We've heard a lot lately about how we should upend what has become the American or "Western" way life – limited exercise and sleep, but excessive stress, red meat, sugar, fat and salt – and instead embrace the habits of the exceedingly long-lived residents of the fishing villages of Japan and the Italian coast.
Typically, our response has been that such radical changes are impossible. The demands of our economy and family structure prevent us from preparing all of our dishes, having leisurely meals and taking regular naps and strolls. Life here is simply not the same as it is in those foreign coastal villages.
Perhaps, but that's no reason not to do all you can to extend your life by following "the principles of the longest-living people on earth," Dr. John Tickell says. For more than 25 years, the Australian physician, traveler and author has studied the diets and habits of the world's elders. Now he's sharing what he has learned in a new book, Love, Laugh and Eat: And Other Secrets of Longevity From the Healthiest People on Earth. His new PBS special, of the same name, debuts across the country on Aug. 3. (Check local listings for airings in your area.)
Why We Need to Act
Americans are proud of our national life expectancy, which is currently almost 79 years. But many experts now believe that life expectancy here may have peaked, especially for those who are not wealthy. "Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not age as we do," Tickell says, a prospect that should push us to focus on extending what he calls "health expectancy," or how long we can expect to be healthy.
The basis for many of Tickell's recommendations is the 25-year, government-supported Okinawan Centenarian Study conducted by an international team of researchers seeking to discover the lifestyle habits of the southern Japanese island chain's residents, who are often recognized as the world's longest-living people. The study, which took place from 1975 to 2001, included more than 600 adults older than 100 and pointed to vastly lower rates of breast cancer, colon cancer and diabetes among the Okinawans, as compared to Americans. There was also a later onset of arthritis and dementia, differences Tickell attributes to lifestyle.
"We have to change our attitudes," he says. But can we really begin to live more like Okinawans? "It's only too late when you're lying flat in a box," he says.
For most people, losing weight is a struggle. Many of us don't stick with a new diet longer than three weeks, not long enough to establish new habits. Part of the issue, as Tickell sees it, is the complexity of modern diet plans. He doesn't suggest a paleolithic or raw-food regimen, but he does urge us to simplify our approach to eating and drinking. A cup of coffee, for example, taken black, has virtually no calories. With a little milk, it might rise to 15. But a milk-and-sugar-laden latte could have 120, and five in a day adds up to 600 calories, the equivalent of an extra pound a week.
In general, he advises that we seek food with a low "H.I.," or "human interaction" level. To that end, he says, we should get more of our food from farmer's markets than supermarkets. (Think potatoes instead of French fries and apples instead of pie.) And we should strive to make two-thirds of our consumption be plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds. Echoing the advice of many nutritionists, Tickell urges us to limit our consumption of animal protein at any given meal to one-third of our plate, or three-to-four ounces per portion, with the rest coming from plant-based foods.
The Okinawan study found that its subjects' diets were about 85 percent plant-based, with fish being by far the largest source of animal protein; meat and dairy products make up almost 50 percent of the average American's diet. Still, Okinawans consumed, on average, no fewer calories than Americans. But they ate differently and were more consistently active. (The Okinawan elders also tended to drink less water than Americans, needing less because of the increased fluids consumed naturally through their plant-based diet.)
Eating slowly, which is not the typical approach in the United States, is another change that could produce major results without complicated calorie counts. Tickell cites the Japanese expression "hara hachi bu," which means, eat until you are 80 percent full. It's a worthy goal but impossible to accomplish when food is eaten too fast for your body to recognize that it's full or nearly full. Eating much more slowly, we can give our gut the time to signal that it's full and stop eating, a practice that could go a long way toward eating less and losing weight.
Who Has the Time?
Here in the United States, our desk-based jobs do indeed give us a different daily routine than Okinawans who might have more physically demanding jobs and work at them longer. Still, Tickell says, we have no excuse for not being more active.
"People here say they don't have time to exercise," he says. "I ask, how many hours do you sleep? The average in the U.S. is about seven hours a day. If you sleep seven hours, that means you're awake 17 hours a day, or 34 half-hours. That's 238 half-hours in a week. If you have respect for yourself, your partner, your children and grandchildren, find five or six of those 238 to take your body – the most magnificent machine on earth – for a walk."
We should aim to spend 1 percent of our lives, or 100 minutes a week, in aerobic activity, producing "rhythmic movement of your large body parts," whether through walking, jogging, cycling, dancing or swimming. But as with diet, Tickell says, our tendency for complication too often gets in the way.
"I'm dumbfounded at the amount of science people devote to new forms of exercise that are difficult to do or impossible to get to," he says. "I have a friend who joined a gym — he drives his car to the gym so he can ride an exercise bike there and then he drives back home. I asked him, 'Why not ride your bike to the gym, not go inside and then ride back?'
"Life is simple," Tickell says. "You don't have to be a fanatic to achieve great results and live to 100."