THE FOODIE FILES: Centenarian secrets

By on August 26, 2015

How to eat (and drink) your way to 100

150826Foodie

(From left clockwise), Spices such as cayenne and cumin are associated with longevity; ‘Blue Zone’ centenarians eat a mostly plant-based diet; chickpeas roasted with olive oil, cumin and cayenne pack a tasty, nutritional punch (get the recipe below). Photo: Annie Fenn, MD

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The first thing you’ll notice about Norm, my friend’s dad who turns 80 this month, is the twinkle in his eye and the bounce in his step. And that he is a dapper dresser — if he were to wander into Mountain Dandy, he would surely make it onto the style blog.

After being invited to Norm’s 80th birthday dinner last week, I racked my brain for days thinking of a fitting gift for such a cool guy. Then I remembered that Norm is a bit of a foodie. There’s nothing he loves more than sitting around a table with family and friends sharing good food and wine.

I figure a guy like Norm has a good chance of making it to his 100th birthday, so I packed a gift bag full of the foods associated with longevity, as identified by the National Geographic “Blue Zones” project. Ten years ago, Nat Geo fellow Dan Buettner identified these so-called Blue Zones — longevity hot spots around the globe — where an inordinate number of people are living to 100 and beyond. Five Blue Zones have been identified and extensively studied: the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, the Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif., the islands of Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy and Okinawa in Japan.

Not only are these Blue Zone centenarians living long, they are living extremely well without diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, or many of the other scourges of old age. In fact, they are still having fun — many still work, have an active social life and exercise each day. And as one 102-year-old Sardinian noted: “We always make love on Sundays.”

So just what did I put in Norm’s gift bag? First, I should tell you that although a list of 44 foods have been identified that are associated with Blue Zones longevity, it’s not just about eating the right foods. As you may suspect, a myriad of other lifestyle factors are associated with those who don’t just live long but thrive in old age.

Let’s take exercise, for example. The harder and more frequently you exercise, the longer you’ll live, right? Not exactly. At least that is not the case for the longest living men on earth, those from the rugged mountains of Sardinia. Even though the Sardinian farmers exercise the hardest, laboring exhaustively in the fields, they are typically outlived by the shepherds, who slowly walk up and down mountain slopes each day. Although the farmers were very fit from lifting and hauling, Buettner suggests that they did not live as long because of all the inflammation their bodies accumulated. This makes me feel good about choosing to amble up the switchbacks of Snow King instead of working out at one of the many killer exercise classes in town.

There’s good news for us mountain dwellers, though: After working as a shepherd, the second most highly associated factor for reaching age 100 in Sardinia was the hilliness of the terrain. According to Buettner, “The steeper the terrain, the longer you tended to live.”

You can probably guess that it’s not just what you eat but how you eat that is associated with longevity. Blue Zone centenarians don’t gulp down their food as they sit in front of the television, nor do they snack all day or eat while they drive. They eat at a leisurely pace around a table with family and friends. They ingest 20 percent less calories than most Americans — and are mindful to stop eating when their stomachs are only 80 percent full. They eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon and early evening. And they almost always drink wine with meals — not a lot — but an average of one to two glasses per day with friends and/or with food.

That’s why the first item I chose for Norm’s gift bag was a bottle of good red wine. Blue Zoners tend to cook everything in olive oil, so I threw in a bottle of that too.

I included a bag of chickpeas, a staple of the Ikarian and Sardinian diets, and a bag each of almonds and walnuts, both associated with lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. And a box of blueberries to help fend off dementia, making sure they were organic to avoid the pesticides that are associated with oxidative stress on the brain. (See “Your Brain on Blueberries” in The Foodie File archives at planetjh.com.)

There was a bag of coffee beans and bags of green tea – both have been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory properties. If I’d thought to use a bigger gift bag, I would have filled it with vegetables – fennel, shiitake mushrooms, bitter greens, sweet potatoes, and kombu as well as fruits like papayas, avocados, tomatoes, lemons, and squash. I’d have given Norm a supply of whole grains, like brown rice, farro, barley, and oatmeal and more legumes, like lentils, fava beans, black-eyed peas, and black beans. A bottle of local honey and a selection of anti-inflammatory spices – cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and paprika – would round out his longevity pantry.

The world’s longest living people don’t eat a lot of what makes up the bulk of the American diet: meat, cheese, cow’s milk and refined carbohydrates. They do eat meat and eggs in moderation sourced from animals who are free-roaming, such as goats, chickens, lamb and pigs. The bulk of their diet is sourced from vegetables and fruits, and when they eat bread, it is sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat.

I did have room to tuck in a small box of chocolate truffles from Oscar Ortega’s Atelier. Dark chocolate contains flavenoids, memory-boosting antioxidants that are also associated with cardiovascular health. Even though centenarians in the Blue Zones don’t eat many sweets, they make an exception during celebratory feasts – and Norm’s 80th birthday was definitely an occasion for celebration.

Crispy Spicy Chickpeas

At last Saturday’s Farmers Market on the Town Square, I gave out hundreds of samples of these crispy snacks as I talked about brain-healthy foods with Dr. Martha Stearn, director of the St. John’s Medical Center Cognitive Health Department. A great source of folate and magnesium, chickpeas are thought to boost memory and learning, enhance sleep and are associated with longevity in many cultures.

Adapted from “The Blue Zone Solution” by Dan Buettner

Makes 1 ½ cups

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained, rinsed and patted completely dry, about 1 ¾ cups, or 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked in water overnight and boiled for 30 minutes, drained and patted dry

3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons ground cumin (or more or less, to taste)

½ teaspoon Kosher salt (or more or less, to taste)

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more or less, to taste)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the chickpeas with olive oil, cumin, salt and cayenne in a large bowl until well coated. Place onto a large, rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicon mat.

Bake until as brown and crispy as you like, stirring every 20 minutes or so, which usually takes 30 to 45 minutes. Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving warm or at room temperature. PJH

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie


About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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