Vitality project potluck is a twist on tradition

Published 7:12 am Thursday, September 24, 2009

The AARP Blue Zones Vitality Project is changing the way Albert Leans look at health and longevity, and promoting ways to increase and enjoy both. In our modern American culture, eating better is not always associated with having fun. However, if we’re going to make new and better eating habits stick, we’d better find out how to make it fun.

Many of us grew up attending traditional potluck dinners — whether at a church gathering or for the countless sports team banquets held with parents and kids.

Blue Zones around the world have their fun food traditions and celebrations. For Albert Lea to succeed in becoming a longevity hot spot, please don’t cancel the potlucks, birthday parties or holiday buffets — in fact, continue to eat and be merry with your friends. We want to encourage more celebrating together. After all, quality time together can increase longevity.

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To that end, the AARP Blue Zones Vitality Project is asking the community to do something that might seem counter-intuitive. Come join us for a big food celebration. That’s right — a traditional Minnesota potluck — with a twist.

This potluck will have all the ingredients for fun — great people, great food and the joy of trying out other people’s food. But it’s also going to try to remove the often unhealthy aspects of this tradition. As a preacher’s kid, I’ve eaten many plates full of food at hundreds of potlucks. What stands out to me is that too often, the food we eat have too much on them and too much of the stuff that hurts us.

The potluck is known for hotdishes made with cream of mushroom soup, Jell-O salads and pans of “bars.” And the buffet style of eating encourages us to eat more and more. For me, the irony of this tradition is never so stark as at a funeral when a faith community seeks to nourish a grieving family …by often serving food that undermines their health.

That said, we think that the traditional potluck is worth saving. It just needs a bit of a health makeover.

Thanks to the leadership of Lilah Aas and Hazel Spiering, a new healthy twist on the Minnesota tradition of potlucks is coming to town this Saturday.

It takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. at Americas Best Value Inn, formerly the Ramada Inn.

Albert Lea’s Vitality Potluck celebration will follow the two important principles guiding Albert Leans as they change their eating habits — summed up in the slogans “plant slant” and “hara hachi bu.”

The plant slant is pretty obvious — vegetables are, on the whole, better longevity foods than processed meat, canned soups and shimmering Jell-O. Not only are veggies the dietary mainstay of the thriving centenarians we met in Costa Rica, Sardinia, and Okinawa — places where meat has long been an occasional luxury only — but a recent overview of six different studies of the health of vegetarians found that people who restrict meat in their diets tend to live longer.

Before thinking this notion is anti-American, consider our founding father Thomas Jefferson who said, (I eat meat only) “as a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.”

You will also see participants practicing hara hachi bu — roughly translated as “eight-tenths belly.” This is something that Okinawans (and their Japanese neighbors) keep in mind when they eat: It’s wise to stop when you’re just 80 percent full.

Now let’s admit it — self-control is hard at a potluck. But let’s give it a try. Wear your hara hachi bu bracelet and be a good example for your neighbor. With a little peer pressure, we can stick to it.

And there’s more – the Vitality Potluck is a contest. Prepare a dish yourself to share with your community! Send your recipe this week to Your food will be judged by a happy, hungry crowd, and prizes will be awarded for the best recipes. Bring portions for 8 to 10 people. Include ingredients from the longevity food list (go to if you need the list). No mayonnaise, Jell-O, canned soup or processed meat allowed!

Come taste the newest wave of potluck made by and for Albert Leans — food that will nourish your body, soul, and friendships.

Joel Spoonheim is the health initiative director for the Minneapolis-based Blue Zones organization.