TIME Diet/Nutrition

15 Eating Habits That Make You Live Longer

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The secrets to living long (and well) from the world's healthiest people

For more than a decade, I’ve been working with a team of experts to study hot spots of longevity—regions we call Blue Zones, where many people live to 100 and beyond. They are the Greek island of Ikaria; the highlands of Sardinia; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, Calif., home of the highest concentration of Seventh-day Adventists in the U.S. Remarkably, we’ve learned that folks in all these places share similar rituals and practices surrounding food. (Hint: They don’t count calories, take vitamins or weigh protein grams!) After analyzing more than 150 dietary studies conducted in Blue Zones over the past century, we came up with a global average of what centenarians really eat. Here are 15 age-old diet tips to borrow from the longest-living people on the planet.

Get 95% of your food from plants

Produce, whole grains and beans dominate meals all year long in each of the Blue Zones. People eat an impressive variety of vegetables when they are in season, and then pickle or dry the surplus. The best of the best longevity foods are leafy greens. In Ikaria, more than 75 varieties grow like weeds. Studies found that middle-aged people who consumed the equivalent of a cup of cooked greens daily were half as likely to die in the next four years as those who ate no greens.

Consume meat no more than twice a week

Families in most of the Blue Zones enjoy meat sparingly, as a side or a way to flavor other dishes. Aim to limit your intake to 2 ounces or less of cooked meat (an amount smaller than a deck of cards) five times a month. And favor chicken, lamb or pork from family farms. The meat in the Blue Zones comes from animals that graze or forage freely, which likely leads to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Eat up to 3 ounces of fish daily

The Adventist Health Study 2, which has been following 96,000 Americans since 2002, discovered that people who ate a plant-based diet and included a small portion of fish up to once a day were the ones who lived the longest. In the Blue Zones overseas, fish is a common part of everyday meals. For the most part, the best fish choices are middle-of-the-food-chain species such as sardines, anchovies and cod, which aren’t exposed to high levels of mercury or other chemicals.

Cut back on dairy

The human digestive system isn’t optimized for cow’s milk, which happens to be high in fat and sugar. People in the Blue Zones get their calcium from plants. (A cup of cooked kale, for instance, gives you as much calcium as a cup of milk.) However, goat’s- and sheep’s-milk products like yogurt and cheese are common in the traditional diets of Ikaria and Sardinia. We don’t know if it’s the milk that makes folks healthier or the fact that they climb the same hilly terrain as their goats.

Enjoy up to three eggs per week

In the Blue Zones, people tend to eat just one egg at a time: For example, Nicoyans fry an egg to fold into a corn tortilla and Okinawans boil an egg in soup. Try filling out a one-egg breakfast with fruit or other plant-based foods such as whole-grain porridge or bread. When baking, use 1/4 cup of applesauce, 1/4 cup of mashed potatoes or a small banana to sub in for one egg.

Add a half cup of cooked beans every day

Black beans in Nicoya, soybeans in Okinawa, lentils, garbanzo and white beans in the Mediterranean: Beans are the cornerstone of Blue Zones diets. On average, beans are made up of 21 percent protein, 77 percent complex carbohydrates and only a little fat. They’re also an excellent source of fiber and are packed with more nutrients per gram than any other food on earth. The Blue Zones dietary average—at least 1/2 cup per day—provides most of the vitamins and minerals that you need.

Switch to sourdough or whole-wheat

In three of the five Blue Zones, bread is a staple. But it’s an altogether different food from the loaves most of us buy. Breads in Ikaria and Sardinia, for example, are made from a variety of 100 percent whole grains, including wheat, rye and barley—each of which offers a wide spectrum of nutrients and high levels of fiber. Other traditional Blue Zones breads are made with bacteria that “digest” the starches and glutens while helping the bread rise. This process creates an acid that lends the sour flavor to sourdough. The result is bread that actually lowers the glycemic load of meals. (It also has less gluten than some other breads.) To find true sourdough, visit a bakery and ask about their starter. If they can’t give you an answer, they’re probably not making their sourdough in the traditional way.

Slash your sugar consumption

Blue Zones dwellers consume about a fifth as much added sugar as we do. Centenarians typically put honey in their tea and enjoy dessert only at celebrations. The lesson to us: Try not to add more than 4 teaspoons of sugar a day to your drinks and foods. Have cookies, candy and bakery items only a few times a week. And avoid processed foods with sweeteners—especially when sugar is listed among the first five ingredients.

