When people think about eating healthier, ditching carbohydrates is one of the first things that comes to mind. The continued popularity of low-carb diets, like Atkins and Keto, have put bread, potatoes, and grains on the “naughty list.” But it turns out, adding them to more of your meals might actually be one of the keys to living a longer and healthier life.
Dan Buettner, a New York Times best-selling author and world explorer, recently wrote about his travels to communities across the globe where most people live into their 90s and 100s. These areas, which he calls “Blue Zones,” include places like the Greek island of Ikaria where they claim residents simply “forget to die.” Senior Ikarians also keep their brains sharp with one of the lowest rates of dementia. So what’s their secret — and how exactly do carbs play a part? According to Buettner, people in the Blue Zones eat plant-based diets with 90 to 100 percent being made up of healthy carbohydrates.
“Carbs is the worst word in the American language,” he claimed in a podcast with MindBodyGreen. “[That’s] because both lollipops and lentils are carbohydrates, and we get confused.” Instead of super sugary or other simple carbs, Blue Zone communities eat plenty of complex carbohydrates, like grains, beans, sweet potatoes, and yes, bread.
So, obviously, chowing down on a bag of potato chips won’t give you the same life-lengthening benefits as a bowl of quinoa. You can, however, feel less guilty about sharing a loaf of fresh bread at dinner or even wrapping nutritious plant-based meals up in a tortilla.
While describing his Blue Zone travels, Buettner wrote that he often broke bread with residents on the Italian island of Sardinia where they have “some of the highest concentrations of male centenarians.” In Costa Rica, he “started the day with tortillas, beans, and pico de gallo among country folk who are more likely to reach a healthy 90 years old than anyone else on the planet.” Who else is suddenly in the mood for a bean burrito?
What makes all of this even more amazing is that these super-agers aren’t even doing any of this on purpose. “People in Blue Zones have been eating the ‘right’ foods because [they] were the cheapest and most accessible,” Buettner explained.
Aside from their food choices, they also don’t need to carve out time in their days to hit the gym or run laps to stay healthy — their lifestyles are active enough on their own. “People live in places where every time they go to work, or to a friend’s house, or out to eat, the occasion’s a walk,” Buettner says. “They don’t have buttons to push for yard work, and housework, and kitchen work. They’re kneading dough by hand for bread or grinding corn.”
On top of what they eat and how they stay active, Buettner lists one more major factor in why people in Blue Zone areas live longer: friendship. “Putting the effort into creating that group of four or five people who really nourish you is arguably the most powerful thing you can do to add years to your life,” he claimed.
To prove his Blue Zone theory, Buettner has experimented with bringing this mindset to cities here in America. In Florida, he gathered 100 middle-aged men and women and grouped them into circles of potential friends based on their common interests, locations, and values. He then gave them Blue Zone recipes to follow and asked them to meet up to eat together at least five times over a three month span.
Buettner called the results “promising,” but we think they’re downright astounding. For one thing, every single participant reported that they felt a significant increase in their overall well-being. That included 17 percent who claimed to have lost weight, while 67 percent admitted to making more friends. “One 56-year-old woman even reported losing 37 pounds, adding, ‘I discovered I have legs!’” Buettner also used a test developed by the University of Minnesota to calculate the life expectancy of participants before and after the experiment. According to the results, they added an average of 15 months to their life just by adopting the Blue Zone lifestyle over the span of the experiment.
Phew, after all that, you’re probably wondering about how you can get the same results. Well, you can start by whipping up meals from Buettner’s cookbook, The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100 ($27.00, Amazon). After that, you’ll just need to look for ways to make your life more active on a regular basis — like walking to grab fresh ingredients from a nearby grocery store instead of driving there. And of course, spending more quality time with friends and loved ones. You can even try making a few new friends to celebrate decades’ worth of birthdays as you all become super-agers together!
Here’s to us all living our longest, happiest, and healthiest lives with delicious food and good friends to share it with.
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