06/24/2008 02:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Indiana Jones, Tofu, and the Quest for Immortality

With the Indiana Jones dynasty back in all its glory (including a tidal wave of corporate tie-ins), I'm tempted to re-rent my favorite of the four movies, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

I won't give it all away in case you haven't seen it, but here's a quick synopsis: Harrison Ford and Sean Connery battle Nazis in a rollicking quest for the "holy grail." Drinking from the grail causes one to live forever. The evil art collector-turned-Nazi collaborator at one point declares that eternal life is "every [hu]man's dream."

I'm a bit skeptical about that statement. Eternal life might be some people's dream, but it's not mine-I'd get bored after watching the Aaron Sorkin seasons of the West Wing for the 19th time (the first 19 views would be glorious). That said, I would like and intend to live to a ripe old age--all those upbeat IRA commercials from the financial companies make the "golden years" look pretty sweet.

So I was intrigued when I first saw in my local bookstore (let's hear it for Prince Books, Norfolk, Va., which stocks The Nation, Extra, and Z Magazine on its fairly small magazine rack) "The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest" by Dan Buettner, and even more intrigued when I saw that Dr. Mehmet Oz said about it: "A must-read if you want to stay young! Buettner teaches us the secrets of the world's longest-lived cultures and how they can turn back your biological clock."

The book also sports very supportive words from prominent physicians like Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Andrew Weil, but my favorite quote in support of the book comes from Walter Cronkite, who says "Dan Buettner takes us on a journey to explore the secrets of longevity and in so doing introduces us to a world of joy in aging... at 91, this is very good news!"

Dan's book has gaining sales momentum, as well as it should be. After extensively studying communities like the Adventists whose members consistently live longer than the average person, Dan offers some valuable insights. More impressively, Dan effortlessly blends anecdotes and statistics, making the Blue Zone one of the rare health books that is eminently readable.

Buettner spends large chunks of the book talking about nutrition. His findings on healthy eating aren't bafflingly complex, and they match the advice of every reputable health organization. But considering that the world's eating habits are veering dangerously in the opposite direction, the advice bears repeating: If you want to be healthy and live a long time, stick with a plant-based diet. In a section entitled "The Plant Slant," Buettner explains that virtually all of the people he studied who lived past 100 rarely or never consumed meat.

He writes, "Indeed, scientists analyzed six different studies of thousands of vegetarians and found that those that restrict meat are associated with living longer... Beans, whole grains, and garden vegetables are cornerstones of all these longevity diets." In particular he praises beans, tofu and nuts for providing healthy plant protein (animal protein has carcinogenic properties) while fending off heart disease and cancer.

And like any good researcher, Buettner didn't just compare these communities to other groups, but also examined people with different lifestyles within the specific communities. Buettner interviews Gary Fraser, the principal investigator of the landmark Adventist Health Study. "We learned that nonvegetarian Adventists had about twice the risk of heart disease as vegetarian Adventists," Fraser said, "particularly men but also younger and middle-aged women...We found that the Adventists who ate meat had a 65 percent increased risk of [colon cancer] compared to the vegetarian Adventists. And Adventists who ate more legumes like peas and beans had a 30 to 40 percent reduction in colon cancer...Those who ate meat were at twice the risk of getting bladder cancer and a 65 percent increase in the risk of getting ovarian cancer."

I'm betting that we won't be seeing "Indiana Jones and the Search for the Vegan Restaurant" in theaters anytime soon. But if you're looking for a holy grail that will give you a nice, long healthy life, a black bean burrito or a tofu-and-veggie stir-fry might be your best bet. Check out some tasty recipes at

Here are Buettner's other top tips for living a long, healthy life:
* Be active without having to think about it (regular, low-intensity exercise is better than running marathons);
* Stop eating when your stomach feels 80% full;
* Drink red wine in moderation;
* Live with purpose, and take time to see the bigger picture;
* Take time to relieve stress;
* Participate in a spiritual community;
* Make family a priority;
* Be surrounded who share "Blue Zone" values.

Check out the book--you'll be glad you did.