Sardinia is an Italian island located in the middle of the Mediterranean. With a population of around 42,000 people Sardinian villages are homes to some of the world’s oldest and healthiest people, making this area one of the five world’s Blue Zones.
Despite the challenging environment, which is characterised by steep slopes, hot weather, and prickly vegetation, the villages of the Supramonte mountains produce more male centenarians than anywhere else on Earth.
In some of these villages, such as Villagrande, the proportion of centenarians is remarkably high, with five centenarians still living among 2,500 people. By comparison, only 1 in about 5,000 people in America reaches the age of 100.
The secrets behind their longevity and good health have intrigued scientists and researchers for years, making Sardinia a subject of interest for medical and health professionals worldwide. Let’s study what makes these people live so long, and hopefully, their practices will be useful to you.
Diet – a key to Sardinians’ longevity
The Sardinian diet has been a subject of interest for many researchers. Back in 1938, a dietary researcher named G. Peretti visited Sardinian villages and found that more than 65% of the residents’ calorie intake came from carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, potatoes, or beans. Their fat intake was around 20%, mostly from animal sources, such as goat’s milk or sheep’s cheese but also from olive oil. The other 15% of their diet was protein, three-quarters from plants, mostly beans.
And while nowadays there is a trend for having more protein in the diet and limiting the number of carbohydrates, recent research suggests that a low-protein diet is associated with lower rates of certain diseases.
Individuals between 50 and 65 years old who had a higher protein intake had a 73 times greater risk of developing diabetes and a more than four times higher risk of dying from cancer. On the flip side, those over 65 years old with a high protein intake had a 28% decrease in mortality.
In recent decades, as the Sardinian population became more prosperous and exposed to Italian influences, their traditional diet has evolved to include more pasta, sweets, fruits, and meat, while beans and potatoes consumption decreased, and lard was replaced by olive oil for cooking. However, this dietary shift has resulted in an increase in obesity rates, diabetes, and heart disease, which are not commonly observed in the traditional Sardinian diet.
10 key foods of the Sardinians’ diet for living a long life
There are several longevity foods that we can all benefit from eating that are common to most Blue Zones, including olive oil, lemons, beans, and greens. However, the Blue Zone of Sardinia has specific dietary traits that set it apart from other diets. Let’s have a look at these foods.
1Goat and sheep’s milk have a lot of health benefits and are easily digested
Sardinia is a place where shepherding was one of the most common occupations, so it is not surprising that long-livers of Sardinia consume goat and sheep’s milk as a part of their diet.
The nutritional value of goat’s milk and sheep’s milk is higher and more easily digested compared to cow’s milk. Recent studies show that both types of milk can help lower bad cholesterol, have anti-inflammatory effects, and protect against cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Goat’s milk has a higher calcium and phosphorus content, which may have helped people in the Sardinian Blue Zones maintain bone density and reduce the risk of fractures.
Plus, goat’s milk is rich in zinc and selenium, important for immune system function and healthy ageing. Pecorino cheese made from fermented sheep’s milk in Sardinia is particularly interesting due to its rich flavour and high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
2Sardinian flat bread does not spike your insulin levels
Even though baked goods are usually associated with extra calories and carbs, carta di musica – Sardinian flat bread – is healthier than the regular bread we may find on shop shelves. This flat bread is made of high-protein, low-gluten Triticum durum wheat. Its content makes carta di musica high in fibre and carbohydrates. However, it does not spike your blood sugar levels like refined grains do. Flat bread is also easier on the pancreas and has lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes qualities.
3Barley is linked to Sardinian men’s longevity
In Sardinia, the most common source of grains is barley. Barley is a food that is highly associated with longevity among Sardinian men and is often used to make bread by shepherds due to its long shelf life.
Barley bread, also known as orgiathu, has a lower glycemic index than wheat bread, which means it raises blood glucose levels more slowly, putting less stress on the pancreas and kidneys. It is not clear whether this is due to barley’s high protein, magnesium, and fibre content, or because it is replacing less healthy foods in the diet. Despite once being considered a poor man’s food, barley has recently become popular in Sardinian haute cuisine.
4Sourdough bread is a low-glycemic alternative to regular bread
Sourdough bread, or moddizzosu, is one more great alternative to regular bread. A Sardinian sourdough bread is made with whole wheat and is naturally fermented using lactobacilli rather than yeast. As part of this process, sugars and gluten are converted into lactic acid, which lowers the bread’s glycemic index and imparts a slightly sour taste.
Sourdough bread is thought to lower glucose and insulin blood levels by 25% after a meal. As a result, the pancreas is protected and obesity and diabetes may be prevented.
5Fennel helps to maintain healthy blood pressure
Fennel, a plant with a liquorice taste, is commonly used in various Sardinian dishes as a vegetable, herb, and spice. It contains fibre and soluble vitamins A, B, and C, and is also known to be a good diuretic, which helps in maintaining low blood pressure – a guarantee for a long-lasting health span.
6Fava beans and chickpeas are essential components of a longevity diet
Legumes are always present in any long-liver diet and are the food mols highly linked with living into your 100.
Peas and beans serve as an excellent source of plant-based protein and fibre. Sardinians consume fava beans and chickpeas in soups and stews.
7Tomatoes drop risks of mortality and chronic diseases
As Italians, the people of Sardinia have a deep affection for tomatoes, and with good reason. Not only do these bright fruits add the perfect touch of flavour to a pizza sauce, but they are also packed with numerous health benefits that cannot be ignored.
Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C and potassium, and cooking them can make more antioxidants, such as lycopene, available for the body. Sardinians typically consume olive oil with their tomatoes, which can further enhance the absorption of nutrients and antioxidants.
According to a 2019 study, increasing your intake of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in high quantities in tomatoes, can significantly lower your risk of experiencing a stroke by an impressive 26%, decrease your risk of mortality by a remarkable 37%, and reduce your likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases by 14%.
8Almonds promote ‘good’ cholesterol and lower blood pressure
The use of almonds is common in Sardinian cooking, either consumed alone or added to dishes as a chopped ingredient or paste for desserts. Almonds included in a low-calorie diet can help to reduce weight and belly fat, while also increasing protective HDL cholesterol and reducing systolic blood pressure.
9Thistle tea has anti-inflammatory effects and cleanses liver
Sardinians drink milk thistle tea, a wild plant native to their region, to cleanse their liver, according to local belief. Recent studies suggest that silymarin, the main active compound in milk thistle, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
10Red wine consumption may lower risks of heart attacks (only if consumed in moderation)
The unique red Cannonau wine in Sardinia is made from the Grenache grape that has been exposed to the sun. Sardinians drink small amounts of this wine throughout the day (up to four three-ounce or 90-gram glasses), which could be a reason for their lower rate of heart attacks. Dry red wines in general also provide health benefits due to their high antioxidant content.
Three fun & curious facts about long-livers of Sardinia
A total of 828 years is the combined age of the Melis family from Sardinia: the Guinness world record for the longest span of any nine siblings.
According to scientist C. Fermi, people living in the Sardinian hills consumed 7 litres of wine per person a month in the 1930s.
Sardinian men live longer than women. It can be attributed to the fact that men avoid heart disease longer here and probably better than anywhere else in the world.
Three non-food habits that make Sardinians live into their 100s
Sardinians’ longevity is largely influenced by their diet, but other factors are also important.
1Maintain family and emotional life
Maintaining mental well-being, which is scientifically proven to be highly dependent upon relationships with family and friends, is an important aspect in the way of reaching longevity. The quality of family relationships can significantly impact an individual’s well-being across their life course, with positive relationships providing resources to cope with stress and negative relationships having adverse effects; however, as individuals age and social networks diminish, family relationships become more important, though they can become more complex due to varying caregiving obligations and changing emotional support levels, and structural location can further exacerbate disadvantage and inequality.
Sardinians also do not neglect their family bonds and prioritise quality time with their loved ones. Based on their findings after studying the Sardinian region of Ogliastra, researchers Hitchcott et al. concluded, ‘Satisfying social ties with friends and family members together with an active socially oriented lifestyle seems to contribute to the promotion of mental health in adult span.’ As a result of recreational and cultural activities, as well as athletic practices, most study participants established or strengthened friendships, reduced loneliness, and improved physical activity, all of which were beneficial to their mental health.
2Engage in physical activity regularly
Keeping moving equals keeping living. Being active is crucial for the balanced and healthy functioning of our whole body. The centenarians in Sardinia have been active throughout their lives, but they are not marathon runners or extreme athletes, instead, they were traditionally mainly shepherds and engaged in moderate exercise such as long walks and physical work on their land, gardens, and taking care of the cattle.
Permanent physical activity is definitely one of their longevity secrets, according to a study people who engage in moderate or high-intensity physical activity are adding 4 and 4.5 years to their life path.
What is more, another study showed that in cases of non-smoking, eating healthily and exercising moderately women can live 14 years longer, while men can add 12 years to their lifespan.
3Have some sun
Sun exposure is an important factor that influences our health. Exposure to sunlight can increase the production of serotonin in the brain, which can provide more energy and promote a calm, positive, and focused state. The most well-known advantage of sunlight is its capacity to enhance the body’s vitamin D levels, with a lack of outdoor sun exposure being a major cause of vitamin D deficiency.
As shepherds, Sardinians get a lot of sunlight and fresh air which definitely positively contributes to their lifespan.
According to Andrew Huberman, a renowned neuroscientist and full-time associate professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, getting just 10 minutes of sun exposure in the morning can be an effective life hack for enhancing wakefulness and focus throughout the day. This is because the sunlight triggers the release of cortisol, a healthy level of which acts as a wake-up signal, boosts energy levels and promotes mental clarity. Additionally, exposure to sunlight starts a timer for the onset of melatonin, which can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle and promote better quality sleep at night. So, incorporating this simple practice of getting some sun exposure in the morning can be a beneficial and natural way to optimize both wakefulness and sleep.
Let’s sum up
The beauty of the Sardinian long-liver practices is that they are accessible and adaptable for anyone. You don’t need to live in Sardinia to incorporate these healthy habits into your lifestyle. By adding more legumes, tomatoes, and almonds to your diet, as well as trying out sourdough bread, you can start to experience the health benefits that the Sardinians have enjoyed for generations. Taking breaks, engaging in regular physical activity, and spending quality time with your loved ones are simple lifestyle changes that can help to boost your mental and physical health. With just a few small adjustments to your daily routine, you can significantly improve your overall well-being and aim to live a longer, healthier life.
Not enough? Here are some more from our colleagues
On the Tonic YouTube channel, you’ll find health and wellness tips, delicious recipes, workouts, exercises, and professional advice on how to live a stress-free and healthy life.
In this video by Tonic, you will discover the special features of Sardinians’ diet and lifestyle and find out what makes this island a true Blue Zone.
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