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How Fermented Foods And Protein May Lead To Longevity

Courtesy of SeAnne Safaii
SeAnne Safaii and Sue Linja set out to find why some countries like Italy and Singapore have a higher percentage of centenarians than the U.S.

At any given time, there are about 450,000 centenarians in the world. Some countries like Italy, Japan and Singapore have more than their fair share. SeAnne Safaii, an associate professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and dietician Sue Linja set out to find out why. They spent the past year interviewing centenarians in those countries and here in the United States.

Safaii says before they went abroad, they interviewed Governor Butch Otter’s mother Regina, who herself is a centenarian.

“She is in a long term care facility but she’s very active,” said Safaii. “What was really interesting about her is she loves potatoes. She tries to maintain her muscle mass by doing arm exercises every day.”

After 30, we lose that muscle mass if we don’t exercise enough. A common thread Safaii found with all of the people she interviewed is they spread their protein intake throughout the day as opposed to eating it all at once.

“If you look at the research, dividing protein up throughout the day as we age really helps the body utilize those amino acids for rebuilding and repair,” said Safaii.

When looking at the diets of centenarians in Italy as opposed to Japan, the researchers found them to be quite different. But they all share a love of small portions of things like fish, vegetables, beans and fermented foods. Safaii says that is something that’s been lost in the West as processed and packaged foods have taken their place. In Italy, fermented cheese and wine are staples whereas in Asia, fermented soy products and tea are commonly consumed. Those foods are easier to digest.

“You’re introducing bacteria into food in the fermentation process which actually breaks down the food, introduces probiotics into that food, which then introduces it into the gut,” said Safaii.

So what can Americans learn from their Italian and Asian counterparts? All of the centenarians Safaii interviewed, including Regina Otter, eat local. Safaii says we’re already starting to head in a healthier direction with the local food movement in the United States.

At the current rate, the number of centenarians in the United States is expected to grow to the hundreds of thousands in the next few decades.  The quality of life for those individuals will be largely based on diets similar to the people  Safaii and Linja interviewed.

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