The secret to a long, healthy life in America? According to longevity researchers, it may be to act like you live somewhere else.
It seems like every year another country's lifestyle is touted as the new magic bullet to cure us of obesity, heart disease, and premature death: For an unclogged heart, herd goats and down olive oil like a Mediterranean. Avoid breast cancer and live to 100 by dining on tofu Japanese-style. Stay as happy as Norwegians by hunting elk and foraging for cowberries.
The places we're usually told to emulate are known as Blue Zones or Cold Spots. Blue Zones were pinpointed by explorer Dan Buettner and a team of longevity researchers and are described in his book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest. They're areas in Italy, Japan, Greece, California, and Costa Rica where the people have traditionally stayed healthy and active to age 100 or older.
Similarly, Cold Spots, as identified by integrative medicine physician Daphne Miller, M.D., author of The Jungle Effect, are five areas in Mexico, Iceland, Japan, Greece, and Cameroon with low rates of "Western" ailments like heart disease, depression, and certain cancers.
Now I'd like to eat my way to a long life, but I'm not about to start foraging for raw plants — I live in Brooklyn. I admire the vascular supremacy of Mediterranean folks, but I doubt I could completely replace butter with olive oil and chips with nuts. My kids would mutiny.
But it's crucial that we all try, says David L. Katz, M.D., founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center: "The Centers for Disease Control has projected that one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050." Message received! So I took a look at a few key regions to see which habits we Americans could make our own.
French women stay slim with petite portions
According to the best seller French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, the paradox of how French women consume butter and cream without gaining can be explained in two words: portion control. They have small amounts of fresh, quality food and antioxidant-rich wine, lingering over multiple courses and savoring every bite.
French women also tend to walk everywhere instead of attempting to get to the gym. "In France, they climb stairs. Many of the buildings are older and don't have elevators," says Steven Jonas, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York and coauthor of 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines.
Plus, the price of gas is a lot higher, so people are motivated to walk instead of drive. All of this adds up to French women having a low incidence of heart disease and obesity (12 percent compared to the U.S.'s 36 percent).
I admire the French "food is the focus" idea, in theory. If only I could while away the afternoon strolling from boulangerie to fromagerie. But as a working mother of two teenagers, I scramble to pull off a 30-minute meal. And that's OK, Jonas says: "Even if it's quick, a homemade meal with whole ingredients is better than going to a restaurant with huge portions and empty calories."
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