Travel memoirs-turned-movies have a lot to answer for. We all want to snap up a shambling Italian villa, Under the Tuscan Sun-style. We’d like to eat, pray and love our way through country after country. Is it possible to get a taste of that terrace- and sunlight-filled life without turning our lives upside down?
We may not be able to hop on a plane tomorrow, but we can take longevity secrets from countries around the world and transplant them to our lives at home. By doing this, we not only add a little foreign flair to our everyday; we may also add more days to our lives.
From Greece to India, Spain to France, people have long been incorporating healthy choices into their daily routines. Those bikes with big baskets, bunches of drying herbs and tree-shaded hammocks are more than Instagram-worthy: they could also help us live longer.
Greece: Make healthy fats a dietary staple.
Think of the Mediterranean, and picturesque olive groves come to mind. In fact, olive oil and fish are part of the Mediterranean diet’s healthy fat profile. Compared to the typical American diet, the Mediterranean diet is generally higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, lower in saturated fat and richer in omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists believe these healthy fats help reduce inflammation and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and also decrease other age-associated diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
In an American study of more than 4,600 participants, the more closely subjects’ eating patterns matched the Mediterranean diet, the longer their telomeres measured, a biomarker for positive aging.
Do as the Greeks do: Use moderate amounts of extra-virgin olive oil in your cooking, and snack on a handful of nuts like almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts daily. If you don’t eat omega-3-rich fish, take an omega-3 supplement.
India: Replace salt with herbs and spices.
For 3,000 years, herbs and spices have been part of Indian culture for their flavor and medicinal properties. Among the most commonly used are cumin, coriander, brown mustard, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, spicy red chili pepper and curry, which is a blend of spices.
Replacing salt with herbs and spices has two benefits. One, decreased salt intake may lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Two, as scientists study herbs and spices, they’re isolating compounds that have antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. These may provide protective benefits against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and neurological conditions.
Befriend Indian herbs and spices: Experiment with new-to-you seasonings, and eat less processed food, which is often high in salt.
Poland: Eat more meals at home.
In Poland, the number one reason people say they eat at home is to maintain health. Their home-cooked meals use basic ingredients like fruits, vegetables and grains. Home cooking can help cut calories while increasing nutrition. Numerous studies have shown home-cooked meals tend to be healthier than restaurant or takeout meals with fewer carbohydrates, less sugar and less fat.
What may be surprising is that people who regularly cook at home consume fewer calories when they do eat out, possibly because they’re used to normal-sized meals, rather than oversized restaurant portions.
Do Polish meal prep: Choose recipes that emphasize whole, unprocessed ingredients. Make larger batches for leftovers or to freeze for later. Get your kids involved. They’ll eat better, setting them up for a healthier life.
Spain: Take a siesta.
Ah Spain, with its midday siesta to help deal with the heat. Naps do more than cool us off. They may save our lives. A study of more than 23,000 healthy adults found that those who napped occasionally were 12 percent less likely to die from heart disease. Those who napped regularly had a 37 percent lower risk of coronary mortality.
Naps are also important to combat sleep deprivation, which is linked to the development of chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and depression, as well as obesity. A recent small study suggested naps relieve stress and bolster the immune system by reversing the hormonal impact of a poor night’s sleep.
Sleep like the Spanish: If your schedule permits, nap regularly between 1 pm and 3 pm. Napping later than that can interfere with nighttime sleep. Darken the room or wear an eye mask, but set an alarm to avoid sleeping longer than 30 minutes.
Japan: Stop eating before you’re full.
For the Japanese, hara hachi bunme or hara hachi bu, eating until they’re 80 percent full, is a traditional dietary control that achieves good health and longevity.
Current research backs them up. Clinical trials of food restriction in healthy adults have shown significant health benefits—reductions in body weight, blood cholesterol and blood pressure—that decrease the chance of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Researchers have found that a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet may help to delay age-related diseases and slow the aging process itself.
Say sayonara to feeling overfull: Pay attention to body cues for hunger and satiety. Eat slowly—it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to register fullness. And eat small portions regularly to avoid getting too hungry and overeating.
France: Indulge in a treat and savor it.
The “French paradox” refers to the fact that the French eat high-fat cuisine, yet have lower rates of obesity and heart disease than people in other Western countries. In a comparison of portion sizes in restaurants, cookbooks and supermarkets, researchers discovered French portions were usually dramatically smaller than North American ones.
So yes, the French enjoy treats and a rich cuisine, but in moderation, while generally consuming a healthier and more varied diet of fewer calories overall than North Americans consume.
Embrace French eating tactics: Eat small portions of rich foods when you want to indulge, as part of an overall healthy diet. Savor the smell, texture and taste of food, and you might be satisfied with less.
Netherlands: Ditch the car for a bike.
Our modern, urban lifestyle has made it hard to be active every day. By incorporating cycling as a form of active travel, people in the Netherlands have done just that. In addition to providing daily exercise, cycling gets cars off the road. This leads to reduced air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents—a win for cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
An English study found that cycling for at least 60 minutes a week in total was associated with a 9 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.
Go Dutch: Buy, rent or borrow a bike. Some cities now feature bike sharing. If you can’t cycle to work or school, cycle around the neighborhood when running errands.