The Surprising Facts About What Healthy People Eat to Reach Their 100th Birthday
A long life, enjoyed in good health, is a dream that many seek to realize. Yet while life span has been slowly increasing in developed countries, freedom from illness and disability is, unfortunately, not following the same trend. Researchers found that baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) had higher rates of many chronic diseases than their parents did at each age. Compared to the prior generation, baby boomer risks are at increased risk for:
• Diabetes: by 46%
• Hypertension: by 38%
• High cholesterol: almost 6 times the risk
An international survey of adults 65 or older in eleven industrialized countries found U.S. respondents the sickest, with 87% reporting a chronic medical condition and 53% taking four or more medications. The statistics are discouraging, but this does
not have to happen to you.
Anti-aging medicine provides popular, but misleading, answers to people seeking a long and healthy life. The secret does not lie in these expensive, sometimes dangerous, pills and injections. Instead, you can find out how to stay vital by studying groups of people who have consistently achieved outstanding health results at older ages.
WHAT DO CENTENARIANS EAT?
Scientists who study longevity often focus on centenarians, those age 100 or older. You may be familiar with this idea through the popular concept of Blue Zones, where populations have unusually high concentrations of healthy centenarians.
Studying Blue Zones is rewarding, but also challenging. Researchers must validate that people are actually as old as they say they are, and reliable records are not always available. Also, although it’s possible to measure what centenarians are eating now, what did they eat over the preceding decades?
Okinawa, an isolated island that is part of Japan, is a Blue Zone with answers to these issues. Careful research has validated that centenarians on Okinawa actually are as old as their current recorded ages say they are. In addition, detailed information on diet going back to 1949 is available from population surveys periodically conducted by the local government.
The older group of Okinawans, generally those born before 1942, possess the highest functional capacity and longest survival in Japan, a country traditionally known for its longevity. Rates of heart disease and many forms of cancer are significantly lower in Okinawa at senior ages than in Americans and other Japanese of the same ages. Almost two thirds of Okinawans at age 97 still function
So what is the traditional diet of this group, remarkable for both longevity and healthy aging? Here are the major sources of their calories in 1949.
FOOD PERCENT OF TOTAL CALORIES:
Sweet potatoes 69%
Other vegetables 3%
Other grains 7%
Legumes (mostly soy) 6%
The following foods each contributed less than 1% of total calories: nuts and seeds, sugar, meat, eggs, dairy, fruit, seaweed, flavorings, and alcohol.
Overall, the diet of these centenarians derives 85% of calories from carbohydrate, 9% from protein, and 6% from fat.
Unfortunately, the mortality advantage that prior generations of Okinawans enjoy has faded with dietary changes that occurred over the last several decades. Younger island residents have largely abandoned the sweet potato in favor of more “modern” choices: animal foods, white rice and other processed foods, and added oils. As a result they are sicker, increasingly overweight, and not attaining the advanced ages of earlier island generations.
CAN DIET SLOW THE AGING PROCESS?
Why would a whole foods, plant-based diet, such as the one enjoyed in Okinawa in traditional times, have such a huge effect on aging? Is it just that this way of eating helps prevent killer events like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes? Or is nutrition impacting the aging process itself – putting the brakes on the complex interplay of
processes that makes you age biologically? A recent study found that the latter outcome would result in a substantially longer period of healthy life than simply treating specific diseases as these pop up.
Scientific understanding of aging is in its infancy. Many interrelated factors contribute to the aging process. One of these determinants is the length of telomeres, protective structures found at both ends of your chromosomes. Shorter telomeres are linked to reduced life span and a substantially higher risk of the chronic diseases. Recent studies indicate that people with longer telomeres are aging more slowly.
Growing evidence confirms that lifestyle choices have a powerful effect on telomere length. Dietary factors, as well as lean weight, are associated with longer telomeres. Researchers believe that a diet high in antioxidants (which is to say, a diet based on whole plant foods) protect telomeres from destructive oxidative stress.
Telomeres can get longer as well as shorter. Researchers analyzed this process in a study of men with low-risk prostate cancer. Their findings indicate that a comprehensive lifestyle program that included a whole foods, plant-based diet was
significantly linked to longer relative telomere length. The more closely the men followed the prescribed program, the more their telomeres lengthened during the five year follow up period.
What’s the bottom line? If you want to follow the example of traditional Okinawan centenarians, a whole foods, plant-based diet should be the foundation of your lifestyle choices. It’s never too late to start.
If you enjoyed this post, you may want to find out why soy foods are so healthy to eat with your sweet potatoes.
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Blog posting written by Janice Stanger, Ph.D. Janice authored The Perfect Formula Diet: How to Lose Weight and Get Healthy Now With Six Kinds of Whole Foods. This book shows you why a whole foods, plant-based diet keeps you healthy for a lifetime. This article was previously posted on the Forks Over Knives site under a different title.