We have awesome healthcare in the industrialised world, yet disease rates, especially when it comes to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease aren’t going down.
So what can we do to optimise our health?
If we’re talking about optimal health, we need to define what that is to us. The WHO defines optimal health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
By that definition, of course, optimal health depends on more than just a good diet, including getting enough exercise, managing our stress levels, getting enough sleep, good interpersonal relationships, and general satisfaction with our lives.
Do the healthiest people live differently from the rest of us?
To find out what the healthiest people in the world do in terms of diet and lifestyle, a good place to start is by looking at the Blue Zones. The Blue Zones are the places with the most centenarians and very low disease rates. They include Loma Linda (California), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Sardinia (Italy), Icaria (Greece), and Okinawa (Japan).
The non-diet related things that the Blue Zones have in common are:
- Regular physical activity
- Close-knit community and family
- Exposure to sunlight
- Low stress levels
- Low levels of smoking
- Sense of purpose
- Low levels of pollution
The diet-related commonalities are:
- Limited refined starches
- Limited added sugars
- Limited processed foods
- Limited intake of certain processed fats (trans fats)
- Emphasis on unprocessed and whole grain foods, with or without lean meats, fish, poultry, seafood
Comparing the typical Blue Zones habits with our regular Western lifestyles, they pretty much seem like opposites.
Where regular physical activity is a given in the Blue Zones, the typical worst-case scenario for many of us is driving a car to work, sitting at a desk, driving a car back home, and sitting down to watch TV.
While the inhabitants of the Blue Zones live in close-knit communities, we often rely on technology to keep in contact with our friends and family, and the general feeling of loneliness is at an all-time high, even though the world is more connected than ever.
Instead of spending time outdoors and getting some movement and sun exposure, we tend to spend more time indoors looking at screens; both at work and at home.
Stress levels in our societies tend to be quite high, especially in certain types of jobs, sleeping patterns are all over the place with shift work, and being constantly busy is generally seen as a positive thing. To combat our stress, we often reach for other unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive drinking or bingeing on processed foods.
Added to that, our exposure to pollution can be quite high; especially if we live in bigger cities.
Diet-wise, it’s quite similar. Not having or not taking the time to prepare meals from scratch that often, we reach for processed foods containing added sugars, refined starches and trans fats that are readily available to us at any time.
To have the biggest positive impact on our health, we need to take all those factors into account to the best of our ability, and make some lasting changes to our diets and lifestyles.
It would benefit us greatly to move from our fast-paced, often hectic but still inactive lifestyle to a more slow-paced one where we take the time to prepare our own food, move more, and make time for real human interaction.
The challenge lies in finding the right balance when combining the advantages of our current way of life with the advantages of a more traditional approach; the lifestyle that was common before technology was at the level that it is today.