The Long-Living People
Considering the natural diets of our closest relatives in the wild, the primates, is one way to think about what we would eat if we were not influenced by culture or people selling a product for profit. It seems to me that a natural diet would be best. Another approach would be to find people and societies that live the longest and have the healthiest lives.
In the next two chapters we will do exactly that. First we look at four cultures where people live to be extremely old and healthy at the same time. Then we will examine on of the largest studies concerning the relation of diet to health ever conducted—the China Study.
In the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia live the Abkhasians. In the 1960’s the Soviets made claims that the people there were living to be well into their 100’s. One Abkhasian got his picture on a postage stamp for being 168 years old. The Dannon yogurt company went out there and made a popular commercial featuring a 110-year-old mother telling her 89-year-old son to eat his yogurt.
It turns out that these people were not as old as they claimed. They were probably “only” in the 90’s and early 100’s. More important than their years was their physical fitness and mental alertness. Researchers found them to be enjoying extremely good health. Only the very oldest had wrinkles. Few needed glasses and most still had their own teeth.
What was their secret? How did they keep healthy into old age? (You are probably wondering what this has to do with raw food.)
The Abkhasians did get a lot of exercise living in the mountains. There is no question that physical activity is essential. They maintained their physical fitness into old age by not retiring and working in the orchards and gardens.
The other factor contributing to their health is diet. Breakfast consists of fresh salad, cornmeal porridge, and a fermented drink made from goat’s milk. Between meals they eat a great deal of fruit. Nuts are also an important part of their diet. They eat almost no meat. They do not eat fatty foods, sugar, salt, or butter. Overeating is considered socially inappropriate.
The Abkhasians do not eat yogurt despite the Dannon commercials. The average cholesterol level of those over 100 is below 100. There is one more thing that may contribute to their long productive lives—the elders are respected and revered simply by being old.
Three hundred miles to the south of Quito, Ecuador, high in the Andes mountains, is the village of Vilcabamba, it is also called the Valley of Longevity. Here the inhabitants frequently live into their 100’s with youthful vigor and vitality. Degenerative diseases do not exist there. No cancer, no diabetes, no osteoporosis, no Alzheimer’s. No heart disease or high blood pressure.
International scientists have studied the Vilcabambanas for half a century and the conclusion has been that their health is the result of their diet and high levels of physical activity. There are no supermarkets in Vilcabamba, no processed foods. Vegetables and fruits are picked fresh daily and eaten on the spot. Occasionally they have milk or eggs, but their diet is essentially fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
It is interesting to note that their protein comes from vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Their fat comes from avocados, seeds, and nuts. They do not consume a large amount of calories compared to American standards. Overweight people cannot be found in Vilcabamba. Because of where they live fresh fruit and vegetables are available year round.
Twenty thousand feet up in the Himalayan Mountains in northwestern Pakistan is Hunza. Probably the most famous of all for being a place where the people live well past 100 and where they have perfect eyesight, no cancer, no heart disease, and no crime. (Also, no money, no banks, no taxes, and no stores.)
It isn’t that these people just are not sickly, they are strong and active their whole lives. They swim in ice-covered streams, the build retaining walls for their gardens; they play wild games of volleyball and polo. What makes them so healthy?
Again, a look at their diet shows that it is quite different from what we have been told is necessary for health by the food industry. They eat less than half the protein and a third of the fat that we do. And it all comes from fruits, vegetables, and grains. They do not eat animals. No food is processed and it is all fresh. The closest they come to processing is drying their fruits. They have a law against spraying their gardens with pesticide.
The Hunzas eat a lot of apricots, and a lot of sprouts. Served at every meal is their bread called “chappti.” They call it a bread, but it is not really baked. After grinding fresh wheat, barley, or millet, they knead it with only water, no yeast, and then place it on a grill for a moment, just long enough to warm it.
The Hunzas and the other long-living people didn’t eat a mostly raw vegetarian diet because they wanted to—they didn’t really have a choice. High up in the mountains there isn’t a lot of wood for cooking and food to keep animals. So, they mostly eat plants and eat them raw.
It isn’t just that these people live to be old, it’s that they are disease free that is most impressive. The old do not suffer from fatigue, poor eyesight, high blood pressure, or obesity. Very much like the people of Abkhasia and Vilcabamba.
Besides extraordinary good health their diets are quite similar. Approximately 70% of their calories come from carbohydrates (in the form of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), 20% from fat (from nuts and seeds), and 10% from protein. The Abkhasia include about 10% animal products, but the Vilcabamba and Hunza only 1%. Almost no salt is used and no sugar or processed food.
Birth records have been meticulously kept in Okinawa since 1879. So the ages of those long-lived people on this southernmost Japanese island chain are not disputable. Every city and town has a family register dating back well over a hundred years. And since 1975 the Japan government has been studying the health and longevity of these people.
There are 800 centenarians out of a population of 1.3 million. The Okinawans do not retire. Is this what keeps them healthy or do they not retire because they are so healthy? According to researchers there are four reasons for their extraordinary well being. Social support, psycho-spiritual attitudes, diet, and exercise.
Until relatively recently Okinawa was a separate country from Japan and evolved with a different culture, diet, and religious beliefs. And their incidence of disease is also different from Japan (and the West). Like the Abkhasians, Vilcabambans, and the Hunza, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases are rare.
The Okinawan diet consists of a lot of sweet potato, green leafy vegetables, and protein from soy foods such as tofu and miso. They do eat a significant amount of fish, also. But diet alone is not the secret to their success. They get good nights sleep. That may be related to what they eat because it is hard to sleep well when your stomach is busy digesting a heavy meal. The Okinawans also have a strong sense of responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their lives.
Probably more than anything, and similar to the other long-lived people in this chapter is that the Okinawans do not consume a lot of calories compared to the standard American diet. By consuming mostly fruits, vegetables, and grains, they get the nutrition they need without the calories.
Maybe we could learn something from people who seem to live long, active, disease-free lives. It only makes sense to pay attention to others who are succeeding at something. In this case it is something near and dear to all of us—our health.
It seems to me that exercise and working outdoors is primary. Eating a plant-based diet is also primary. Having some kind of spiritual practice is primary. And staying connected to other people is primary. None of these alone is sufficient. All of the long-lived peoples of the world incorporate all of these components into their lives. A life-style based on these principles, and not on what advertisers and promoters of products, would surely be an improvement for all of us.