NH21 Weekly this week pays its respects to Emma Morano, who died last week at the age of 117.

Emma was born on 29 November 1899 in the Piedmont region of Italy. She was officially the last person born in the 1800s still living.

As a natural health practitioner specialising in diet, nutrition and lifestyle practices that promote health and wellbeing, NH21 is regularly asked exactly what constitutes a healthy diet, and to what extent that can affect overall health.

Health is a multifaceted combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that fall into three distinct categories:

  • Modifiable: within the capacity of individuals to effect i.e. diet and exercise.
  • Non modifiable: beyond the capacity of individuals to effect i.e. genetics, heredity and physical trauma/injury.
  • Partially modifiable: somewhere in-between i.e. environmental pollutants and municipal water supply.

Perfect health is beyond most people due to non-modifiable factors that cannot be controlled. Humans are born genetically predisposed to certain conditions, and inherit much of their parent’s physical, mental and emotional profile; knitted into the fabric of their DNA at conception and further influenced during the formative childhood years.

Partially modifiable factors are equally challenging. People may, for example, be aware of environmental pollutants yet cannot leave for greener pastures due to myriad personal and professional commitments. Even if a person does wish to relocate, much of the modern world is polluted and the global food chain makes avoiding chemical contaminants virtually impossible.

Logic then, determines that one might address the modifiable factors that fall within the realms of individual control. Diet and lifestyle rank highly here, and, although they cannot guarantee an absence of disease, can go a long way towards preventing the onset of many different kinds, as well as managing the symptoms of those that do present.

BLUE ZONES

The idea of Blue Zones is used to identify areas of the world where people live measurably longer lives. The concept began in 2004 with a report entitled “Identification of a Geographic Area Characterized by Extreme Longevity” by Gianni Pes (PhD Nutrition & Dietetics) and Michel Poulain (PhD Demography), who originally found Sardinia’s Nuoro province to have the highest concentration of centenarians. As the two researchers zeroed in on the cluster of villages with record longevity, they drew concentric blue circles on the map and began referring to the areas inside each circle as the Blue Zones.

Their work was followed in 2005 with a National Geographic cover story by Dan Buettner entitled “Secrets of Long Life” which led to further research and the 2008 release of the book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest”.

The Blue Zones identified longevity hotspots in Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), and among the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. These places produce a high rate of centenarians and suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly affect people in other parts of the developed world; with statistically lower rates of cancer and heart disease, and almost no dementia.

Although there are several theories explaining the health and longevity of communities from these regions, a significant feature relates directly to their traditional eating habits and lifestyle practices.

The following characteristics were noted in the lifestyle of Blue Zones populations:

  • Regular physical activity.
  • Life purpose.
  • Stress reduction.
  • Moderate calorie intake.
  • Plant-based diet.
  • Legumes commonly consumed.
  • Moderate alcohol intake.
  • Engagement in spirituality or religion.
  • Engagement in family and social life.

MEDITERRANEAN DIET

The Mediterranean Diet is a nutritional template inspired by the dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain. There is evidence that, similar to Blue Zone statistics, regular adhesion to this diet lowers all-cause mortality and the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and several chronic diseases.

Mediterranean’s consume an enormous quantity and variety of fruit, vegetables and raw salads; which are rich in protective antioxidants. Also, unlike northern Europe, Britain and the USA; their diet has been less influenced by modern food technologies, meaning they eat far fewer processed foods, and considerably smaller quantities of red meat.

The principles of the Mediterranean approach to eating resonate strongly with many people because they are grounded in social eating, conviviality, and respecting traditional and localized culinary activities. Sweets, wine and frivolity top the food pyramid of a system designed to maximize the pleasures of eating and of being alive.

OMNIVORE

The word omnivore derives from the Latin ‘omnis’ (all) and ‘vora’ (to devour); used to describe animals that have the capacity to obtain chemical energy and nutrients from foods of both plant and animal origin.

This is a notable distinction from herbivores (plant eaters) such as horse and sheep, who cannot digest animal tissue; and carnivores (meat eaters) such as lions, who obtain energy and nutrients exclusively from a diet of animal tissue. Omnivores often have the ability to incorporate algae, fungi and bacteria into their diet as well.

