In his new Netflix documentary series Down To Earth, Zac Efron, actor and producer, traveled to different parts of the world to explore healthy, sustainable ways to live with wellness expert Darin Olien. In the fourth episode, he makes a trip to Sardinia, Italy, which has the highest number of people that live to be 100 per capita. This area is called a “Blue Zone” for having a high concentration of centenarians, and it is one of the five blue zones on the planet. National Geographic says these areas have the “world’s healthiest people.” Their secret to a longer life? It’s a mixture of things, but the one that stands out the most is their diet, which does include a steady amount of carbs.
Throughout the episode, Efron learns the ways of the Sardinian people and gets a taste of their low protein, high-carb diet. The Sardinians focus on natural foods within their meals, which do include lots of vegetables and fruits as well. But the amount of protein consumed looks vastly different compared to the American diet, which shocks Efron after he spent many months focusing on a high-protein, low-carb diet for a previous acting role in Baywatch.
Both Efron and Olien were shocked by the scientific studies around the Sardinian people and concluded that it was a way of life they wished to adopt. While a stress-free life in the quintessential village of Sardinia eating homemade pasta on the regular does sound ideal, we had to ask ourselves: Is there scientific evidence to back up these claims about a high-carb diet?
We did some research around the topic and also spoke with five registered dietitians to understand the bigger picture behind the lifestyle of the “world’s healthiest people.”There are risks to having a high-protein diet.
Toward the beginning of the episode, Efron and Olien met up with two researchers in Sardinia and talked about the risks of a high-protein diet. One of the risks mentioned (which shocked Efron greatly) was how a high intake of animal protein can actually promote age-related diseases, like heart disease and cancer.
Studies show that animal protein (particularly red meat) has a high level of methionine, which is related to the aging process through your metabolism. According to Healthline, amino acids (such as methionine) are essential for building the proteins that make the tissues and organs of your body and contribute to normal cell function in the body. While this is a good protein to have in your diet, having too much of it can have some dangerous side-effects.
This, of course, is very different compared to the high-protein lifestyle that is regularly recommended across American culture. So we asked the experts.
“As a general rule Americans overeat protein, we are hyper-focused on getting it in and don’t have a good handle on what appropriate portions are,” says Vanessa Rissetto MS, RD, CDN and co-founder of Culina Health. “People who overeat protein might forget other macronutrients like carbs and sometimes fat which may omit whole grains, vegetables, and fruit which are loaded with fiber, minerals, and micronutrients necessary to bodily function and helping to decrease the proliferation of free radicals which lead to cancer.”
“Yes, you can over-consume protein and have health consequences,” says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDCES, FAND, Diabetes Lifestyle Expert, author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies and founder of DiabetesEveryDay.Com. “Interestingly, when you do the math, these centenarians in Sardinia are following the protein requirements we have in our recommended daily allowance guidelines for good health. Consuming too much protein can promote weight gain because the excess protein will be stored as fat.”