When Daniel Kennedy, the CEO of Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, set out to make his seven-part docuseries, Healthy Long Life, he knew he wanted to explore regions full of longevity secrets beyond the obvious (think Blue Zones communities of Sardinia and Okinawa). One such place: Mexico. “We went to Mexico to learn about the builders of the pyramids [of Chichen Itza] and the Mayan traditions modern-day healers still carry with them,” says Kennedy, who is the docuseries’s director and producer. “Mexico has an especially rich history of using medicinal plants, too.”
While filming the series, Kennedy and his team connected with experts including Mayan shaman Bartolome Poot Nahuat; Pedro Batiz, the co-founder of Divine Flavor; and Rosa Contreras-Tessada, the nutritionist at Oasis of Hope Hospital. The team also got to know several Mexican centenarians who were eager to share their secrets to living to be over 100 in good health.
Another expert featured in the episode is Francisco Contreras, MD, an oncologist and surgeon as well as the president of Oasis of Hope. (Dr. Contreras is also Daniel’s uncle.) For Dr. Contreras, the longevity secrets of Mexico are simply a way of life. But through his medical knowledge and relationships with centenarians in Mexico, he is well-versed in what lifestyle habits specific to this part of the world are linked to a long, healthy life.
4 longevity tips inspired by Mexican centenarians:
1. Plants are at the forefront of every meal
While Mexican restaurants in the States tend to be meat- and dairy-centric, Dr. Contreras says traditional Mexican food is often more plant-forward. He says that many dishes are full of vegetables and have very little meat, and that corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and mango are all common staples of Mexican cooking. Scientific studies have shown that plant-based diets are linked to lower rates of heart disease, which is the world’s leading cause of death. This is because plant-based foods are full of antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats, which are directly linked to benefitting the heart (and thus promoting overall longevity).
“The way people in Mexico shop for food is very different than in the U.S., too,” Dr. Contreras adds. “[Many] people don’t have big refrigerators or lots of cabinets, so they buy food more frequently and it’s also primarily fresh foods, not loaded with chemicals or preservatives.” One study found that eating highly processed foods on a regular basis was linked to a 62 percent increase in relative all-cause mortality risk. This is because highly processed food often contains corn syrup, sugar, artificial sweeteners, salt, coloring agents, and other ingredients that in excess have been linked with various diseases.
2. Mexican food is made with anti-inflammatory spices
Besides being loaded with nutrient-rich plants, Dr. Contreras says spices are vital in traditional Mexican cooking. “All spices contain phytochemicals that are very beneficial for us,” he says. He says one spice, in particular, that’s frequently used in Mexican cooking is cayenne pepper. “The capsaicin in cayenne pepper is very good for health,” he says, as it is believed to help support metabolism and has antioxidant properties.
Other ingredients commonly used in Mexican cooking, such as garlic, cilantro, chipotle powder (roasted, dried, and ground jalapeños), and cinnamon, are all linked with fighting inflammation. That’s critical for supporting longevity since chronic inflammation can contribute to chronic disease, cognitive decline, and other age-related illnesses.
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of garlic:
3. Many Mexican centenarians are connected to a higher power
Dr. Contreras also says spirituality is a huge part of Mexican culture (whether it’s through organized religion or other beliefs), and he believes this is what makes its centenarians so resilient. “Spirituality plays a major, major role in our longevity,” he says. “When you are spiritually strong, the way you react to crisis is more functional, which in turn affects your immune system. Dysfunctional emotions—like anger—open the door to disease.”
It’s something he says he sees first-hand at the cancer hospital and also has seen scientific studies to support it. For example, researchers who analyzed peer-reviewed studies about religion, spirituality, and health found that having a religious or spiritual belief was more often linked to lower rates of cancer and heart disease.
There may be another reason why spirituality is linked to longevity: community connection. One scientific paper found that older adults who were spiritual or religious often were connected to a place of worship, which provides social support. The same researchers also found that older adults who were religious or spiritual had lower levels of stress, another reason why a belief system could be linked to longevity. (Having a larger purpose and being involved in a community are two pillars people in Blue Zones live by, showing that these values are important to many other longevity hotspots, too.)
4. Mexican culture values the elderly
Both Kennedy and Dr. Contreras say that many Mexicans are intricately connected to their extended family members—and this serves them well in old age. Dr. Contreras adds it’s more common for the elderly to live with their kids or grandkids than it is in the U.S. A 2019 United Nations report found that living with a child or extended family members was the most common living arrangement for elderly adults in Latin America. What’s more, healthy people living in multi-generation households have been shown to live longer than healthy people living on their own.
Dr. Contreras believes that this feeling of not only being taken care of, but valued, is one of Mexico’s best longevity secrets. “Honoring the elderly adds to living a long, healthy life because of the joy it brings,” he says.
Here’s the best part of these longevity secrets: You don’t have to live in Mexico to apply them to your own life. Eating plant-forward food and using spices, connecting to a higher power or purpose, and having close relationships with extended family members are all habits people can apply no matter where they live. Not only will you likely live longer, but it will help ensure the years will be filled with meaning.
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