What Diet Makes You Live the Longest?
Looking for a diet for longevity? With as many diets as there are health gurus these days, how do you know which diets are healthy?
There are a staggering amount of diets out there and just as many books to back up why they work…or don’t work. So how do you pick a diet to follow? Years ago I asked myself the same question. This is what I found.
How I Got into Healthy Diets
I had a problem with digestion as a kid. In short, I was constipated a lot of the time. I have lovely memories from my days on a potty. Not. I also happened to dislike most meats. I always felt like meat was “dry” no matter how juicy it was. So I gave up most of it in my teens and, not surprisingly, my digestion got a lot better. The fact that no one had told me that meat was the culprit in the first place shocked me.
I also learned that milk, that was a staple in Sweden where I grew up, causes mucus. I was bewildered as I had asthma as a kid. Why had no one told me that milk wasn’t good for me? Unlike most of the rest of the world, Scandinavians can generally break down milk as adults, due to a gene mutation. However, it doesn’t stop it from forming mucus in your body, so when you’re sick you shouldn’t drink it. It can also cause constipation, so ergo, if you have problems with digestion…why had no one told me?
As I learned these things and started exploring natural medicine (I contemplated becoming a doctor), I also learned about different diets. I never wanted to lose weight, I just wanted to be healthy. As I was drawn to eating mainly vegetarian foods, I became intrigued by the raw food diet. It just somehow seemed to make sense to me — food in its natural state. And while I was never 100% raw, I went through periods when I ate mainly raw foods and I enjoyed it.
At the same time as I developed a love of raw foods, a lot of people also started raving about the Paleo diet. Then there were the scares about gluten and dairy. Not to mention the militant vegans, the meat loving Atkins people, the “no fat” peeps, the eat as much fat as possible peeps…and let’s not forget the whole “eat right for your blood type” hype.
I was confused. So what did I do? One day when writing an article for an online magazine about the raw food diet, I decided to turn to Google. Why? To see where people lived the longest, of course! And preferably convince myself that eating gluten was OK.
Countries Where People Live the Longest
I figured, if you could just find out in which countries people lived the longest, as well as where certain diseases were more prevalent, you could make an educated guess as to which diet was the most beneficial. If everyone in Japan lived much longer than the bread and milk loving Europeans, then things would at the very least prove certain points, right?!
So what did Google tell me about longevity? Brace yourselves…
It was Monaco. Monaco had the longest living population on the planet.
Eating croissants is good for you. I knew it!
Then things got confusing again. Because the other countries with high life expectancy were countries with an Asian diet — lots of fish and rice — but just below them came more Mediterranean countries. I can’t remember exactly which countries topped the list back then, but if you look below you get a pretty good idea.
The stats for 2018: (1)
Monaco — 89.32 years
Japan — 85.77 years
Singapore — 85.73 years
Macau — 84.6 years
San Marino — 83.44 years
Andorra — 82.97 years
Guernsey — 82.75 years
Hong Kong — 82.66 years
Australia — 82.46 years
Italy — 82.43 years
Stress, finances, happiness, exercise, pollution, education, access to medical treatments…all those things need to be taken into account too. And we all know that the median income per household in Monaco is way above most of the rest of the world.
This led me to ponder further. How could I really determine how much had something to do with diet? I turned to Google. Again.
The Blue Zones
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one asking questions about longevity. Some time ago, Dan Buettner did an article for the National Geographic about areas around the world where there were more males over 100 years old than anywhere else. He dubbed those places Blue Zones. (2)
The Blue Zones include Okinawa (Japan); Sardinia (Italy); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
These places are geographically diverse, but they have a few things in common. As for diet, most of these communities consume a lot of vegetables, very little meat, some fish and legumes. (Legumes! Take that Paleo!) They are also all places where food is still largely home cooked and made from local produce. And indulging in a glass of wine, or two, is another common theme (apart from in Loma Linda).
Maybe, just as importantly, people in these places tend to put family first, spend a lot of time outdoors, incorporate exercise into everyday life, have little stress and engage in social activities.
Commonalities of Successful Diets
As I learned about the Blue Zones, I started suspecting that as different as the Paleo diet seemed from the vegan diet, they were more alike than you might imagine. How? What did the meat-loving Paleo people have in common with the meat-hating vegans? Whole foods. No, not the chain of stores in America and Europe, but actual whole foods.
When you start cooking food using local (and sometimes imported) produce, as opposed to buying processed foods off the shelves in the supermarket, you suddenly get a lot more nutrients in your diet. Also, for all the meat the Paleo people consume, they eat a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables.
The same increase in nutrients holds true if you exchange a slice of bread for a large salad consisting of different kinds of vegetables. Or exchange a slice of white bread, for brown bread with different seeds and nuts in it. It’s not necessarily gluten that is the bearer of all evil, but rather that overconsumption leads to you consuming a lot fewer nutrients in general. That said, there is some evidence suggesting that cutting gluten can help some people, including kids with behavioral difficulties.