Snack on two handfuls of nuts per day

This appears to be the average amount that Blue Zones centenarians are eating. A recent 30-year Harvard study found that nut eaters have a 20% lower mortality rate than those who don’t eat nuts. Other studies show that diets with nuts reduce LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels by up to 20%.

Stick with foods that are recognizable for what they are

Throughout the world’s Blue Zones, people eat foods in their entirety: They don’t throw away the egg yolk or juice the pulp out of their fruits. They also don’t take supplements. They get everything they need from whole foods that are often grown locally. The takeaway? Avoid products with long lists of ingredients and shop at your farmers market when you can. Scientists are only beginning to understand how the elements in whole plants work together synergistically to bring forth ultimate health.

Up your water intake

Adventists recommend having seven glasses daily, pointing to studies that show that being hydrated lessens the chance of a blood clot. Plus, if you’re drinking water, you’re not drinking a sugar-laden or artificially sweetened beverage.

When you drink alcohol, make it red wine

People in most Blue Zones have one to three glasses per day. Wine has been found to help the system absorb plant-based antioxidants. But it may also be that a little alcohol at the end of the day reduces stress, which is good for overall health.

Drink this kind of tea

Okinawans nurse green tea all day long, and green tea has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and several cancers. Ikarians drink brews of rosemary, wild sage and dandelion—all herbs with anti-inflammatory properties.

Get your caffeine fix from coffee

People who live on the Nicoya Peninsula and the islands of Sardinia and Ikaria all down copious amounts of coffee. Research findings associate coffee drinking with lower rates of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Perfect protein pairings

Worried about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet? The trick is to partner legumes, grains, nuts and veggies that supply all nine of the essential amino acids your body can’t make on its own. Try these match-ups in the ratios described below.

1 1/3 parts chopped red peppers to 3 parts cooked cauliflower

1 part cooked chickpeas to 3 parts cooked mustard greens

1 part lima beans to 2 parts cooked carrots

1 1/2 parts cooked broccoli rabe to 1 1/3 parts cooked wild rice

1/2 part firm tofu to 1 1/4 parts cooked soba noodles

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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TIME Diet/Nutrition

6 Simple Ways to Boost Your Metabolism

Forget the "calories in, calories out" equation

Throughout my years counseling clients I’ve seen many achieve fantastic weight loss results, including those who had not had success with other approaches, or thought they couldn’t possibly lose weight due to various circumstances, like being injured and unable to exercise, or being post-menopausal.

Based on my experience, I always believe that results are possible, but I’ve also learned that weight loss isn’t predictable or easy—and it certainly isn’t as simple as a “calories in versus calories out” equation. A new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) illustrated this and backs what I’ve seen in my own practice—one person’s metabolic response to eating less may not mimic another’s, due to biological differences.

NIH researchers studied a dozen obese men and women in a metabolic unit. The study measured the subjects’ calorie expenditures, both before and after a day of fasting, followed by a six-week phase during which they reduced their calorie intakes by 50%. After accounting for factors including age, sex, and starting weight, scientists found that those who lost the least weight during the reduced calorie period were those whose metabolisms decreased most during the one day fast. These people have what scientists refer to as a “thrifty” metabolism. The opposite results were also found: those with “spendthrift” metabolisms, which decreased the least during the fast, lost the most weight.

In a nutshell, the theory behind “thrifty” metabolism is that when faced with a sudden shortfall of food, some people’s bodies quickly compensate to conserve energy, by burning fewer calories. So if, for example, you went from eating 3,000 calories a day to 1,500, a thrifty metabolism would trigger a conservation mode, designed to shrink the calorie deficit. Historically, people with this adaptation were better able to survive during times of famine; but today, it presents a challenge for those trying to shed excess pounds. It’s also one of the reasons why simply slashing your intake by 500 calories a day isn’t a guarantee that you’ll shed one pound in a week (for more check out my previous post Why You Can’t Rely on Calorie Counts and Why Dieting Makes You Fat).

If you think you may be in this group, and your biology is making it tough for you to see results, don’t give up. Here are six things you can do to maximize your metabolism, and counter the effects of possible “thriftiness.” While your results may be slower than a “spendthrift” counterpart, losing weight isn’t an impossibility.

