It's no secret that I've been labeled an alternative health advocate for most of my adult life. There's something undeniably seductive about the idea of trying to be the captain of your fate when it comes to taking care of your body. For that reason, I've been a huge fan of Dan Buettner, the National Geographic fellow and New York Times best-selling author. If the name seems familiar, it's because he wrote the 2008 book "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest" and the 2015 book "The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People."
In 2002, Buettner met with demographer and scientist at the National Institute on Aging in Washington, D.C., and earned a grant to research longevity hotspots around the world. He first made his findings public in the National Geographic November 2005 issue with the article "The Secrets of Living Longer," which became the third best-selling issue ever in the magazine's history. Three years later, "The Blue Zones" was published, and Buettner became the patron saint of longevity.
The good news is that protecting our lifespan through diet and lifestyle choices doesn't mean you have to embrace deprivation. We do, however, need to pay attention to what we eat and drink, as well as how we use our bodies.
Buettner spent large chunks of time studying communities in Ikara, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. These were named Blue Zones. The people in these communities significantly outlive the rest of us and experience lower rates of dementia, diabetes and heart disease. In "The Blue Zone Solution," Buettner tells us that the inhabitants of these areas are "products of their environment" who walk a lot, grow their own vegetables, go to bed late and give themselves permission to sleep in whenever they feel like it.
One thing that all these people have in common is they eat about a cup of beans each day. Most of us already know that beans are high in fiber, micronutrients and vitamins, and that they eliminate our need for animal protein. But what I didn't know until I read his book was that eating meat creates a bad balance of gut bacteria in order to digest it. If you eat a lot of meat, the necessary bacteria to digest it causes inflammation, which is at the root of every age-related disease. Eating beans, however, teaches your gut to switch to a different type of flora that lowers inflammation and seems to discourage obesity.
Buettner discovered that Blue Zone people tend to lead physically active lives and eat much less in the way of animal products than we do. He predicts: "our meat-eating habits are going to be looked at in the same way as we look at our smoking habits in the 1970s. ... no one will be ignoring the fact that it is lowering our life expectancy."
Next week's column will continue the Blue Zone discussion in more detail, but in the meantime, here are five suggestions that can easily enhance your longevity no matter where you live:
—Drink wine moderately and regularly.
—Move your body regularly. Walking, gardening and housework count.
—Eat a mainly plant-based diet.
—Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full.
—Feel free to drink strong coffee.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.