History’s Best Longevity Diet: Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

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When I first met Francesca “Panchita” Castillo, she was standing in her front yard, wearing a frilly pink carnival dress and swinging a four-foot-long machete. With vigorous, violent blows, the 99-year-old beat back the branches and low-lying bush of the encroaching jungle—the equivalent of my mowing the lawn back in Minneapolis. When she caught sight of me, she stopped, stood up straight, and serenely watched me climb the dirt path leading to her wooden shack. She didn’t know me, or my business, yet when I reached her, she took my hand in both of hers, looked up at me with her cocoa brown, sweat-glistened face, and unleashed a whoop of joy.

“How can I serve you?” she said by way of greeting.

Since then, during two Blue Zones expeditions to Nicoya, Costa Rica, I have often visited Castillo, now 107, in part to learn how she’d maintained machete-wielding vitality for more than a century, but mostly because I just liked her. The carnival dress, I discovered, was both a daily uniform and a manifestation of an irrepressibly joyful spirit.

One day, when my colleague Elizabeth Lopez, a psychologist based in Costa Rica, and I were interviewing her about her diet, Castillo grew tired of our questions, grabbed my arm, and said, “Come.” We followed her into her kitchen, a low, dirt-floored room flanked by wooden counters built around an enormous fogón, a wood-burning stove made of clay used by the region’s indigenous Chorotega Indians. I looked around. A bowl of bananas and papayas sat on the counter for easy access. Below, out of sight behind a cloth, Castillo stored beans, onions, garlic, and cooking oil. She kept only fresh cheese and tomatoes in her refrigerator. She had no packaged or processed foods; everything required preparation except the cheese and fresh fruit.

Castillo got busy. Working with slow, deliberate movements and oblivious to us watching her, she stoked the oven, blew on some coals still hot from breakfast, and produced a bright flame. Then she covered the fire with a sheet of pounded steel that would serve as a griddle of sorts. Earlier that day, Castillo had slow cooked a pot of black beans with laurel, onions, garlic, and local jalapeños. She now slid the pot nearer the flames. When the beans came to a boil, she added a few cups of cooked rice.

Then she spooned lime-soaked corn kernels from a galvanized steel pail into a hand grinder and cranked out a pile of corn dough—or masa, as she called it. She patted out tortillas and roasted them over the open fire. On a crude iron griddle, she melted a dollop of lard and fried some eggs. Finally she cut paper-thin slices of fresh cheese—an impressive feat given her poor eyesight. I later learned she could barely see the cheese, much less her fingers.

In a half hour, she presented us with lunch—small portions of gallo pinto, the iconic Costa Rican rice-and-bean dish, garnished with cheese and cilantro, corn tortillas, and one egg on a small plate. The serving looked huge, but it amounted to about half of what you’d get if you ordered the breakfast special at your local diner.

“Food gives life!” she shouted, and sat us down to eat.

Like most of the region’s centenarians, Castillo has lived a hard life. The Nicoya Peninsula was largely cut off from progress until the last couple of decades. Only rough dirt roads—mud roads in the rainy season—etched the hilly terrain. For most of her life, Castillo ran her parents’ small boardinghouse for itinerant sabaneros, the region’s leathery cowboys.

Aside from beans and tortillas, she raises or grows much of her own food in her garden—or gathers it from nearby fruit trees. Her strong belief in God helped her raise five children—two of whom are great-grandfathers now—and helped her survive the violent death of one of them. Yet despite all these hardships, she gets up each morning, puts on a bright pink dress and party beads, sweeps off her deck, and greets daily visitors with a gleeful “God blesses us.”

The people of Nicoya descend mostly from the Chorotega. But they are also genetically influenced by Spanish colonists and freed African slaves. In the past they died largely of regional diseases such as malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, and dengue, which was menacingly dubbed “broken bone disease.” During the 1980s the dry forests, dominated by the enormous, regally tufted guanacaste trees, was a refuge for the Contras, the U.S.-funded counterrevolutionaries who at the time were mounting armed resistance to Nicaragua’s communist Sandinistas.

Today middle-aged people here—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.

THE NICOYAN PANTRY OF THE PAST

From my interviews with Castillo and some 40 other Costa Rican centenarians, I knew what the typical Nicoyan kitchen held. The lunch she served me pretty much represented what people had been eating here for at least the past century. But I had another source to lean on. In preparing for one trip, I’d found a 1957 report entitled Nicoya: A Cultural Geography, written by a young Berkeley anthropologist named Phillip Wagner. In it, he described a day in the life of an average Nicoyan—50 years ago:

The day of the country people begins before sunrise, when the women rise to prepare coffee. The family meets about dawn to take a cup of black coffee, or coffee with milk, heavily sweetened, and perhaps to eat a cold tortilla. The time from dawn to eight o’clock is for chores and beginning the day’s work. At eight there may be a complete breakfast with rice and beans and eggs. In seasons of heavy work the men take with them to the fields tortillas with gallo pinto (rice and beans fried in pork fat). Work may end on very hot days at twelve, or at two in the afternoon. The workers come home from the fields or the woods and wait about an hour for their meal. The midday meal often begins with a pot of soup in which there are a few bits of meat, fat, boiled plantains, tesquisque [taro] or yuca, and perhaps a few greens. After the soup come rice and beans, usually accompanied by fried eggs. On occasion there may also be some vegetable: pipian or ayote (Cucurbita moschata) or calabaza [both types of squash], cabbage, the flower of pinuela [a wild plant related to pineapple] or some other wild product. Meat sometimes appears on even the poorest table, and there is usually cuajada, a milk curd. Tortillas come with this meal and afterward the men sip heavily sweetened black coffee, made from local berries or from the mashed seeds of nanju (Hibiscus esculentus). The evening meal is simpler, since the custom is to spend the afternoon in idleness and appetites are less hearty. Rice and beans, tortillas and perhaps eggs are served just at dusk.

