South African medical students learn about the longest-living populations in the world – are plant-based diets a key to their healthy lifestyles?
Future healthcare professionals raise awareness of the role of healthy diets by screening the ‘Blue Zones’ Netflix documentary on campus
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO LIVE TO 100?
During a 1964 lecture, renowned physicist Richard Feynman optimistically said, “There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death.” While the promise of living beyond a paltry few decades has long arrested the popular imagination, life-extending efforts today, unfortunately, focus on genetic tampering and the development of new medicines – while in truth, the lessons for living to over 100 years of age have already been demystified.
As the global population approaches eight billion and science discovers new ways to slow or reverse ageing, the question of human longevity’s potential limits has become more prevalent than ever. However, apart from artificial means of increasing supercentenarians of the future, specific population centres existing today, known as “blue zones”, demonstrate a proven solution to a longer lifespan.
Blue zones – a term first coined by National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner – are essentially hotspots for longevity, traditionally home to many of the world’s oldest living people (nonagenarians and centenarians: individuals who live over 90 and 100, respectively) and with unusually low rates of chronic disease.
While blue zones are geographically and culturally distributed, they have in common that those who live there primarily eat a 95 percent or more plant-based diet. In fact, most of the blue zones are in remote or rural areas where the practice of growing their own food and eating what’s in season as daily sustenance is the norm.
If one views lifespan as an elastic band, nutrition can influence considerable life expectancy extensions. While genetics account for a percentage of longevity potential and susceptibility to certain diseases, it’s undeniable that lifestyle influences, including diet, play a huge role in determining one’s lifespan.
AN AVERAGE SOUTH AFRICAN LIFESPAN
Many people aim for eventual centenarian status, but only a few South Africans achieve that milestone. According to data from Statistics South Africa, South African men and women are only expected to live up to 59 and 65 years, respectively.
Chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), or lifestyle-related diseases, are the leading cause of death among South Africans and the rest of the world. These encompass cardiovascular diseases, like hypertension, heart attacks and stroke, type 2 diabetes, chronic lung disease, mental illness, and some cancers. Altogether, this group of chronic diseases resulted in over half, 51%, of South African deaths in 2022. NCDs also disproportionately impact poorer populations, with over three-quarters of deaths occurring in lower-middle-income countries like South Africa.
Unhealthy diets are a significant driver of the above chronic diseases, and chronic environmental stress further pressures the development of NCDs. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, improving diet quality can prevent 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.
ADDRESSING GAPS IN NUTRITION EDUCATION
Even though awareness of blue zone eating habits is becoming more widespread, university training offered to aspiring South African healthcare professionals on plant-based nutrition and lifestyle medicine still needs to catch up.
The Physicians Association for Nutrition [PAN] South Africa recently surveyed undergraduate medical and dietetic students on social media about their knowledge of plant-based nutrition to understand the demand for more education. There were 171 responses, comprising 122 medical students and 49 dietetic students, with respondents from every health science faculty in the country. This report identified a gap in education on plant-based nutrition for health science students in South Africa.
Worryingly, 74 percent of medical students who responded to the survey feel like they do not receive enough information about nutrition in general, and 67 percent of dietetic students feel like they do not receive enough information about plant-based nutrition specifically. When the dietetic students were asked, “How much time is spent teaching you about plant-based nutrition?” most respondents replied fewer than five lectures, to none at all. Social media – instead of the lecture hall – was identified as a primary source of information on plant-based nutrition.
One positive finding was that students understand that plant-based nutrition can be used to manage NCDs such as diabetes and heart disease, and 88 percent of students know that animal-based food systems drive zoonotic disease emergence and pandemics.
PAN has extended PAN University into South Africa, a global programme teaching health science students about plant-based nutrition and providing access to healthy plant-based foods. Since launching in 2023, PAN University has engaged with over 200 student members across Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria.
Within weeks after the documentary premiered on Netflix, each of the above campuses hosted a film screening of the popular new Netflix series “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.” and served delicious, healthy, plant-based foods.
The documentary tours across the globe to the five main blue zones, ranging from rural Costa Rica to suburban America, each episode discovering commonalities between the lifestyles followed in each region, ultimately allowing viewers to piece together what makes them so extraordinary: Perhaps most strikingly, the average “blue zones diet” is found to be 95 percent plant-based, with residents in those regions consuming meat only about five times a month, if at all.
The chairman of PAN South Africa, Professor Andrew Robinson, is based at North-West University and is part of the technical team developing the business plan and curriculum for their planned medical school. “Eating locally sourced plant-based foods was a golden thread throughout the Blue Zones documentary. This simple yet powerful health promotion message should form part of doctors’ and health professionals’ curricula, with a shift in learning to focus more on health promotion than the current disease management emphasis.”
Bluezones.com says people in the blue zones eat an impressive variety of garden vegetables combined with seasonal fruits, whole grains, and beans. For those seeking to transition to a “blue zone diet”, their guidelines recommend ensuring that your intake is primarily plant-based, removing meat, fish and dairy.
A student at the University of Cape Town referred to the documentary as “inspiring and eye-opening” and valued information on healthy lifestyle approaches to healthcare, such as “cultivating consistent healthy exercise, eating, mental, and social habits for a meaningful, long life”. These are essential components of lifestyle medicine, a discipline increasingly integrating into medical and health professionals’ curricula. To support this, PAN University students are offered educational lectures from the South African Lifestyle Medicine Association throughout the academic year.
All PAN University students are provided with regular plant-based food donations for educational and social events and an opportunity to apply for mini-grants to fund the catering of plant-based food at larger university events. A Stellenbosch University dietetic student stated, “The combination of entertainment, film, food, and education created an environment for easy learning and implementation in your own life”.
TRY A 30-DAY VEGGIE CHALLENGE
For those who are interested in trying to eat more plant-based, food-awareness organisation ProVeg South Africa offers a free 30-day Veggie Challenge to get them started. With over 500,000 participants in the online community, newcomers receive all the tips, recipes, meal plans, educational resources and support they need to explore this lifestyle.
According to Wikus Engelbrecht, ProVeg South Africa Communications Manager, “Switching to a more plant-based diet isn’t as difficult as people might think. Cutting back on meat and opting for plant-based alternatives is easier than ever with all of the products available in retail today.”
About PAN South Africa
The Physicians Association for Nutrition (PAN) South Africa is a national office of the non-profit organisation PAN International. PAN South Africa works with health science students, healthcare professionals, and policymakers to raise awareness of the power of whole-food, plant-based nutrition for health promotion and disease prevention.
PAN University Groups are student-led university societies for medical and health science students. The purpose of the society is to bridge the knowledge gap in nutrition, plant-based eating, sustainable food choices and links to planetary health and lifestyle medicine. PAN University Groups are currently at: Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town and University of Pretoria.
Medical students or PAN University group members can apply for the Green Food Experience mini-grant to serve plant-based food at their events. This grant is open to all medical students in the world.
About ProVeg South Africa:
ProVeg South Africa is the local branch of ProVeg International. ProVeg is an international food awareness organisation working to transform the global food system by replacing conventional animal-based products with plant-based and cultured alternatives.
ProVeg works with international decision-making bodies, governments, food producers, investors, the media, and the general public to help the world transition to a society and economy that are less dependent on animal agriculture and more sustainable for humans, animals, and the planet.
ProVeg has permanent-observer status with the UNFCCC, is accredited with UNEA, and has received the United Nations’ Momentum for Change Award.