Geography May Be Key to a Long, Healthy Life

I love food and I’m really bad at dieting. I’m just going to put that out there. I mean, I can do it for awhile, but the craving and the crankiness generally win out, and the pounds come back.

Yet there are thousands of people around the world who are eating well and living beyond their centennial birthdays. They don’t belong to a gym, count calories, or spring for that big box of Weight Watchers frozen meals at Costco. They even eat cake sometimes. And National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner knows their secret.

Buettner has spent years studying people in what he calls “longevity hot spots” around the world, from Okinawa, Ikaria, and Sardinia to Costa Rica and Loma Linda, California—home to a group of Seventh Day Adventists.

“How did they do it? The surprisingly simple answer: They lived in environments that encouraged healthy eating,” he says in his latest book, The Blue Zones Solution. (He calls them “Blue Zones” because when he and his team identified the locations on a map, they originally circled them in blue.)

That means that these people have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, their homes are set up in a way that encourages preparation of plant-based foods, they have faith-based organizations and social networks supporting them, and they keep active as a matter of course, doing chores and running errands on foot as the norm, he says.

And, across all cultures, he discovered that they ate a lot of beans instead of a lot of meat. (More on that later.)

Living this way isn’t so easy in America, land of the drive-by taco, the all-you-can-eat buffet, and the constant stress of juggling work and family life.

But Buettner is a convincing evangelist for shifting the American lifestyle to become less reliant on the convenience of fast food, car trips for walkable distances, and kitchen appliances that take all the actual work out of kitchen work. (Some of his suggestions: Get a hand-cranked can opener! Bring back Grandma’s old potato masher! Knead your homemade sourdough for a really long time!)

And in the book, he details some remarkable results: Three Los Angeles communities reduced obesity by 14 percent once they embraced Blue Zone changes, and some Iowa farm communities lowered cholesterol levels by 4 percent while boosting volunteerism by 10 percent.

“None of these communities relied on draconian diets or Herculean discipline to achieve their goals,” Buettner says. “Instead they identified dozens of small steps to create a healthier environment that led to a healthy swarm of grassroots initiatives.”

And then there’s all those beans the folks in the Blue Zones are eating. Beans are a key source of oligosaccharides, which are complex carbs that can’t be completely digested in the gut. That’s why they get a bad rap from bean-o-phobes—because they keep fermenting and make you toot. But the more you eat, the better you get at digesting them. And you can prepare them in a way that adds herbs and spices to counteract the gas, like turmeric, ginger, and fennel, Buettner says.

There’s also some evidence beans help us improve the bacteria in our intestinal tracts. (See also “Study of Hunter-Gatherers’ Guts Reveals Ancient Microbes“.)

Another bad rap for beans is that they’re just plain boring. Buettner suggests using a traditional recipe from one of the Blue Zones, where they know from beans, to make them delicious.

In the spirit of making some delicious beans and keeping our collective diet resolutions this spring, here are two recipes from The Blue Zones Solution.

Fava Bean and Mint Salad

Yield: 4 servings

Fava beans are synonymous with Sardinia and are often eaten simply out of hand. When fava beans arrive with the debut of spring, large pots go on the stove to cook them quickly and peel them out of their skin. Fava beans and mint are a natural combination.

6 pounds fresh fava beans in the pods or 1 pound fresh fava beans without the pods

1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow or white onion, diced (about 1 cup)

1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves

4 sheets pane carasau (Sardinian flat bread) or small pieces of whole-grain flatbread (optional)

¼ cup finely grated pecorino Romano (about 2 ounces)

  1. To prepare the fava beans, place the 1 tablespoon of salt in a large pot, fill it three-quarters full with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice water. Drop the beans into the boiling water; cook for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander set in the sink and transfer immediately to the cold water to stop the cooking. Cool for several minutes, then drain in that colander.
  2. If you wish to peel the outer layer of the bean, open the skin with your thumbnail at the “eye,” where the bean was attached to the pod, and gently squeeze out the bean. Many Sardinians do not peel fresh fava beans because they enjoy the extra flavor. Test and see which you prefer.
  3. Warm the oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, just until barely softened, about 2 minutes. Add the fava beans and the ¼ teaspoon of salt; cook until warmed through, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes.
  4. Remove the skillet from the heat. Add the mint and stir well. Put a piece of pane carasau, if you are serving it, on each serving plate. Top each with a quarter of the bean mixture and 1 tablespoon of grated cheese.

Tip: Substitute 1 pound frozen fava beans, thawed. Because of the way freezing changes textures, you will probably want to peel each bean after boiling.

Longevity Stir-Fry

Yield: 4 servings

Chample, often called champuru, means “mixed up” in Okinawan. That seems to me to be an appropriate name for the stir-fry that is the signature dish of Okinawan cooking. The national favorite, goya champuru, is more of a celebratory dish that includes eggs and pork in addition to bitter melon. This is more of an everyday dish. Provided by Craig Willcox, it’s an easy-to-fix vegetable chample that is a good way to start exploring Okinawan cuisine. Serve with cooked brown or white rice.

6 ounces extra-firm tofu

2 tablespoons canola oil

3 cups cored, shredded green cabbage (about 1 small cabbage)

6 ounces green beans (about 1½ cups), trimmed and cut into 2-inch-long pieces

½ cup soybean or mung bean sprouts

2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce, preferably a Japanese bottling

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  1. Gently squeeze excess moisture out of the tofu block. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes.
  2. Warm 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick skillet set over medium heat. Add the tofu cubes and cook until golden brown, turning occasionally, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a large plate.
  3. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet. Add the cabbage and green beans; cook, stirring often, until the cabbage begins to wilt, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add the bean sprouts and cook, stirring more frequently, for only 1 minute to avoid overcooking. Return the tofu to the skillet and toss gently until heated through, about 1 minute. Stir in the soy sauce, salt, and pepper before serving.

Tip: You can make this simple recipe substituting a variety of vegetables for bean sprouts: zucchini, yellow summer squash, or green or red bell peppers, cored and sliced into 2-inch-long matchsticks. Or substitute Asian cabbage (such as napa or bok choy) for the green cabbage.

Tip: If you like your food a little spicy, add a dash of Okinawan hot sauce, koregusu, which is made of red peppers and Okinawan sake. Or use the bottled hot sauce of your choice.

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