Wagner also made detailed sketches of gardens, showing more than 40 different edible plant species, highlighting the yucca, taro, papaya, yam, guava, cashew, and banana as mainstays of the local diet. Nicoyans also ate a wide variety of forest fruits not likely to show up at your local grocery store, such as caimito—the sweet, purple star apple, very high in antioxidants—and papaturro, also known as coccoloba, or sea grapes. For more detail, I contacted Xinia Fernández at the University of Costa Rica’s School of Nutrition, who provided me with three dietary evaluations, as they were called, from 1969, 1978, and 1982. Nutritionists visited families daily to help them record their dietary intake and weighed food when possible—a labor-intensive and expensive process that yielded good insights.

According to these surveys, the Nicoyan diet was high in carbohydrates—about 68 percent, a level matched only by the Okinawan diet and much higher than the average American diet. Their main carbohydrate sources were rice, maize, and beans. Fat was just over 20 percent and protein was about 10 percent, accounting for the other 30 percent of their daily diet. All told, the average person in the Chorotega region consumed about 1,800 calories a day.

A few characteristics of Nicoya’s diet stood out. Like residents of most other Blue Zones, people here ate a low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet rich in legumes. Traditionally, they lived mostly off beans, corn tortillas, and huge quantities of tropical fruits. Sweet lemon, sweet orange (Citrus sinenis), and a banana variety called cuadrado have been the most common fruits throughout most of the year in Nicoya.

The big secret of the Nicoyan diet was the “three sisters” of Mesoamerican agriculture: beans, corn, and squash. Since at least 5000 B.C. Mesoamericans living in and around modern-day Guatemala and Mexico have been cultivating beans, squash, and corn in fields called milpas, a brilliant agricultural system in which each crop benefits from the others. The squash provide ground cover to hold in moisture. The cornstalks grow high and the bean vines twine up them. The bean plants fix nitrogen as a fertilizer in the soil.

An almost perfect agricultural cycle, the resulting crops, consumed in combination, amount to an almost perfect food combination for human sustenance as well. 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. Nutritionist Leonardo Mata, whom I interviewed in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, told me he thought the most significant component of the Nicoyan diet was how they prepared their corn. To prepare the dough that Nicoyans call maize nixquezado, they soak whole corn kernels in calcium hydroxide, or lime and water, which infuses the grain with 7.5 times more calcium and unlocks certain amino acids otherwise unavailable in the corn. Mata has been studying cultures throughout Central America that prepare corn the same way, and he claims that the people who consume it regularly never get rickets and rarely suffer the bone fractures and broken hips that often lead to premature death in older people.

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.

Typical Daily Diet of Rural Costa Ricans, mid-1960s (Percentage of daily intake in grams)

In the traditional Nicoyan diet, about 80 percent of daily calories came from carbohydrates, with the remaining 20 percent coming from proteins and fats in about equal measure.

In 2007 I returned to Nicoya, this time with Mehmet C. Oz to tape a segment for the Oprah Winfrey Show. We looked for Castillo’s house but were told that a local landowner had demolished it to make way for a development. We learned that she had moved in with a granddaughter outside a neighboring village.

When we found where Castillo was staying, we waited on the porch for about a half hour until she hobbled out to greet us. She was frail, nearly blind, and listless. Oz talked to her through an interpreter for a while and then asked to see her medicines—some eyedrops and hypertension medicine. He looked at the dosage. “Throw this medicine away,” he pronounced. The eyedrops were actually making her lose her sight and the hypertension medicine, though perhaps effective, was at a dosage much higher than a person Castillo’s age should be taking. Oz wrote a prescription for a new medicine, turned to his producer, and said, “Go out and find this and make sure she gets it.”

You probably know how this story is going to end. Oz and I left Nicoya that trip doubting that Castillo would survive much longer. But in 2011, I returned with my kids. We found her still living with her granddaughter. This time she was as vibrant and vital as the first time I met her. Still wearing her party dress, she whooped “Oooooo,” when she saw us. “Oh, how God blesses me,” she proclaimed when we arrived.

In February 2014 Castillo was still alive and well. She had just turned 107 and celebrated the birth of her great-great-great-great-granddaughter. Recently a team of researchers, including a Nobel Prize–winning scientist, looked into the genetics of poor Nicoyans like Panchita Castillo. They examined the telomeres, stretches of DNA on the ends of their chromosomes that have been associated with aging when they wear down and get short. The telomeres of the people in Nicoya were the longest in Costa Rica—additional evidence that the longevity benefits of their lifestyle are more than anecdotal.

TOP LONGEVITY FOODS FROM NICOYA

  • MAIZE NIXTAMAL: 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.
  • SQUASH: 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.
  • PAPAYAS: 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.
  • YAMS: 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.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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 salted 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.

 

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