What we have learned is that these healthy folks eat plenty of animal foods and animal fats, especially lard. They eat organ meats and their dairy foods are raw. And by and large, they avoid modern processed junk food.
Now we turn our attention to a very different blue zone, Loma Linda, home of the largest concentration of Seventh Day Adventists in the world. The religion is strongly against smoking, alcohol and eating “unclean” foods like pork. So although the Seventh Day Adventists also live in a place that ends with the letter A, they are definitely not eating lard.
Their religion also discourages—but does not prohibit–consumption of meat, rich foods, caffeinated drinks and even stimulating condiments and spices.
In his chapter on Loma Linda, Blue Zone author Dan Buettner interviews an energetic vegetarian centenarian named Marge; a Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, age ninety, who pioneered open heart procedures and is still helping out with surgeries; and a family that is bringing their children up as vegetarians on lots of nuts and soy foods.
Dr. Wareham became a vegan in middle age because he says he found nice smooth arteries in vegetarians (yet they still needed heart surgery). He must not be familiar with the International Atherosclerosis Project, which found that vegetarians had just as much atherosclerosis as meat eaters. He uses soy milk and egg substitutes and eats lots of nuts. He’s a lucky man: he has a colleague who is “just as careful” with his diet but has had cancer of prostate and the neck and two heart attacks.
The Californian Adventists have been the subject of two long studies, according to which “as a group the Adventists currently lead the nation in longest life expectancy.” According to the study, Adventists contracted lung cancer at a rate of only 21 percent compared to a control group (which contained some smokers), and had a lower incidence of other cancers, as well as less heart disease and diabetes.
Buettner concludes that vegetarians live longer because they eat lots of nuts (he visits a health food store that has bins of nuts from floor to ceiling), avoid meat (which causes heart diseases because it contains a lot of saturated fat), and drink lots of water. We “know with certainty [that] consuming fruits and vegetables and whole grains seems to be protective for a wide variety of cancers.” Being a vegetarian or eating a lot of nuts will get you about two years of life, he claims.
However, as in the other chapters of Blue Zones, we don’t learn much about the details of the Adventist diets. Buettner does mention that only about 4 percent of Adventists are strictly vegan and these individuals are 30-32 pounds lighter than non-vegetarian Adventists of the same height—does that mean they are frail?
Many of the Adventist oldsters grew up on farms, and at least in the past, they consumed raw milk—in fact, it was the advocacy of Adventists during the 1960s and 1970s that ensured you could purchase raw milk in stores in California. Are they still consuming raw milk, eating cheese and butter, and eating eggs? We never find out.
And the Adventists are certainly not disease-free. According to one doctor that Buettner interviews: “Some Adventists get personally offended if they get colon cancer or some other disease. They have a reputation for avoiding these things now, of course, but it begs the question, what do you expect to die of? And when we looked, we found that, by and large, the proportions of deaths from different causes in Adventists are about the same as everybody else. It is just that they die later.” Does this have anything to do with the fact that they don’t drink or smoke or consume caffeine? Or with the fact that some of them avoid meat?
The bottom line of the Adventist studies: on average Adventist men live 7.3 years longer and Adventist women live 4.4 years longer than other Californians. Remember that only 4 percent of those Adventists are vegans; and Adventists as a group are being compared with the entire California population, which includes many who smoke, drink alcohol, take drugs, drink coffee and eat junk food. Adventists in California as a whole are highly educated and prosperous white people, a group with better longevity than uneducated, poor, nonwhite people.
And contradictions abound. For example, while the first Adventist Health Study showed reduced all-cause mortality and increased longevity for Adventists, the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition–Oxford (EPIC-Oxford) cohort study did not show an all-cause mortality advantage for British vegetarians.
Dr. Russell Smith, a statistician, analyzed the existing studies on vegetarianism and discovered that while there have been ample investigations which show, quite unsurprisingly, that vegetarian diets significantly decrease blood cholesterol levels, few studies have evaluated the effects of vegetarian diets on mortality. In a review of some three thousand articles in the scientific literature, Smith found only two that compared mortality data for vegetarians and nonvegetarians.
One was a 1978 study of Seventh Day Adventists. By ignoring a large portion of the data and through statistical manipulation, researchers computed “odds ratios” which showed that mortality increased as meat or poultry consumption increased (but not for cheese, eggs, milk or fat attached to meat.) But when Smith analyzed total mortality rates from the study as a function of the frequencies of consuming cheese, meat, milk, eggs and fat attached to meat, he found that the total death rate decreased as the frequencies of consuming cheese, eggs, meat and milk increased.
