Healthy eating is an incredibly subjective term and the interpretation of what constitutes a healthy meal can vary dramatically from person to person. For some, healthy eating may just refer to home cooked food while it may mean organic, low-carb or high protein for others. Information on nutrition science is freely available but the research is often hidden behind opinions and the latest fad.
The food we eat plays a critical role both in our current health as well as our future wellbeing. The rampant increase in lifestyle diseases over the past 30 years along with the parallel decrease in the quality of life of older individuals has been unequivocally shown to depend, at least in part, on one’s diet.
The various diets believed to be healthy can vary quite significantly from each other, and this presents the question: is there an ideal diet for good health? The general consensus is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to nutrition doesn’t work, and a diet that keeps one individual healthy may not work for another. Variations in genetics, gut bacteria, activity levels, dietary preferences and lifestyle habits are just some of the factors that can dramatically affect how an individual processes food. This makes it incredibly difficult to conclusively claim that one particular diet is ideal.
Having said that, there is a group of people whose diets may be worth understanding and learning from. Healthy Centenarians, or individuals that live over the age of 100 in good health have been studied extensively to determine what drives their longevity.
A global study identified five regions around the world that had the highest number of healthy individuals over the age of 100 – Okinawa (Japan), Icaria (Greece), Loma Linda (USA), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and Sardinia (Italy), collectively called ‘Blue Zones’. These regions had individuals that live much longer than average and a thorough analysis of their lifestyles was carried out to understand why this was the case.
The study made an interesting observation: even though these regions were spread across continents, their diets were surprisingly similar with a number of common characteristics:
1. A majority of the food consumed was derived from plants, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
2. Fruit and vegetable consumption exceeded the recommended 5 servings a day and was closer to 9 servings daily.
3. Red meat consumption was generally limited to special occasions.
4. Fish, when available, was the consumed more frequently than red meat.
5. Beans were an important source of protein across these regions.
What emerged from this study is that healthy individuals who live the longest eat foods in similar proportions. Half of their meals would consist of non-starchy vegetables while starch and protein would account for a quarter each.
It is no coincidence that similar diets have been recommended by both ancient systems (such as Ayurveda) and by researchers on the cutting edge of nutrition science. A large analysis of over 2 million people showed that adherence to a Mediterranean diet, which is almost identical to the diet followed by healthy centenarians, reduced mortality and even decreased the incidence of diseases caused due to aging such as heart disease, cancer and dementia.
While these dietary habits have evolved independent of each other across the world, they share similar characteristics that contribute to good health. These include:
1. High fibre consumption: Higher dietary fibre intake is associated with a lower risk of both metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Soluble fibre also promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in our gut, improving digestive health.
2. Consumption of foods with a low Glycemic Index (GI): The glycaemic index of foods refers to how quickly a particular food caused your blood sugar to rise. Foods with a high GI, such as sugar and refined grains, cause a rapid rise in blood sugar while foods rich in protein and fibre, such as leafy greens and beans, have a low GI food and do not cause this rise.
3. High blood sugar for a prolonged period of time leads to all sorts of problems including insulin resistance (which can lead to type II diabetes), inflammation, nerve damage and skin issues. A diet rich in low GI foods can help prevent these problems in the long run.
4. A diet rich in natural antioxidants: A diet rich in a variety of whole plant foods also gives an individual a high intake of antioxidants which protect against free radical damage.
5. Adequate carbohydrate consumption, largely through whole grains: Carbohydrates made up a reasonable proportion of diets in these regions, and this was largely through whole grains, yams, sweet potatoes and legumes, foods which are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and far healthier than refined grains.
6. Sufficient protein consumption, predominantly from vegetarians sources: Lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds were the primary sources of protein for these populations, with limited consumption of dairy and meat. Seafood was the most common meat consumed, with red meat reserved for special occasions.
7. An omega 3 rich diet: Diets in these regions are full of nuts, seeds and seafood, all of which are great sources of omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential for regulating inflammation, cognitive health and cardiovascular function.
What’s incredible is the fact that decades of research and centuries of practical knowledge have shown us that eating healthy is as simple as:
1. Making sure half of your plate consists of non-starchy vegetables, i.e. vegetables excluding potatoes and yams.
2. Limiting starch intake to a quarter of your meal.
3. Ensuring that quarter of your meal consists of quality protein, preferably from seafood or vegetarian sources.
Our goal over the next few weeks is to analyze the scientific data to understand each aspect of the #perfectplate, to determine the quantities that we need to consume of each food group to ensure that we’re feeling our best and to simplify the evidence so that we can incorporate these learnings into our daily lives.
Next: The Perfect Plate: How much protein do we really need?