On the island of Sardinia, Italy you will find areas that have nearly 10 times more centenarians per capita than the U.S. It’s also home to the world’s longest-living men. Its inhabitants carry a rare genetic quirk – a M26 marker linked to exceptional longevity. Due to geographic isolation, the genes of the residents in this area of Sardinia have remained mostly undiluted. But even more importantly, residents of this area are also culturally isolated, and they have kept to a very traditional, healthy lifestyle that anyone can adopt. Genes aren’t everything and even if we don’t carry the M26 marker ourselves, we can learn from the Sardinians and live longer, healthier lives.
Eat a lean, plant-based diet.
Diet is everything. The classic Sardinian diet consists of whole-grains (mostly barley), dairy (grass-fed sheep and goat’s milk, not cow’s milk), beans, garden vegetables, fruits, and, in some parts of the island, mastic oil. Meat is largely reserved for Sundays and special occasions. It only accounts for 5% of their total diet, unlike the 26% found in American diets. Sardinians drink wine moderately. Cannonau wine, their wine of choice, has two or three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids as other wines.
You’ll notice from the graphic below that whole foods make up the majority of the Sardinian diet, with added sugar only accounting for 3% and added fats 2%. This means Sardinians aren’t consuming processed foods or slathering oil over everything – not even olive oil. In America, our diets are 62% processed foods and only 12% the whole foods that make up most of the Sardinian diet by comparison. Is it any surprise the Sardinians are healthier while we suffer massive diet-related illnesses and premature death?
What the Sardinians Eat: Then and Now
As UC Davis Integrative Medicine notes, to put the discussion of the Sardinian diet in context, we need to understand a crucial fact: the traditional Sardinian diet—the one that today’s centenarians ate for the bulk of their lives—bears little resemblance to the much-touted Mediterranean diet of today.
The Sardinian’s diet began to change in the early 1950s for most of Sardinia. However, that changed occurred at least a decade later in the mountainous regions (i.e. the Sardinia Blue Zone).
For the first 30-40 years of their lives (and perhaps even longer, since the transition was likely slow and progressive), the Sardinian centenarians of today were eating a traditional diet much different to what is now commonly known as the Mediterranean diet.
The traditional Sardinian diet contained:
- Cereals, Legumes, and Potatoes: Consisting mainly of self-produced food, the Sardinian traditional diet was based on cereals (wheat, barley and, more rarely, corn), legumes and potatoes.
- Sourdough Bread and Vegetable Soup: It was complemented by sourdough-leavened bread and vegetable soup made from fresh vegetables (onions, fennel, carrots, celery) and pulses (beans, fava beans, peas).
- Native Herbs: These were integrated into the daily diet.
- Nuts: Chestnuts and walnuts were consumed in the villages and made up a lot of the calorie content of the diet, particularly in the winter months.
- Small Amounts of Fruit: Fresh fruit was consumed in modest amounts. Seasonal fruits (figs, grapes) were often dried so they could be eaten throughout the year.
- Very Little Meat: From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, meat consumption rarely exceeded 2-4 servings per month and was mostly sheep, pork or poultry.
- Some Dairy Products (Cheese): Dairy products mainly came in the form of mature goat or sheep cheese.
- No Fish: The consumption of fish in the traditional diet was surprisingly low, particularly in the inland areas of Sardinia. Fish consumption was limited to the villages along the rivers, not the mountainous region where the Blue Zone is located.
- Little Wine: Before the 1950s, wine consumption in Sardinia was quite below the Italian average.
- Low in Calories: The traditional diet was ‘remarkably frugal;’ daily food intake was moderate, and they did not overeat.
However, the modern day Sardinian diet is:
- Much Higher in Calories: The ‘frugal’ Sardinian diet has been abandoned for a diet much richer in calories. The traditional low-calorie vegetable soup which was once the mainstay has been replaced with higher-calorie foods like meat and white bread and pasta.
- More Olive Oil: Olive oil consumption has increased 56 percent.
- More Meat and Fish: Beef consumption has increased 55 percent while fish consumption has risen 50 percent. This is significant because a diet higher in animal protein and fat is associated with an increased risk of chronic disease and overall mortality risk.
- Less Potatoes and Pulses: Potato consumption has fallen 45 percent, and pulses are eaten 42 percent less.
When you look at the Sardinian diet in this historical context, you can see that the traditional diet has little in common with the popular Mediterranean diet of today. Today’s younger Sardinians aren’t eating as healthy as their older mountainous citizens and as the diets change across this culturally isolated Blue Zone, expect the zone to loose its title.
If you want to reap the rewards of longevity, follow the older diet, not the newer one.
Build Strong Social Connections.
Sardinians also focus on social connectedness. Sardinia’s strong family values help assure that every member of the family is cared for. People who live in strong, healthy families suffer lower rates of depression, suicide, and stress. Sardinians also celebrate their elders. Grandparents can provide love, childcare, financial help, wisdom, and expectations/motivation to perpetuate traditions and push children to succeed in their lives. This may all add up to a healthier, better adjusted, and longer-lived children as well as an active and engaged elderly population with a strong sense of meaning and purpose. It may give the overall population a life expectancy bump.
Sardinians also value their friendships. Men in this region are famous for their sardonic sense of humor. They gather in the street each afternoon to laugh with and at each other. Laughter reduces stress, which can lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
Take a walk.
Sardinians are active people. Their centenarians were not couch potatoes throughout their lives. Walking five miles a day or more as Sardinian shepherds do provides all the cardiovascular benefits you might expect, and also has a positive effect on muscle and bone metabolism without the joint-pounding of running marathons or triathlons.
A Holy Trinity
The secret to the outrageous numbers of centenarians in Sardinia might be based in their genes but the expression of their genes no doubt has much to do with the underlying lifestyle supporting them. Consider their holy trinity: Sardinians eat a whole foods based diet, have strong social connections and are active, not sedentary.
These three lifestyle factors overwhelmingly influence how long and healthily we will live. Take them to heart and learn the art of living well from the centenarians of Sardinia. Set up your lifestyle and environment like a Sardinian centenarian to live a longer, healthier life. Following these practices will promote habits that can keep you going to 100+.
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