Become a tea drinker

Natural substances in green tea—antioxidants called catechins, and caffeine—have been shown to help boost metabolism, and trigger increased fat burning. Aim for about five cups a day, the amount tied to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease. Based on the research on how green tea impacts metabolism, this quantity could also translate into the loss of eight pounds over a year’s time.

Drink more water

In addition to naturally curbing calorie intake, water has been shown to positively affect metabolism. One German study found that drinking two cups (16 ounces) of water upped calorie burning by 30% within 10 minutes, and the effect was sustained for more than an hour. Shoot for a solid eight cups (64 ounces) daily, and if you dislike the taste, spruce it up with healthy add-ins like sliced cucumber, fresh grated ginger, mashed fruit, lemon, lime, basil, or mint.

Eat more produce

We all know that veggies and fruits are nutrient rich, but research shows they may also impact leanness, due to their ability to help preserve metabolism-boosting muscle. In one study, University of Florida researchers found that when two groups consumed the same number of daily calories, those who ate more plant-based foods had smaller waist circumferences, and lower body fat percentages. Aim to eat produce at every meal. One simple formula is to include one serving of fruit in every breakfast and snack, and two serving of veggies in each lunch and dinner. For more about how to build meals around veggies check out my previous post 5 Perfect Pasta Alternatives.

Eat more whole versus processed foods

More proof that a calorie isn’t a calorie came from research conducted at Pomona College. Researchers found that when healthy women consumed meals that were similar in terms of carb, protein, and fat content, they burned about 50% more calories eating whole foods versus highly processed foods. To reap this metabolism-boosting benefit, stick with foods as close to their natural state as possible. For example, rather than a turkey sub on a processed roll and a bag of baked chips for lunch, order a chopped salad made with greens and veggies, topped with lean protein and avocado. At snack time trade anything that comes from a package with a tennis ball sized portion of fresh fruit and a golf ball sized serving of nuts.

Eat more pulses

You know about beans—black, red, white…well, pulses are a unique food group that includes beans, as well as peas, like chickpeas, and split peas, and lentils. I made a daily dose of pulses a key strategy in the weight loss plan in my new book Slim Down Now, in part because they’re so filling, nutrient rich, and gluten free, but also because of their impact on metabolism. A review published in the British Journal of Nutrition concluded that pulses increase calorie and fat burning, and help reduce visceral fat, the deep internal belly fat known to up the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. To bolster your metabolism, include a half cup of a pulse in one of your daily meals, like a side of black beans with your veggie avocado omelet, lentils in your lunch salad, oven-roasted chickpeas or hummus in a snack, or white bean and kale soup at dinner. You can even incorporate pulses into desserts! For more about pulses check out How to Keep the Carbs and Still Lose the Pounds.

Drink coffee pre-exercise

Exercise itself can help boost metabolism, but according to a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism drinking java before you get your heart rate up may further up your metabolic rate. Researchers found that compared to those who took in a placebo, athletes who consumed caffeine pre-exercise torched about 15% more calories for three hours post-exercise. The dose used in the study was 4.5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. That’s about 300 mg of caffeine for a 150-pound woman (68 kg), the amount in about 12 ounces of brewed coffee. For more about the benefits of coffee for exercisers, check out my previous post.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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TIME Research

This Is Why Long Commutes Can Actually Be Good for Your Mood

The 605 freeway is jammed with cars on a day when the mountains are visible in the distance, on November 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Melanie Stetson Freeman—AP The 605 freeway is jammed with cars on a day when the mountains are visible in the distance, on November 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

Some people get wound up but others relish the space to think

While saddling people with a long commute is quite likely to put them in a cantankerous mood, a new study out of Australia has also found that some people actually look forward to their daily transit because it provides a bit of much-craved alone time.

Additionally, commuting can be a positive social experience; even though people generally don’t talk with each other, subtle body cues like smiles, frowns and glances help people feel more connected.

“Public transport can be an especially valuable space for being with other people. It can help prevent social isolation,” project author Dr. David Bissell told Australia National University.

But there is a flip side.

Long hours commuting can also cause distrust and depression, even altering how people interact with friends, family and colleagues, says the study.