The second study was published by Burr and Sweetnam in 1982. It showed that the annual death rate from heart disease among vegetarians was only 0.01 percent lower than that of nonvegetarians, yet the authors described that difference as “substantial.” The difference in all-cause death rate was in the opposite direction, namely higher for vegetarians, especially female vegetarians.
The claim that vegetarians have lower rates of cancer compared to nonvegetarians has been squarely contradicted by a 1994 study comparing Adventist vegetarians with the general population. Researchers found that although vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists have the same or slightly lower cancer rates for some sites, for example 91 percent instead of 100 percent for breast cancer, the rates for numerous other cancers are much higher than the general US population standard, especially cancers of the reproductive tract. SDA females had more Hodgkins disease (131 percent), more brain cancer (118 percent), more malignant melanoma (171 percent), more uterine cancer (191 percent), more cervical cancer (180 percent) and more ovarian cancer (129 percent) on average.
Buettner interviews researchers for the Adventist Health Study at their offices in Loma Linda. ”We found that the Adventists who ate meat had a 65 percent increased risk of [colon cancer} compared to vegetarian Adventists,” they claimed. But a study of cancer incidence from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford) found that the incidence of colon cancer was higher in vegetarians.
The big question: is it low meat consumption that most contributes to good health or avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and junk food? To answer this question, let me introduce yet another blue zone, this one in the Gisbourne area of New Zealand. Let me call it the Maria (pronounced MAR-y-a) blue zone, after the auburn-haired Maria family, which came to New Zealand from the Azores. Nicholas Maria, who settled in New Zealand in the 1860s, died at age ninety-three after a life of many adventures; his wife lived on for several years after his death.
His son Albert died young at age seventy-five—a tragic death from a blocked prostate as they could not get him to the doctor (two hundred fifty miles away from his farm in the far north of New Zealand) in time. His wife Eva lived to age ninety-five.
Albert and Eva had six children. Son Roger died in his nineties; son Owen died at age one hundred two and was still farming in his late nineties; daughter Phyllis (mother of my husband) came very close to one hundred two; daughter Enid died young, in her eighties; daughter Jessie died in her nineties; daughter Winnie is still alive at age ninety-nine.
Eva Maria’s brother died at age one hundred four. Two aunts died in their late eighties.
My husband also married into longevity: both his mother-in-law and father-in-law (family name of Grimes) lived into their nineties, and their daughter Joyce is still alive and living on her own at age ninety. Their other daughter, Margaret, died at age eighty-one. My husband’s father (family name Morell) lived alone to age ninety-eight and died at age one hundred. In fact, every one of these nonagarians lived on their own until close to the time of death.
This was a family of clean-living people: none of them smoked, most of them never drank and—surprisingly—none of them had the English habit of drinking a lot of tea, let alone coffee. But they sure did eat meat. They consumed a typical New Zealand diet of meat (lamb, beef, pork), organ meats, eggs, fish, shellfish and of course oodles of deep yellow grass-fed New Zealand butter on everything. Sugar consumption was moderate and no one drank soft drinks. The milk they consumed on the farm was raw.
This family prided itself on vegetable consumption—no meal was complete without four or five vegetables on the plate. But we should not confuse a diet containing a lot of vegetables with what’s called a “plant-based” diet as Buettner does. Theirs was a meat-based diet garnished with vegetables, and the vegetables were dressed with butter and salt.
Oh yes, they all got cod liver oil as kids.
Many of these long-lived folks were farmers. Typically they killed a lamb on Thursday or Friday. The organ meats were consumed that evening (called “lamb fry”), and the roast or leg for Sunday dinner. Leftovers became curry and hash in the new week. The local butcher sold blood sausage, and fast-food stores sold fish ‘n’ chips, fried in tallow. They collected fresh mussels and oysters in New Zealand’s pristine ocean waters, and fished for trout in New Zealand’s clear streams. The prized parts of the trout were the roe (a powerful superfood) and the vitamin A-rich flesh behind the eyes—my husband tells me they always ate this part of the fish immediately on catching it. The skin-on filets were dipped in batter and fried in tallow.
Once a physician told Aunt Sybil, Albert’s sister, then in her eighties, not to do such a terrible thing, not to eat fats nor her home-fried fish. “But I like my fats,” she said. They obviously had done her no harm.
The Maria blue zone provides us with the right formula for longevity: real food including plenty of superfoods like organ meats, butter and seafood, along with moderate habits. Renunciation of good food is not necessary; and as we have seen from other blue zones, although it is not the secret to a long life, wine can be fine.