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Want to Live Longer? Me, Too!

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Ever wonder why some people live longer?

So did researcher Dan Buettner, whose recent book is "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest." With help from National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, Buettner found four areas of the world where people reach age 100 at higher-than-normal rates and live longer.

We can stop blaming our family for our life span. As it turns out, life expectancy is only 6 percent based on gene and 94 percent based on environment.

So where are these places that are seemingly equipped with Fountains of Youth?

They're in Southern Okinawa in Japan, the mountain highlands of Sardinia off the Italian coast, the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica and Loma Linda, Calif., (specifically the Seventh-Day Adventists who live there, not the general population). [Seventh-Day Adventists adhere to a vegetarian diet rich in whole grains and nuts, and they abstain from alcohol and smoking.]

Buettner says food is about 25-30 percent of the reason why these people are living longer.

Most of them eat a plant-based diet with minimal processed foods and plenty of built-in cultural mores to keep from eating too much.

The Japanese, for example, follow a principle called "hari hachi bu," which means eat until you're 80 percent full. (Because by the time your brain catches up with your stomach, you will be full.)

Here are more tips, from people who live the longest:

  • They eat off smaller plates.
  • They never have a TV in the kitchen, and families eat together.
  • Good food is on display and easy to eat.
  • They have very active lifestyles, with plenty of walking and gardening.

While you can't pick up and move to rural Central America, there are some things we can all do to help extend our lives (and maybe even shrink our waistlines).

Eat from a smaller plate or bowl. A standard 3-ounce serving of protein (the size of a deck of cards) is dwarfed by our 12-inch plates. A half-cup of pasta (the size of a billiard ball) barely covers the bottom of our oversized "pasta" bowls. Use a small bowl (or even a coffee mug!) and a salad plate for your meals, and you won't feel deprived. (Do this even if you're eating takeout. It's much easier to portion control when you're not eating out of a box or a styrofoam tray.)

Eat less meat. You don't have to swear off meat completely. Just forgo the beef, chicken or pork one or two nights a week. You'll save money and likely consume less fat and cholesterol. (See my previous blog post www.sparkpeople.c
for more tips on eating less meat.)

Keep healthy food around and ready to eat. Wash and chop up veggies, display fruit on the counter in a bowl, and cook healthy whole grains in batches so they're ready to eat. Keep dips and salsas on hand for guilt-free dipping. Veggies and low-fat dip or hummus are suddenly more appealing when you can just grab them and go.

Clear off the table. If your house is like mine, the dining room table becomes a resting place for everything from mail to computers. Clear it off, step away from the TV and eat dinner at the table. When I lived alone in Korea, I found it rather depressing to eat by myself, until I switched off the TV and actually sat at my dining room table. From then on, I'd get out a real plate and chopsticks no matter what I was eating, and I'd spend 20 minutes really savoring my food. I enjoyed my food more, and I stopped overeating.

Eat whole food. Sure, processed foods are tasty and easy to prepare, but think about what you're eating. A good rule of thumb: The closer a food is to its original state, the better it will be for you. You can make pasta with a fresh tomato sauce in the time it takes to make a box of macaroni and cheese, but you'll feel much better after you eat it.

With a few small changes, we can all add years to our lives. Sounds like a great idea to me!
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