During the past decade, I’ve made two expeditions to Nicoya, Costa Rica as part of my research into the “Blue Zones,” places in the world with the highest number of centenarians.
Today middle-aged people in Nicoya, especially men, reach a healthy, vital age of 90 at rates up to 2.5 times greater than those in the United States. In other words, residents here elude heart disease, many types of cancer, and diabetes better than Americans by an order of magnitude. And they spend about one-fifteenth of what the United States spends on health care. How do they do it?
My colleagues, demographers Michel Poulain and Luis Rosero-Bixby of the University of Costa Rica, and I conducted two expeditions here to solve this mystery. Together we concluded that the Nicoyans’ secret lies partly in their strong faith community, in their deep social networks, and their habit of doing regular, low-intensity physical activity.
They also benefited from a healthy dose of Vitamin D from sunlight and extra calcium in their water — more, in fact, than anywhere else in the country. The combination may lead to stronger bones and fewer fatal falls for seniors.
Diet plays a big role too. A combination of cooked beans and squash, eaten with corn tortillas, is rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, calcium, and niacin. It naturally helps reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol.
During the past 50 years, white rice has largely replaced squash as a daily staple in Nicoya. Although lower in fiber and nutrients than brown rice, when eaten with beans, white rice does not cause sugar levels to rise as quickly as it does when eaten alone. Black beans remain a constant staple in Nicoya, like other legumes a reliable powerhouse of longevity goodness.
Nicoyans make their own tortillas daily and eat them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They soak the corn in lime and water (calcium hydroxide) and then grind it into flour, which releases niacin locked up in the corn, increases the body’s absorption of calcium, iron, and minerals, and reduces the risk of mold toxins. Masa harina, available commercially in the United States, is made from corn, but it is not “nixtamalized”; most commercially available corn tortillas are not made by this process either.
Top longevity foods from Nicoya
Available in several varieties and called ayote or calabaza in Nicoya, these prolific hard-shelled squash are related to pumpkins and winter squash such as butternut, hubbard, and spaghetti squash. All belong to the botanical family Cucurbitaceae, known for providing high levels of useful carotenoids.
Papaya trees grow almost like weeds in Nicoya, so people there eat this fruit, both green and ripe, almost every day. The papaya’s rich orange flesh contains vitamins A, C, and E, plus an enzyme called papain that counters inflammation.
A staple for at least the past century in Nicoya, these yams, although similar in appearance from the outside, are botanically unrelated to North American sweet potatoes. They are, in fact, true yams, sometimes available in the United States from produce markets serving Latin American communities. Their flesh is firm and white, even when cooked, and they are a rich source of vitamin B6.
4. Black beans
Nicoyans eat beans and rice every day, often at every meal. Arguably the best in the world, the black beans they depend on contain more antioxidants than any other type of bean. Paired with corn tortillas and squash, they make the perfect food.
Bananas in all of their shapes and sizes — large and small, plantains, cuadrados — are a rich source of carbohydrates, potassium, and soluble fiber. They are nearly a staple food in Nicoya and the most common. The sweet varieties are picked fresh, peeled, and eaten —the go-to snack. Some types do not sweeten as they ripen. The plantain, for instance, must be boiled or fried and is served like a potato.
6. Pejivalles (Peach palms)
Clusters of this small, orange, oval fruit dangle from palm trees throughout Central America. A staple food for Costa Rica’s indigenous people yet rarely if ever seen for sale in the United States, it is especially high in vitamins A and C. Traditionally the fruit was stewed in salt water and served with salt or honey.
One prominent Costa Rican researcher also believes that pejivalles may interact with a bacterium (Helicobacter pylori) that is closely associated with stomach cancer. Peach palms in their diet may, therefore, explain why Nicoyans have the lowest rates of stomach cancer in Costa Rica.
Adapted with permission from the publisher from The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People, available where books are sold.