April 14, 2024

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What centenarians eat and how they stay healthy, according to a dietitian

Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Abbey Sharp gives us the scoop on centenarian lifestyle and Blue Zones in the Ask A Dietitian series. (Canva)

As 2023 saw life expectancy drop again in Canada, the quest for longevity and healthy aging is more relevant than ever. Canadians, like many other people around the globe, are increasingly interested in understanding the secrets behind living longer, healthier lives.

One approach gaining attention is the study of Blue Zones — regions where people commonly live to be over 100 years old. But what makes these zones so unique? And how does lifestyle impact how you age? We asked registered dietitian Abbey Sharp, who shared advice on incorporating some of the Blue Zones’ wisdom into our own lives.

Here’s what you need to know.


What are Blue Zones?

Blue Zones are areas characterized by a high concentration of centenarians — people over 100 years old, surpassing global life expectancy averages.

These regions include places like:

What sets these areas apart is not only their populations’ longevity but also their lifestyle habits. “These zones exhibit a combination of factors, including a plant-rich diet, regular physical activity, strong social connections, a sense of purpose, and effective stress management techniques,” Sharp explained.

“It’s about adopting a mindset that values health, purpose, and connection – essential elements for a long and fulfilling life.”

There nine pillars of lifestyle in the Blue Zones, five of which Sharp highlighted as important to implement. These include:

  1. Moving naturally: Physical activity is seamlessly integrated into daily life through activities like walking, gardening and household chores. Centenarians engage in regular low-intensity exercise without relying on formal gym workouts or structured exercise programs.

  2. Purpose: Centenarians in Blue Zones have a strong sense of purpose or reason for waking up in the morning. This purpose is often derived from family, work or community involvement.

  3. Stress management or downshifting: Effective stress management techniques are prioritized, with emphasis placed on finding ways to relax. This may include activities such as taking naps, spending time with loved ones or participating in religious or spiritual practices.

  4. The ‘80% rule’: Centenarians typically practice moderation in eating, adhering to the “80% rule.” They eat until they feel about 80 per cent full, avoiding overconsumption.

  5. Plant-rich diet: Blue Zone diets are predominantly plant-based, featuring an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Animal products are consumed in moderation, with red meat being consumed very rarely.


What do centenarians eat?

Plant-rich foods with lots of fiber and healthy fats are central to Blue Zone diets. (Getty) Balanced nutrition concept for DASH clean eating flexitarian mediterranean diet to stop hypertension and low blood pressure. Assortment of healthy food ingredients for cooking on a kitchen table.

Plant-rich foods with lots of fiber and healthy fats are central to Blue Zone diets. (Getty)

Central to the lifestyle of centenarians in Blue Zones is their dietary pattern.

“Their diets are primarily plant-based, featuring fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds — all of which are rich in important fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. That, we know, is associated with reduced risk of chronic disease like heart disease, cancer, obesity,” Sharp explained.

While not strictly vegetarian, their diets feature minimal red meat and a focus on healthy fats like those found in olive oil and nuts. Furthermore, their meals are characterized by minimal processing and an abundance of fresh ingredients, contributing to reduced risks of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

“Unlike the typical Western diet… they reduce their intake of heavily processed meats and sugars. So there’s a real emphasis on a whole food, minimally processed diet.”


What else contributes to longevity?

In addition to dietary choices, Sharp highlighted physical activity and social connections as important lifestyle factors in Blue Zones.

“Instead of having structured exercise as we do in North America, typically, [physical activity] is just built into their day. They are engaging in natural movement through more walking, walking to work, to the market, gardening, farming,” she claimed.

It’s a slower pace of life — that also can help to contribute to longevity.

Social engagement and prioritizing family, friends and relationships, Sharp added, is “such a strong indicator of overall wellbeing and longevity.” One part of this are strong cultural practices in Blue Zones. “There’s typically a lot more rituals around food consumption and preparation, or celebrations of life milestones, communal gatherings.”

Environmental factors also matter; those in Blue Zones are generally surrounded by more nature and have more access to green spaces.


How can I live like a centenarian?

Family posing with grandmother celebrating the 100 year birthday during a lunch celebration. Living a more mindful, slower life is a key practice in Blue Zone centenarians. (Getty)

Living a more mindful, slower life is a key practice in Blue Zone centenarians. (Getty)

For those outside of Blue Zones, adopting a centenarian mindset is doable, according to Sharp.

When it comes to diet, making small changes to your daily meals can go a long way. “Prioritize whole foods, practice mindful eating, cook at home, limit processed foods and added sugars, moderate alcohol consumption, stay hydrated, embrace flexibility and variety in the diet,” she advised.

Sharp added it’s important to “invest in the act of food preparation as an act of self care and relaxation.”

Too often in our fast-paced lives, we are kind of just wolfing down meals. It’s an afterthought if it even is a thought.

Adding “unstructured activity” and interacting with nature can be as simple as parking farther away from the door, taking the stairs more often or taking phone calls outdoors.

Sharp also emphasized the importance of cultivating gratitude and enjoyment in mealtime experiences. “Approaching meals with a sense of gratitude and sharing them with loved ones can be a powerful way to cultivate health and happiness, no matter where we live.”

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