Updated: Feb 17, 2019
Two winters ago my 97-year-old grandma, Kona, fought off one of hospitals’ deadliest “nightmare bacteria”. It is virtually untreatable and capable of spreading genes that make them impervious to most antibiotics. Two of my friends’ mothers, who were much younger than my grandma, died from it recently. Just in the US alone, about 23,000 people die each year from it according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may wonder how she was able to fight it off given her advanced age. And not only once, but three times! Knowing her and her lifestyle habits, I was not surprised.
She lives in a remote village in Montenegro, a small country the size of Connecticut, that is located in South-East Europe. Montenegro is only 200 miles north of Bari, Italy, separated by the Adriatic sea. Some people call it a mini New Zealand. Its name, “Black Mountains,” is well suited since the terrain is covered in tall mountains.
For many centuries, Montenegro’s strategic location, with access to the sea, and only one day away to any part of Europe, Asia, and Africa, has made it a desirable place to conquer by many neighboring empires such as Roman, Greek, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian. The influence of these cultures is embedded in the modern lives of Montenegrins. However, the strongest dietary influence on the younger generations comes from Western culture. Quickly, the eating mindset is shifting toward a fast-food mentality.
In Western cultures like the US, the average adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, 1.5 pounds of fat a week, and a little less than a gallon of soda each week. Compared to our grandparents, we burn five times fewer calories in a day. That’s just from daily activities and excludes exercise. I remember watching how much effort my grandma put into preparing a chicken for dinner when I was a kid. She would walk to the coop, chase a chicken around for ten minutes, catch it, break its neck, get an ax and cut its head off. The decapitated chicken would then slip through her fingers and flop around to my dismay.
Then my grandma would gather wood and start a fire. Then, she would fetch water from a well and carry an extremely heavy water-filled pot. Then she would hang it over a fire pit, wait for the water to boil, then submerge the chicken into the steaming hot water until the feathers would soften. After patiently plucking all of the feathers, she would then wash, clean, and cut the chicken, carefully removing its gallbladder and other internal organs. Finally, she would cut the chicken into pieces and set it aside just in time to start preparing the dinner.
I’m breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it! Our grandparents simply didn’t need any extra workouts in addition to their active daily lives due to environmental hardships and scarcity of food. We, on the other hand, live in relative abundance and ease. We can get our prepackaged meals instantly, sometimes in seconds. With the new era of technological advances and smartphones, most of our manual labor is now automated. We spend more and more time behind our computers, hiding in our cubicles, and otherwise living very sedentary lives.
To this day, my grandma does not adhere to these modern changes. Her daily habits have not been changed since her youth. These habits have kept her healthy, physically strong, emotionally resilient, and mentally sharp for almost a century! Her personal habits very closely resemble those common habits of the longest living men and women on the planet who reside in the so-called Blue Zones. The Blue Zones were so-named after a team of researchers circled a target region on a map with blue ink. These five famous regions--Lomo Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan--have a high concentration of 100-year-olds, and clusters of people who have grown old with virtually no chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity or diabetes. There is a treasure trove of health information that we can learn from these amazing people and their cultures.
The problem we face today is that, whether we like it or not, we are bombarded by a barrage readily available processed sugary and salty foods and drinks. Lacking the self-control to say no, especially when our guard is down and we feel stressed, we use junk food as a coping mechanism, packing empty calories and adding inches to our waistlines.
It takes the reality check of a health scare, a serious illness, or sometimes an embarrassing moment to get us to seek a solution. This usually takes the form of diet and exercise. The problem with diets is that it takes long-term discipline and commitment to sustain them. Research says that only 5 in 100 people that go on a diet will maintain it 2 years from the time they started it.
I personally don’t believe in temporary diets and don’t recommend them. For years I watched my husband’s and my family members bounce from one diet to another, initially losing weight only to gain it all back and sometimes more. Why is that? In my opinion, they never changed their habits. So the first chance they reached their desired weight loss goal, they went back to their previous patterns, especially during bouts of stress.
I believe in positive habit formation. It’s simply this: if you can’t sustain a habit over a lifetime, I don’t suggest it in the first place. For example, my husband went on a diet that was strictly protein shakes and specialty packaged foods. For months I watched him mix, stir, and shake these powders. He would only eat small packaged dehydrated food that resembled something made for an astronaut. Over several months he lost 20 lbs. At some point, he thought he was fine and went back to eating regular foods. Never having truly changed his eating habits, he went back to his previous patterns and gained all 20 lbs back! Then he packed on more soon after. My husband’s story isn’t unique, as multitudes of men and women are dealing with the same yo-yo dieting conundrum.
This is why I don’t even like to talk about diets, rather I like to talk about creating new positive habits in your life that will help you live the way you’ve always wanted. Imagine a life that is both healthy and purpose-driven, one filled with strength and vitality.
So, why reinvent the wheel? We can learn so many valuable lessons and positive habits from the people who already know how to lead long and fulfilled lives. Let's begin with the most common 9 habits and see if we can implement one at a time during this program.
10 Common Habits of People in The Blue Zones
Community and Service
Wine @ 5