You’ve heard of disease “hot spots,” but did you know that there are also “cold spots” where rates of chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, depression, and cancer are very low? Making their exceptional good health particularly amazing, people who live in disease “cold spots” often have genetic or environmental factors that should put them at higher—not lower—risk for these illnesses.
Studies of places around the world where chronic diseases are rare reveal some surprisingly simple habits that can help you live an unusually long, healthy life. Here’s a look at some intriguing discoveries about the world’s healthiest people, made by integrative medicine physician Daphne Miller, MD, author of “The Jungle Effect.”
Although rates of type 2 diabetes are soaring at an alarming rate in Mexico—and the U.S.—this lifestyle-related disease is almost unknown among the more than 50,000 Tarahumara Indians who live in Copper Canyon. Yet the Tarahumara Indians are close genetic relatives of the Pima Indians of the US, who have the highest rates of type 2 in the world.
Surprisingly, the Tarahumara Indians eat a high-carb diet, but it’s based on unrefined carbs, such as hand-ground tortillas, beans, and corn. Dr. Miller reports that this combination of foods appears to lower the glycemic index of the carbs, while herbs and spices in the tribe’s diet—including cinnamon, cloves, parsley, garlic, and mustard greens—also have beneficial effects on blood sugar. In addition, the Tarahumara lead a traditional lifestyle, which includes plenty of exercise, also helping explain their resistance to diabetes, despite genes that predispose them to develop it.
In the West African village of Ntui, both colon cancer and other bowel disorders are rare. One key reason is that the villagers’ diet is high in fiber and low in meat, the most protective eating plan. A recent study by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research reported that if we ate more fiber—and less red meat—more than 64,000 cases of cancer cases would be prevented each year.
As I recently reported, a study of more than 400,000 people linked a high-fiber diet to longer life, as well as reduced risk for fatal cardiovascular disease, infections, and respiratory disorders. The researchers found that fiber from whole grains, such as barley, buckwheat, oats, whole wheat, quinoa, rye, brown or wild rice, and amaranth, was the most beneficial.
West African villagers, like Icelanders, also eat fermented foods, which provide “good” bacteria (probiotics) that improve bowel health and improve immune system functioning. Fermented foods in the African diet include relishes, pickled foods, fermented corn and millet, and yogurt.
Despite long hours of darkness for much of the year—thought to be a contributing factor to high rates of depression in some Nordic countries—people in Iceland reportedly have the world’s lowest rate of depression. Among the factors that protect them is a diet that’s extremely high in omege-3 fatty acids.
Icelanders eat large amounts of fish (one of the best sources of Omega-3), along with lamb that grazes on moss rich in Omega-3, wild game, such as birds that feed on fish. One of the largest randomized clinical studies of Omega-3 supplements ever conducted reported that they are effective at improving symptoms of major depression in people who do not have anxiety disorders, compared to a placebo.
Some of the more unusual foods of Iceland include:
A landmark 40-year study launched in 1958 found that of the seven European countries studied, men who enjoyed the best bealth and longevity lived in 11 villages in the island of Crete, which is the birthplace of the heart-protective Mediterranean diet.
But which foods make this diet so beneficial? Extra virgin olive oil contains powerful antioxidants that combat free radical damage, while Omega-3 rich seafood has an anti-clotting effect. Most people don’t realize that blood clots (not just blockages in the arteries) are the cause of heart attacks.
Cretans also eat rusks—a type of high-fiber stone-ground bread, often dipped in wine or olive oil and vinegar—wild greens packed with micronutrients, legumes, and for dessert, yogurt drizzled with honey. Dr. Miller believes that it’s the combination of all of these healthy foods, and very limited amounts of red meat, that explain why the Mediterranean diet is so good for the heart.
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