Bolivian indigenous farmer Carmelo Flores made global headlines this week as “the oldest person to have ever lived.” Though that claim has yet to be verified, part of Mr. Flores’ story is that he attributes his longevity to a traditional Andean diet of quinoa, riverside mushrooms, and coca leaves. Not surprisingly, this has led to hyperbolic headlines, such as Australia’s Daily Telegraph‘s “Quinoa, Mushrooms, and Coca Kept Me Alive for 123 Years.”
This news story reminded me of previous instances where one particular indigenous diet was billed as holding the illusive key to longevity. Not surprisingly, every dietary “tribe” has its own example that it can point to as “evidence” that the eating patterns they espouse are, indeed, the best. The low-carb camp, for instance, often references the Inuit and their high-fat diet. Those who prefer a “Mediterrasian” diet point to the Okinawans; others consider the Maasai tribe as nutrition all-stars.
Usually, these groups health is attributed to one or two particular food items unique to their culture (i.e., whale blubber, seaweed, and goat’s blood, respectively).
The narrative goes like this: A group of people in the world (usually a small indigenous tribe, for maximum effect) eats “food X” on a regular basis and enjoy long, healthful lives, ergo, this one food will help you live until you’re 90, with fabulous skin to boot.
The problem with this framework is that a very important detail–perhaps the most important detail–often goes unspoken. While these healthful groups of people may appear to have widely different diets (some are high-fat and low-carbohydrate, others are high-carbohydrate and low-fat), there is one common thread: Their intake of processed foods, added sugars, trans fats, and artificial ingredients is minimal, if they eat them at all.
The notion that simply eating wild salmon, goji berries, or miso is the key to health is reductionist and silly if one’s diet is otherwise largely composed of highly processed and refined foods .
Rather than trying to pinpoint which “superfood” holds the key to longevity, we should aim to foster a more healthful food environment. If longevity and health is what we seek (rather than merely six-pack abs or a miniscule waist), we need to also look at socio-political factors like the food industry lobbying, Big Food predatory marketing, and misguided agricultural subsidies that affect our food system.
Additionally, let’s not let the romanticizing of the exotic allow us to forget the basic tenets of healthful eating:
1. Eat more whole fruits and vegetables. An obvious one, yes, but undoubtedly something everyone can benefit from. Vitamins, minerals, and fiber aside, each fruit and vegetable provides its own unique blend of health-promoting phytonutrients. Don’t forget about sea vegetables, which are criminally underrated and underrepresented in mainstream nutrition circles.
2. Eat fermented foods. A consistent intake of fermented foods helps maintain a thriving gut flora community in our digestive tract. Although yogurt is the first thing that comes to mind, many foods and beverages fit the bill: Sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir (dairy or vegan), rejuvelac (a sprouted grain beverage), kombucha, and miso. These foods must be consumed in a raw state (or, if pasteurized, must have cultures added in after pasteurization).
3. Eat unprocessed fats. When it comes to fats, it’s best to consume them in an unprocessed form. This means getting them mostly from whole foods, rather than oils. In the case of oils, though, cold-pressed, unfiltered choices are best. A great rule of thumb for : Choose oils that come from foods naturally high in fat (i.e., olive, coconut, flax, hemp) and avoid those from low-fat foods (i.e., soybean, cottonseed, corn). Also avoid oils with modifiers like interesterified, hydrogenated, modified, partially hydrogenated, or refined, which are merely code for “bad for your arteries.”
4. Eat enough fiber and get it from real food. What’s “enough”? 25 – 35 grams a day. Food companies know consumers are looking to get more of it and have resorted to the cheap trick of adding isolated fibers to many non whole-grain products. Whole grains offer many more advantages besides fiber, so choose them over fiber-enhanced processed foods, even if they offer fewer fiber grams per serving. And, of course, get fiber from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.
5. Limit processed foods. Artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, and many chemical preservatives all come with their share of legitimate concerns. Artificial sweeteners don’t appear to trigger “food reward pathways” in the brain, while artificial food dyes were described as “a rainbow of risks” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Above all, highly-processed foods tend to be vessels for high amounts of sugar made with nutritionally inferior oils.
I can’t promise you these guidelines will enable you to celebrate your 123rd birthday, but I would bet your health and quality of life will vastly improve.
A version of this post appeared on the Huffington Post.