"The point is, nutrient density, not calories, in food, is key. "
For years scientists have been trekking the globe in search of communities of people rumored to live unusually long and healthy lives, trying to pinpoint their age-defying secrets. In the last few decades, they’ve come up with a handful of promising candidates. For example, research suggests that olive oil (see below) has helped the Greeks beat heart disease. For native Inuits of Alaska, diets containing extraordinary amounts of fish provide cardiovascular protection. The secret of longevity on the San Blas islands, off the coast of Panama, may be the most unexpected—and welcome—of all: chocolate, which happily turns out to be a rich source of compounds that help keep blood vessels healthy.
But some of the most compelling findings on longevity and diet comes from the islands of Okinawa in southern Japan. People here are five times as likely to live to 100 than people in the United States or other industrialized countries. (In Okinawa there are about 50 centenarians per 100,000 people versus 10 in 100,000 in the U.S. and most other developed countries.)
When I contacted Bradley Willcox, M.D., co-principal investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, to ask what accounts for the Okinawans’ longevity, his answer startled me. “Sweet potatoes,” he wrote back. It turns out that sweet potatoes are a staple in the Okinawan diet, along with bitter melon (a tropical fruit often used in stir-fries) and sanpin tea (a blend of green tea and jasmine flowers). All three foods are exceptionally rich in antioxidants, which may help protect against cellular wear and tear from unstable oxygen molecules generated by our body’s biochemical processes. Although researchers still aren’t exactly sure why we age, one theory is that oxygen radicals keep chipping away at healthy cells, damaging and ultimately destroying them. The antioxidant theory may help explain why another group recognized for exceptional longevity—the Seventh-Day Adventists—typically outlive their neighbors by four to seven years. Their religious denomination, founded in the U.S. in the 1840s, emphasizes healthy living and a vegetarian diet starring vegetables, fruit, whole grains and nuts—all foods packed with antioxidants.