This is the fifth article in our Blue Zone series.
We are here today to talk about Sardinia: the very first Blue Zone ever to be identified.
A population that enjoys nearly ten times more centenarians per capita than the US.
And the home to the world’s longest living men!
Here we will discuss how the Sardinian Blue Zone was first found, discover the real truth about the Mediterranean diet, and share some of the Sardinian secrets to longevity.
Let’s get started.
How the Sardinian Blue Zone Was First Discovered
The Sardinian Blue Zone saga began in 2004 when scientist Gianni Pes decided to prove what he already knew anecdotally—in certain areas of Sardinia, an unusually large number of people lived extremely long lives.
Pes set out to visit all of Sardinia’s municipalities. When he and his team discovered a town that met their longevity criteria, they simply marked it on their map with a blue marker. When they were finished, the Sardinian Blue Zone—an isolated cluster of villages in a mountainous region of the island—had been established.
One of the most interesting facts about Sardinia’s longevity profile is its gender equality—men and women equally live long lives, whereas, in most regions of the world, women are blessed with a natural ‘longevity advantage.’
What Can We Learn From the Sardinians?
Here are some of the simple—but profound—principles by which the Sardinians live their daily lives. They:
- Celebrate Family and Friends: The Sardinians believe nothing is more important than family and friends. They nourish strong, healthy relationships on a daily basis.
- Laugh: Sardinians are famous for their sense of humor. Laughter reduces stress and may even lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Respect the Elderly: The Sardinians celebrate the elderly, believing that the older generation has a crucial role to play by providing love, guidance and wisdom—further proof that feeling loved and appreciated helps people live longer, or at the very least gives people a reason to live longer.
- Take Walks: The unique rocky, sun-beaten terrain of central Sardinia has always made this area unsuitable for large-scale farming but perfect for shepherding, and walking five miles a day or more is quite common for this community of shepherds. Walking provides excellent cardiovascular benefits and is easy on the joints.
- Eat a Mostly Plant-Based Diet: The traditional Sardinian diet is made up of whole-grain bread, garden vegetables, fruits, and beans. As shepherds, they also consume pecorino (goat) cheese. Meat is reserved for Sundays or special occasions.
What the Sardinians Eat: Then and Now
The longevity enjoyed in Sardinia has piqued great interest in their lifestyle—specifically in their diet.
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.
On the bright side, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen over 60 percent and lard consumption has dropped 80 percent.
Health and the Mediterranean Diet
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.
Furthermore, the health benefits of its most celebrated ingredients – i.e. olive oil, red wine, and fish may be—at the very best—overstated.
For starters, fish consumption was virtually non-existent for decades in the Sardinian Blue Zone by virtue of the fact that it is situated in an isolated mountainous region with no access to rivers.
When it comes to olive oil, we have established in our article The Good, Bad and Ugly About Oils the reason why all oils—including olive oil—are detrimental to your health. And in a separate article, we discussed Why You Should Opt out of Olive Oil.
That leaves us with red wine.
There is simply no scientific evidence that red wine consumption has had a positive effect on Sardinian longevity.
In fact, red wine consumption is the same in the Sardinian Blue Zone as other parts of the island where the populations do not enjoy the same longevity.
Many argue that it is red wine’s resveratrol content which explains its health benefits. However, studies show that resveratrol’s antioxidant properties appear to be effective only in vitro.
Equally, as we have discussed previously, you cannot isolate a single nutrient; a food with high resveratrol content (like grapes) is probably also rich in other health-promoting phytonutrients. In other words, it is not just the resveratrol that ‘counts.’
It is true that red wine might protect us somewhat against cardiovascular disease. But this is likely because of the polyphenols in grapes rather than its ethanol (alcohol) content. So just eat the grapes!
On the negative side, however, it is essential to stress that even moderate alcohol consumption appears to increase the risk of several cancers, specifically breast cancer:
- Research has revealed that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of breast cancer by 30-50 percent.
- A recent report published by the American Institute for Cancer Research states that drinking alcohol regularly (just one small glass of wine, beer or cocktail daily) increases the risk for pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer.
- The National Institute of Health (NIH) links alcohol with increased cancer risk.
- In its Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. The more alcohol a person drink, the higher the risk of developing alcohol-associated cancer. Specifically, alcohol consumption has been linked to the following cancers: head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal.
What is true is that drinking wine often goes hand in hand with getting together with loved ones and laughing—both factors which are themselves associated with longevity!
All of this information gives us the answer to our question: what is the Sardinian centenarian secret? It appears that their long lives cannot be explained by a consumption of olive oil, fish, and red wine.
The ‘secret’ stems much more from their ‘frugal’ traditional diet, a healthy, active lifestyle, and a positive approach to growing old.
The outlook, habits and traditional diet of the Sardinians are well worth exploring…no matter where you live in the world.