Throughout the centuries, inhabitants of the Nicoya peninsula have been living through hard times. Being the descendants of Chorotegans – the most powerful American Indian tribe of northwest Costa Rica at the time of the Spanish conquest – these people managed to outlive large regional diseases of malaria, dysentery, diarrhoea, dengue and droughts.
Besides all the adversity, Nicoyanos remain a proud nation with a rich culture and history and are now envied for their extreme longevity. Nicoya peninsula belongs to the five world Blue Zones – places renowned for extreme longevity rates. Compared to the United States, middle-aged people here, especially men, reach 90 at rates up to 2.5 times higher than Americans.
Let’s have a look at the dietary and life habits of these people, and maybe you will include some of them in your longevity bucket list.
Diet – a key to the longevity of the people of Nicoya
The residents of the Costa Rica Blue Zone consume a diet based on natural, unprocessed and nutritious foods like rice, squash, corn and beans. They mainly consume homemade and homegrown food, such as tortillas, plantains, gallo pinto and tropical fruits, and have meat in moderation, a few times per week.
Approximately 80% of daily calories in the traditional Nicoyan diet came from carbohydrates, with the remaining 20% from proteins and fats.
One of the key features of this diet is that families tend to have larger meals for lunch and lighter meals are eaten in the evening. This habit might be attributed to the lifestyle of the people of Nicoya as they do all the hard labour till noon and as working on fields requires a lot of energy, heavier meals are eaten.
The Nicoyan diet is pretty low in calories due to the fact that it is low in sugar and has few processed foods. Having a diet low in calories has been linked to a longer life expectancy.
A new study shows that reducing calorie intake by 25% can slow down the ageing process in young and middle-aged adults, compared to those who continue to eat normally. The study’s lead author notes that a similar slowdown in ageing was linked to a 10% to 15% lower risk of death.
Top seven longevity foods of Nicoya long-livers
1Maize nixtamal – tortilla
Instead of bread, Nicoyans cook their own tortillas and consume them daily at every meal. Corn is soaked in lime water and ground into flour. Using this special preparation process, niacin is released from corn, calcium, iron and minerals are better absorbed and mould toxins are reduced.
The Nicoya Peninsula has a variety of squash, known as ayote or calabaza. These squash are similar to pumpkins and winter squash, such as butternut, hubbard, and spaghetti squash, and are rich in beneficial carotenoids.
Carotenoids found in food are believed to have health advantages in reducing the likelihood of certain diseases such as cancer and eye problems.
On the Nicoya peninsula, papaya trees grow almost everywhere. So Nicoyans relish this fruit almost daily. And for a good reason, as papaya is rich in vitamins A, C, and E as well as papain – an enzyme that fights inflammation.
Papaya is a real longevity fruit. It is scientifically proven to have anti-cancer properties, it also improves cardiovascular health and boosts the protective effect of ‘good’ cholesterol.
For over a hundred years, yams have been a common food in Nicoya. Although they may look similar to sweet potatoes from the outside, their flesh is white and firm even when cooked.
Yams are really valued for their high content of vitamin B6, which is necessary for normal brain development as well as for keeping the nervous and immune systems healthy.
In spite of the fact that Blue Zones are located far from each other and long-lived individuals have strikingly different diets, one diet feature is the same for all Blue Zone diets. And it is legumes.
Nicoyans prefer black beans and consume them with rice daily. Black beans contain more antioxidants than any other bean.
Black beans brim with health benefits and are supreme in warding off heart diseases, cancer prevention and diabetes management. A study conducted by researchers at Yale University showed that premenopausal women who consumed over six grams of soluble fibre daily (equivalent to a cup of black beans) had 62% lower chances of breast cancer compared to those who consumed less than four grams daily.
Bananas are a widely loved eco-friendly snack and centenarians share this love too. Bananas come in various sizes and forms and are an abundant source of carbohydrates, potassium, and soluble fibre. They are a fundamental food in Nicoya and widely consumed, particularly as a snack. While some types of bananas become sweeter as they ripen, others don’t. For example, plantains need to be boiled or fried before consumption and are commonly served like potatoes.
7Pejivalles – peach palms
Pejivalles are a dietary staple among Costa Rica’s indigenous people, and they are a rich source of vitamins A and C. The fruit is typically stewed in salt water and served with honey or salt.
Researchers of the Costa Rica region believe that pejivalles may interact with Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that is strongly linked to stomach cancer. As a result, the inclusion of peach palms in their diet could be one reason why Nicoyans have the lowest incidence of stomach cancer in Costa Rica.
Fun & curious facts about long-livers of the Nicoya peninsula
Marita Camacho Quirós is a supercentenarian of Costa Rica. The longest-lived former first lady of this state has turned 112 this year.
According to , religious faith, specifically the connection to a higher power, is considered a contributing factor for long life and can add up to four years of life. Many Costa Ricans are religious, predominantly Catholic, and the spiritual aspect of their lives is believed to play a significant role in their longevity.
Four non-food habits that make people of Nicoya live into their 90s
1Maintain a deep social network
The feeling of belonging and being a part of something is invaluable for all of us. According to an 80-year-long study of adults, having strong relationships with the community can lead to a longer and happier life, and it’s more essential than wealth or fame.
For the people of Nicoya, family ties are a priority. These long-livers love to socialise, they often visit their neighbours, friends and family. The elderly in Nicoya, Costa Rica, stay active and continue to contribute to their community due to their ‘plan de vida’ – a sense of purpose in life.
2Drink hard water
There are low rates of osteoporosis and heart disease on the Nicoya Peninsula due to the high concentration of calcium and magnesium in the water.
3Bask in the sun
The dry season in Costa Rica (December-May) is characterised by clear and sunny weather, and people tend to live outdoor lifestyles, which is different from North American lifestyles where people spend most of their time indoors. This allows for healthy sun exposure which is a natural source of vitamin D, beneficial for heart and bone health.
4Have an active lifestyle, move a lot
The life of long-livers in Blue Zones cannot be characterised as one full of exercising at a gym. Instead, centenarians have high levels of NEAT.
Note from Healthypedia
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the energy we expend on everyday activities that are not related to sleeping, eating, or structured exercise.
The inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula Blue Zone place high importance on hard work, with their daily activities typically including household tasks and manual labour. These action-motivated movements help keep the elderly healthy and fit.
Over the course of time, NEAT can add up to better health and a longer lifespan.
Let’s sum up
The people of Nicoya have overcome adversity for centuries and have managed to become one of the world’s Blue Zones, renowned for their extreme longevity rates. Their diet and lifestyle habits can be a model for us all to emulate. By incorporating some Nicoyan foods into our diets and eating more unprocessed low-sugar foods we can experience numerous health benefits and increase lifespan.
Simple and pleasing life habits such as maintaining a social network, drinking water, basking in the sun, and leading an active lifestyle can contribute to a longer and happier life. So why not consider adopting some of these habits into your daily life and join the Nicoyan long-livers in their quest for longevity?
Not enough? Here are some more from our colleagues
The Blue Zone expedition team followed a day of a Costa Rica centenarian – Panchita. A 100-year-old lady from Nicoya proves that hard work, a lot of movements and a healthy diet can make you a long liver.
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