My observations are all very well, but they aren’t exactly scientific in nature. So, thankfully, Yale, back in 2014, did a review of some 100 studies to figure out which diets are the best. They concluded the following: “The weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches.” (3)
The same study also summed up what successful diets had in common: “Limited refined starches, added sugars, processed foods; limited intake of certain fats; emphasis on whole plant foods, with or without lean meats, fish, poultry, seafood.” (3)
Diet Isn’t Everything
The year I wrote the article about raw foods, I’d just cured myself of repetitive strain injury (RSI), that supposedly came about because I was writing so much. Only, I don’t think my RSI had anything to do with my writing.
Technically, you can’t really diagnose RSI. Nor can you really cure it. At least, that’s what the doctors told me as I almost lost the ability to type, due to pains shooting down my arms and hands. They made these plastic casts for my hands and wrists to prevent me from using them. I switched to eating mainly raw foods in case diet was to blame. I also thought about any and every potential emotional cause there could be — was it stress? I psycho-analyzed myself.
I also saw a chiropractor, a physical therapist, an acupuncturist, a healer, a Chinese doctor, a movement therapist and a massage therapist. I became temporarily better when the chiropractor inserted acupuncture needles into muscle knots/pain points in my arms and shoulders, and moved the needles about to undo the knots. It was absolute torture and I had to do it several times a week. I remember crying and screaming in his office. The massage therapist also attacked my arms and shoulders vigorously. It was very painful, but both practices helped.
Then, one day, I spoke to an acquaintance who is a doctor. When I told him I was getting better from the treatment he said: “But you know that’s only temporary, right?! You can’t cure this. It’s only temporary relief.” After that, I started getting worse again.
When I was absolutely devastated one day, I decided to try Google once more. I came across someone recommending Dr. John Sarno. I’d heard about him before. Bought his book, in fact, but never read it. Someone also recommended him when I asked for help on Facebook, but I had ignored it, thinking surely RSI is an injury that needs to be healed with physical therapy. It’s literally the overuse of a certain body part. Turns out, maybe it’s not.
Sarno (who worked at NYU into his nineties) believed that a lot of pain, and indeed disease, is caused by suppressed emotions. Back pain, he found, was curious. Because people with equally worn discs in their back, equally compressed discs, etc. often had different symptoms. That’s to say: many people had no pain at all, while others were in constant agony. He discovered that those in pain had constricted blood vessels, that led to a decrease of oxygen and pain. But it was the brain, not the injury, controlling the contraction of the blood vessels. (4)
Sarno believed the pain was there to distract us from an emotion causing psychological pain, usually suppressed anger. Sometimes these emotions aren’t big things — it could be getting angry with your newborn for screaming too much, then thinking that’s not right, you can’t blame the child, and suppressing the anger. It’s a minor thing, it’s just the brain seems to be on autopilot to distract the mind from these unpleasant feelings and causes pain in the body instead.
Of course, no one knows if it’s a distraction from the psychological pain, or a manifestation of it. Nor can one be certain that the suppressed emotion is always anger, but a lot of unresolved emotions — sadness, disappointment, hurt, etc. — tend to cause anger.
Becoming aware of your emotions and standing up for yourself, as well as telling your brain to stop causing pain, are, in short, Sarno’s solution. Personally, following his program, I started writing right away and became better immediately. I was almost completely pain free within a couple of weeks.
The thing is, I’d already thought that stress might have caused the pain, but that didn’t undo it. Only when I read the book and understood exactly how it was all connected, was I able to stop the pain. It would come back at times when I was stressed, but I just applied the steps Sarno outlier again and it went away.
Now, constricted blood vessels causing pain is one thing. Most people know that stress can lead to muscle knots and backaches. But Sarno put forward other interesting things. Do you remember in the 80s and 90s when the stressed corporate people got stomach ulcers? I remember hearing about this growing up. But interestingly enough, according to Sarno, once a medicine was invented that cured people, the amount of new cases also drastically decreased. Instead, back pain and RSI increased.
I’m a big proponent of whole foods and so-to-speak clean foods, but I think your emotional state plays a huge part in your wellbeing. And the Blue Zones point toward the same.
After I cured my hands of RSI, I went to Chateau Marmont and ordered a cheese platter. I was so relieved, because for the first time, I wasn’t scared that eating a “normal” diet would kill me. I had been obsessed with finding a diet to cure disease, because I somehow always thought that the answer lied in nature. And while I never stuck to being 100% raw, nor thought it was necessary, I’d always had it in the back of my head that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be eating. That I could accidentally do myself harm. My mom died form cancer in her thirties, so I was, I guess, always trying to answer the question “why?”
I still don’t have the answer to that, but I believe spending time outdoors, sleeping well, exercising, living with as little stress as possible, a good social life, removing chemical toxins from our body and cleaning products as well as home environment, dealing with your emotions and learning to express dissatisfaction/anger in a way where you go beyond the anger to share what you’re truly feeling all form part of what leads to a long and happy life. That’s not to say we get it all right, all the time. We all go through periods of stress, periods where we might not have access to the kind of foods we’d like to eat, periods where we don’t have as much time for social life as we’d like and so forth. That’s fine. So long as we strive to find balance. So long as we know what we’re working to achieve and not go off on a tangent that lasts for years.