Various mammals are omnivorous, such as pigs, bears, hedgehogs, skunks, sloths, squirrels, mice, and rats. Hominidae (‘great apes’) including humans and chimpanzees, are also omnivores. Being omnivores gives animals more food security in stressful times, and makes it possible to survive in variable and inhospitable environments.

Omnivores can be placed into further categories depending on their feeding behaviors. Frugivores, such as orangutans, eat mostly fruit; insectivores e.g. birds, eat insects.

Humans are sometimes classified granivores due to the average human diet consisting of grains; rice, maize and wheat comprise roughly two-thirds of human food consumption worldwide. This classification however, is fraught with controversy as to whether humans are physiologically required to eat grains, or simply behaviourally inclined.

Nonetheless, humans require a broad range of foods from a variety of different sources. Multiple factors affect this; not least modern socio-economic dynamics including the availability and affordability of food. Also, despite our common genus (homo sapien), humans have many unique wants and needs; making dietary advice virtually impossible to mass prescribe, despite an apparent need for just such guidance.

Unfortunately, many humans have taken their position as ‘all-devourer’ too literally, and commenced with the intriguing behaviour of eating non-foods. Modern food production is awash with synthetic ingredients and chemical additives that interfere with biochemistry at a cellular level and are increasingly linked to a host of chronic health conditions.

The foods we eat have changed more during the past 100 years than in the previous 10,000; much of which has not been for the better.

During this period, the food manufacture and supply system has shifted away from fresh, seasonal ingredients; to the highly processed, synthetically manufactured pseudo-foods that fill the shelves of modern supermarkets. 

Convenience foods and ready-made meals have undergone several steps of nutrient depletion in their manufacture, transportation and storage; meaning that the nutrient quantity when put on the table is far less than it would have been if prepared from raw materials in the home.

Humans as a species have come a long way from their historical diet of diverse and unrefined foods. The modern transition to highly processed ‘empty’ foods (i.e. calorie rich but nutrient poor), in conjunction with a more sedentary, less active lifestyle, is a major contributor to the change in disease patterns seen in society today, and the absurd irony that the number of people malnourished globally are now evenly matched by the obese. Statistically, individuals in the range of ‘healthy weight’ are now the minority.

Our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days are long past, and we are no longer required to labour on farms to produce the food we need to survive. Today we have access to an abundance of food choices year-round and, for the first time in human history, face uncertainty as to what best works for our highly evolved digestive systems.

The key is to manage and gratify the appetite whilst determining how, when and what to reduce. Learning that less can be more, and how to eat everything in moderation is crucial. To understand what works best for each individual requires that we cultivate our innate intuition; a process supported not by dietary prescriptions so much as templates.

Individually tailored eating plans must be based on a combination of sound nutritional principles and personal discernment of the physical, mental and emotional feeling of the food in the belly. In doing so, no food need be off-limits, yet no food can have an emotional hold over us either.

As author Mireille Guiliano eloquently words it, in her 2005 publication French Women Don’t Get Fat;

“There are three types of weight. There’s the ‘ideal’ body weight that shows up on insurance company charts based on little but height; there’s ‘fashion weight’, an ideal much less natural in which commerce plays a big, insidious part; and then there’s ‘wellbeing weight’, the one where an individual feels comfortable in their own skin. This is the weight at which you can say – I feel good and I look good.”

Nutrition can be a controversial subject. Many people who become interested in nutrition find themselves prey to two silent fears; fear of eating and fear of not eating. Yet by focusing predominantly on plants, with the addition of high quality whole foods from all the major groups, one cannot go too far off course; and may well notice sooner if you do.

Re-learning to cook simple meals at home, so as to see exactly what is being put into the body, can be a valuable first step towards regaining health and discerning the types of foods that serve each person best.

Emma Morano attributed her longevity to genetics: her mother reached 91 and several sisters reached their centenary; but also her diet of three eggs – two raw – each day for more than 90 years.

It is said that whilst “genetics are the gun; lifestyle is the trigger.”

It is common for people to blame their genes for health woes; and genes undoubtedly are a factor. Yet so too are dietary and lifestyle practices, which, as Emma personified, can go a long way towards offsetting any genetic potential for ill-health, and encouraging a long, disease-free life.

Ms Emma Morano, unwitting health pioneer, NH21 salutes you.