February is a month-long celebration of heart health. When it comes to nutrition this can mean many different things: Foods that warm the heart, foods that express love for another, and foods that promote cardiovascular health. The gift of a long, healthy life may include a style of eating that makes room for all three of those ideas. This is the month to think about eating smarter to live longer – and love more.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death of men and women in the United States. And, there is a lot to learn about heart disease and heart disease prevention. So this month, let’s turn our attention to people in the world who live the longest healthiest lives. Centenarians living on the islands of Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy, and Okinawa Japan, along with the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the hot spot of Loma Linda, California have perfected a lifestyle that includes a love of food and promotes cardiovascular health.
Sometimes referred to as the “Blue Zones,” these health seekers don’t diet or count calories, rather their cultures are steeped in a culinary lifestyle that supports living long, healthy lives.
What can we learn from these long living people to transform our health and protect our heart?
The science of living longer points to what these coastal communities have shared in common despite the vast miles between them. When it comes to eating guidelines they are simple: People in the Blue Zones have a diet that is 95 percent plants. What does that look like?
- Their plates are filled with colorful vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
- Fats used in culinary preparations are plant-based, such as olive oil, nut oil, and avocados.
- Eggs, meat, fish, and dairy are a condiment to this plant based diet.
- When meat is eaten it is typically wild caught fish that fall in the middle of the food chain such as sardines, trout, snapper, cod and anchovies.
- Whole foods are eaten looking much like they did when they came out of the ground.
- Breads are rarely eaten and when they are, they are made from naturally fermented sourdough.
- Dairy is served in a fermented form, such as yogurt or as sheep’s and goat’s milk.
- Beverages are simple, such as a cup of coffee or tea, water throughout the day, and glass of red wine shared at a family meal.
- Fruit juice and sugary drinks are minimal or avoided, as is food with added sugar in general.
- Desserts are often fruit based and might be sweetened with a pinch of honey.
Make February the month to create delicious and inspired meals. Pick one of the following foods to celebrate each day: greens (all varieties), lemons, eggplant, Mediterranean herbs, chick peas, honey, coffee, artichokes, fennel, onions, almonds, goats milk, sheep cheese, wine, papaya, mango, winter squash, cabbage, yams, shitake mushrooms, garlic, bitter melon, seaweed, tofu, turmeric, green tea, berries, avocado, nuts, and whole grains.
Instead of showering your love with a box of high sugar chocolates surprise them with a fine bottle of extra virgin olive oil that is glowing green with heart healthy phytochemicals or a bold red wine.
The health principles of the “Blue Zones” extend beyond just what shows up on the plate, or in the grocery cart. There is an interconnected web of factors including what they eat, their social networks and communities, daily rituals including movement, and a sense of purpose. There is philosophy around how food is grown and prepared, creation of sacred eating environment where value is placed on consuming foods with others as family and community. Food is the vehicle to their health-promoting lifestyle.
Clearly, a lot of love goes into healthy eating principles of these long living people. Celebrate Heart Month by building some of these practices into your own daily routine. I am sure you will find it quite delicious and heartwarming.
Kim Evans, MS, RD, is a clinical dietitian for the UVM Medical Center.