Centenarians in the blue zones, the longest-lived people in the world, aren’t trying to eat “healthy” or live to 100—they aren’t counting calories or reading food labels—they simply eat what is local, in season, and readily available. Unfortunately, the reality for many of us is the overly processed, colorfully packaged, sugar-saturated Standard American Diet.
Kathy Freston, New York Times bestselling author and wellness activist, has recently released her newest title 72 Reasons to be Vegan to encourage readers to try eating plant-based whether for better, skin, better sex, or maybe just a new family tradition.
Freston chatted with us about how to simplify plant-based eating, why fiber matters, and what makes family meals so special.
Blue Zones: What’s the biggest thing most Americans are missing in their diets?
Kathy Freston: Fiber is the superhero of nutrition, and there’s a ton of it in plant-based food and none in animal-based food. A high-fiber diet helps reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Almost all Americans (over 95%) don’t eat enough fiber, even though we’re eating way more calories than we need on a daily basis.
Fiber is the superhero of nutrition, and there’s a ton of it in plant-based food… — @kathyfreston
The fiber from beans and grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts mix with the liquid in your gut to create a sort of gel, and that gel slows the absorption of sugars and the subsequent release of insulin into the bloodstream. That’s a good thing because it keeps your energy steady and strong. At the same time, it pushes against the stretch receptors in your stomach, telling your brain you’ve eaten enough.
Then the fiber acts like a scrub brush pushing through your colon, grabbing stuff from inside the nooks and crannies of your 25 ft. long intestinal tract, effectively cleaning out the gunk that could cause trouble. And perhaps best of all, it feeds the good bacteria in your gut which helps regulate inflammation and immune function.
Fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut which helps regulate inflammation and immune function. —@kathyfreston
FOODS HIGH IN FIBER:
- Whole fruits and vegetables (with the peel, if possible, and not juice)
- Beans and pulses (including hummus, tofu, etc)
- Sweet or roasted chickpeas
- Whole grains over refined grains
- Chia seeds and popcorn
- Nuts & seeds
Blue Zones: Food is so much more than just nourishment, as it’s so closely tied to family and community. How does this book help people reframe their perception of traditional family meals?
Kathy Freston: The book is really a simple collection of all the reasons you might want to consider eating more plant-based—having better skin, getting a cleaner dose of protein, having more energy, or being an activist for farmers and the environment, for instance. Once you feel empowered by all the knowledge (and no chapter is more than a page and a half, by the way!), it’s kind of fun to bring your family and community into this lifestyle with you.
We typically love the food traditions with our family and friends—Saturday BBQs, birthday pancakes, a huge Thanksgiving spread; but it’s more about the feeling of a tradition than it is about specific ingredients that go into each dish. It becomes a really fun thing to explore how to make the things you grew up loving without all the animal products that can lard up your body and pollute the air and water. That way, the nourishment is not only physical, but it’s soulful and social, too.
BZ: Soy has been villainized in the U.S. because of its use in many overly processed foods, but the Okinawans, some of the longest-living people in the world, eat soy/tofu every day. How do you help people understand its benefits?
KF: Most women are concerned with breast cancer, and men worry they’ll get man-boobs from the estrogen in soy. But that’s a myth: an abundance of the best research and studies has found that, in fact, soy protein actually reduces the risk for breast (and colon and prostate) cancer, and that women who include soy in their diet are less likely to develop cancer. Why? Because estrogen made by mammals (humans and cows) is different from phytoestrogen, which is found in plants (like soy).
Think of it like this: phytoestrogen is like a small plane zipping into a jetway so that the passengers can disembark. When a jumbo jet (estrogen from mammals) approaches the jetway (estrogen receptor in the body), it can’t hook in because the little plane (phytoestrogen) is already attached. The small plane blocks the big plane, so the bad stuff has less opportunity to venture into your body.
Perhaps that’s why there are so many very old Okinawan women eating tofu every day? And why you don’t see guys with lady-boobs in Japan, either!
The thing is, soy is optional; it’s not like you need it to be healthy. It’s just that it’s easy to cook with and it provides so much clean protein—meaning that it has no cholesterol or saturated fat, has abundant protein with all the necessary amino acids, and causes no harm to your body.
BZ: What advice do you have for someone who is overwhelmed with the idea of beginning to eat more plant-based meals?
KF: Keep it simple, lean into it, and explore as you get more comfortable! Anyone can make oatmeal or peanut butter toast for breakfast, for instance. You can have a fruit and veggie smoothie as a snack, or some coconut yogurt with nuts and berries. I love a seasonal pasta for lunch with a side of arugula salad. Or a BLT with tempeh bacon (it’s made from soy and it’s not processed and it tastes amazing.) It’s so easy and satisfying to make a big pot of one of Dan’s soups in Blue Zones Kitchen with a side of sourdough bread for dinner. Tacos, “grain bowls”, and Red Bean and Sweet Potato Hash are a couple of options that you can also throw together without too much effort.
Keep it simple, lean into it, and explore as you get more comfortable! —@kathyfreston
As you get more comfortable planning your meals based around plant-based foods, you can get more adventurous and try new recipes or menu choices.
Blue Zones: In your new book you mention you believe in progress over perfection when it comes to being healthy. How does that seep into other areas of your life?
Kathy Freston: Well, in pretty much most areas of your life, holding yourself to some idea of perfection will just shut you down. You’re not going to be a great public speaker on your first (or second or third) time on stage. You’re not going to be a kick-ass athlete until you’ve spent some consistent time working out. You’re not going to speak a foreign language fluently until you’ve practiced for quite a while. It’s the same with switching up your food choices… you do the best you can with your plant-based intentions, and then lean into it with the spirit of curiosity and adventure, and you’ll get there when you get there.
Shifting the way that you eat is not only a learning process of why you’re choosing differently, but it’s one of getting comfortable with the tweaks you make in the kitchen or at restaurants. Once you get the hang of it, cooking and ordering plant-based foods becomes second nature, but it takes a minute, so my advice is always to give yourself the space and time to find the path that’s right for you!
BZ: What has your biggest challenge been during the pandemic?
KF: My favorite thing in the world to do is go out to restaurants. I like to sit at the bar with friends and enjoy a good glass of wine and some delicious food while soaking up the energy of the crowd. Alas, I’ve missed that for the past year!
BZ: What are you most looking forward to post-pandemic?
KF: Sitting at a bar with friends enjoying a good glass of wine and some delicious food.
BZ: What is your favorite place to eat in the world?
KF: I could eat pasta and fresh vegetables every day, so it would have to be any sweet little place in Italy!
BZ: Do you have a favorite plant-based meal?
KF: A thick bean soup with some crusty sourdough bread with olive oil and salt. Heaven!
BZ: How do you downshift each day? Do you have a specific self-care routine?
KF: I love Happy Hour every night at around 6. Sometimes it’s with neighbors outside on the porch, and sometimes it’s at home with my dog and loved ones, but it’s almost always a glass of wine with a vegan cheese spread or some other little snack before dinner. The ritual punctuates my day, and I just let any work worries or to-do lists rest.
I’m a long-time fan of Blue Zones, and that I’m so grateful to Dan Buettner for bringing so much amazing plant-based food into the zeitgeist! —@kathyfreston
Kathy Freston is a bestselling author and health and wellness activist. A New York Times bestselling author and media favorite, Kathy has appeared frequently on national television, including Oprah, Dr. Oz, Ellen, Good Morning America, The View, Charlie Rose, The Martha Stewart Show, Extra, and also on OWN.
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