improved digestion and a lower risk of heart disease and some cancers. Finally, drinking alcohol in Blue Zones is almost always part of socialization, which is important for brain and mental health.
Breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day in Blue Zones, where the meal is the largest of the day while meals later in the day are much lighter. Eating earlier in the day might seem counterintuitive, but there’s actually some evidence that eating a healthy breakfast is one of the best things you can do for overall health. It sets you up for eating habits throughout the day, makes it easier to focus, and has been linked to maintaining a healthy weight. By contrast, skipping breakfast altogether or eating a breakfast with little nutritional value can make you sluggish and even impact your ability to think. So what do people in Blue Zones eat for breakfast? A traditional Okinawan breakfast may consist of miso soup, rice, seaweed, and natto, a fermented soybean dish with loads of protein, iron, zinc, and many other important nutrients. People in Nicoya are more likely to have protein-packed rice and beans with fresh fruit for breakfast.
Want To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint? The Blue Zones Diet Could Be a Perfect Fit
It turns out that the Blue Zones diet is not just good for the body; it may also be better for the Earth. The production of meat and dairy products makes up about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The meat and dairy industries also contribute to a great deal of deforestation and other types of pollution. Eliminating or reducing meat and dairy consumption is a simple way to shrink your carbon footprint and do something good for the environment. Like other plant-based diets, the Blue Zones diet is more sustainable than meat- and dairy-based diets. While growing and processing fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products do produce greenhouse emissions, it’s significantly less than from animal agriculture. One study found that more plant-based diets, including diets that include some dairy and seafood, can reduce greenhouse emissions by up to 80 percent.
Your diet can have a real impact on your sleep. At night, our brain releases a hormone called melatonin that makes us feel sleepy. Melatonin release is controlled by our natural sleep-wake cycle, which can be affected by things like diet. When this cycle is disrupted, falling and staying asleep can be hard. Although melatonin supplements can be used as sleep aids, some foods naturally contain melatonin that may help you sleep better. Many of those foods are part of the Blue Zones diet. For example, tart cherries are the single best food source of melatonin. Nuts and fatty fish are also high in melatonin. In addition to melatonin, foods that are rich in fiber and protein, including green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains, can help you get a better night’s sleep.
Taking Care of Your Gut May Be the Key to Living Longer
There’s growing evidence that the way to good health may be through the gut. The bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our gut make up the gut microbiome. A diverse, healthy microbiome can help keep your immune system strong and support overall health. No two microbiomes are the same, but they all benefit from certain dietary choices. High-fiber foods like legumes and whole grains support the growth and survival of beneficial gut bacteria. Foods containing probiotics, including fermented food like yogurt, help keep your microbiome balanced. The polyphenols that abound in the diet are a source of food for gut bacteria. Spices like ginger and turmeric that are frequently used in Blue Zones support digestion and promote gut health, while added sugar, which is largely absent from the diet, can disrupt the microbiome.
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