We are encouraged to eat a balanced diet yet knowing what a balanced diet is has become a a nightmare since populations around the world abandoned traditional farming methods and cooking styles for an “easier life”. Soaring levels of obesity, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and cancer may not have been part of the bargain, but we are now paying dearly as we dig our graves with our own knives and forks. In January 2022, Prof. Walter Willet, MD (Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) summed it up articulately when he said that “the COVID-19 pandemic, sadly, has laid bare the poor health of too many Americans. The ‘underlying conditions’—the chronic diseases from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and many cancers—correctly cited as heightened coronavirus risk factors for causing severe, life-threatening infections and higher death rates are closely tied to unhealthy diets and lifestyle choices. More broadly, these are the same unhealthy food choices that undermine our ability to stop climate change and achieve both planetary sustainability and resilience in our food systems.” Although speaking from across the pond, his message is global and recognizes that the major challenges we are facing right now with our health, food and climate change are all interconnected.
It's not all doom and gloom this week (I promise) even though the first paragraph is a bit dramatic! Before anyone can fix the world, we have to start in our own worlds and be free to make intuitive food choices for ourselves, our environment and our health. It begins in your own kitchen, really, and the food you choose to put in your fridge, your cupboards and ultimately, in your mouth. Figuring out what to eat does not have to be complex or require a degree in chemistry to read labels. A great experiment for you to try this week to see how simply you eat is to count the single items of food you buy – fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans, pulses), wholegrains, meat, fish, eggs, dairy and oils are usually minimally processed, single-ingredient items. Compare this list with the number of foods you buy that are processed and/or have more than one ingredient listed on the food label. This task will provide an insight into how much of your own nutrition is being outsourced and out of your hands. Of course, there are healthy foods that have more than one ingredient and likewise, sugar is a single-ingredient food, but making this comparison will help you become more aware of your shopping habits, and ultimately more aware of what you eat every day. This is the knowledge you need to make positive changes to your health, your nutrition and your environment in one fell swoop.
National Geographic researcher, explorer and author, Dan Buettner along with his team identified five areas in the world, dubbed the Blue Zones, where people live the longest, healthiest lives. They are Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and interestingly the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda (California). More people reached the age of 100 in these communities than any where else on the planet. Residents in Blue Zones live in very different parts of the world, yet Buettner’s research revealed nine commonalities that lead to longer, happier, healthier lives. They are active, eat a mostly plant-based diet, drink a daily glass of red wine (except for the Adventists), plus they are spiritual, stay connected with their family and friends while surrounding themselves with positive people. He refers to their diet as “Plant-Slant” not exclusively plant-based, but mainly made up of fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and wholegrains. Meat/fish is eaten occasionally, on average five times per month and dairy is rarely consumed and only when it is fermented (yogurt, cheese, kefir, buttermilk). Oils for cooking and salads is nearly always extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil (in Costa Rica). Never vegetable (soya) or seed oils (sunflower, rapeseed). They do not drive to supermarkets to do their shopping or outsource their dinners to fast food chains, or skip meals, or eat ultra-processed foods, or drink fizzy beverages or do any of the stuff that we have normalized in our eating patterns.
Living a healthier life is kept simple in the Blue Zones because making the healthy choice is the easy choice. They cook with ease and stay active because everyone gardens and has access to affordable local produce. They have created an environment in which it is easy to walk or cycle to get around. They value family life and friendships, and they prioritize rest and recreation. From the youngest to the oldest, everyone has a purpose.
Before you think it’s all down to the weather…it’s not. For example, Nauru is a small sunny island country located in the Pacific Ocean near Papa New Guinea, population 10,000. More than 70% of its population are obese or overweight. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) it has the highest percentage of obese or overweight people in the world. More than 40% of the population have Type 2 Diabetes and many more have high blood pressure. Very few live past the age of 60. It wasn’t always like this in Nauru. They too enjoyed a simple life, sustained by growing their own fruit, veg and plants for food and a spot of fishing. The story of Nauru’s downfall began when huge swathes of land was given over to phosphate mining during the 20th century. By 2006, the mines were exhausted, the industrialists moved out. Nauru was left as an environmental wasteland, with no consistent source of income. Nowadays, their diets consist of white rice, instant noodles, imported Westernized foods and soda with very little fruits, vegetables or unprocessed whole foods.
What happened in Nauru is an extreme example of what is happening to much of the developed world and the constant confusion about “balanced diets” is just another distraction from getting to the truth. People like Dan Buettner and those working with The Blue Zones project teach us that a balanced diet goes beyond the food we eat and truly nourishes the environment in which we live that makes the healthy choice the easier choice every time!