A key takeaway from Bissell’s research is that stressful commutes directly, and negatively, impact people’s lives. The study cites examples like “tipping points where people change their route or mode of travel, or even move house.”

For the study, Dr. Bissell interviewed 53 commuters for whom commuting was a significant part of their life. He also interviewed 26 “stakeholders” like policymakers and transport advocates. He then went through two “week in the life” experiments in Australia.

“Hopefully it will be a bit of a wakeup call to employers in terms of managing this situation,” he said.

TIME cybersecurity

This Massive Healthcare Company Just Got Hacked

Insurer CEOs Head to White House to Discuss Obamacare Woes
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Chet Burrell, chief executive officer of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, waits to go through security near the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013. Health insurance executives including WellPoint Inc. Chief Executive Officer Joseph Swedish will meet with top White House officials today as President Barack Obama seeks to contain political damage over the rollout of online enrollment for his health-care expansion. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It's the third Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurer targeted in recent years

Hackers have targeted yet another healthcare company.

CareFirst Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a healthcare insurer that provides service for residents in Maryland, Washington and parts of Virginia, said Wednesday that it’s suffered a cyberattacking compromising the records of 1.1 million customers. Modern Healthcare reported Wednesday that hackers compromised a company database last year and could have accessed member usernames, names, birth dates, e-mail addresses and identification numbers.

Social security numbers, financial records, passwords and credit card numbers were reportedly not accessed, CareFirst said in a statement.

The security firm Mandiant discovered the attack occurred in June of last year and was hired to examine the company after hackers targeted other healthcare insurers in recent days, including Premera Blue Cross and Anthem. According to the article, “CareFirst is the third Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurer to acknowledge a cyberattack this year, following record-breaking hacks at Premera and Anthem, which affected 11 million people and 80 million people, respectively.”

“We deeply regret the concern this attack may cause,” said CareFirst CEO Chet Burrell in a statement. “We are making sure those affected understand the extent of the attack—and what information was and was not affected.”

TIME public health

These Are the Healthiest (and Unhealthiest) Cities in America

A jogger runs past the United States Capitol building at sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.
Pete Marovich—Bloomberg/Getty Images A jogger runs past the United States Capitol building at sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.

West Coast cities make up six of the top 10

For the second year running Washington, D.C., tops the American Fitness Index (AFI) ranking as the healthiest metropolitan area in the U.S.

The nation’s capital can credit an above average access to public infrastructure for the top spot, according to the eighth annual report.

Minneapolis–St.Paul, Minn., came in second and three California metro areas — San Diego, the Bay Area and Sacramento — rounded out the top five.

“Our goal is to provide communities and residents with resources that help them assess, respond and achieve a better, healthier life,” said Walter Thompson, chair of the AFI advisory board, in a press release.

Indianapolis came in last place as it failed to reach the target goal in nearly all of the 32 health indicators measured. Memphis and Oklahoma City also ranked near the bottom.

The AFI used publicly available data points that are measured routinely and can be changed through community effort (so climate cannot be considered a health indicator).

Below you can find a list of the top-10 healthiest metro areas, according to the AFI:

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Minneapolis
  3. San Diego
  4. San Francisco
  5. Sacramento, Calif.
  6. Denver
  7. Portland
  8. Seattle
  9. Boston
  10. San Jose, Calif.
TIME Innovation

How Banning Mobile Phones Can Boost Grades

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. High schools can boost grades by banning mobile phones.

By Jamie Doward in the Guardian

2. The “Solar Suitcase” is saving mothers and babies.

By Ajay Singh in TakePart

3. Can peer pressure make people go green?

By Per Espen Stoknes in Salon

4. Infused with bacteria, this concrete heals itself when it cracks.

By Andrew Stewart in CNN

5. Here’s a solution for the iron deficiency that impacts millions around the world.

By Philippa Roxby in BBC News

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

The Surprising Ways Americans Die in All 50 States

See where boating accidents, law enforcement intervention, firearms and other unexpected events caused deaths at abnormally high rates

Click or tap the arrows to see which cause of death is disproportionately high in your state compared to national mortality rates.

Accidental gunfire claimed 348 lives from 2001-2010 in Alabama, and gunshots of undetermined intent killed 147 in Arizona. And while both resulted in far fewer than 1 death per 100,000 people, the rates are unusually high compared to rates nationwide, according to a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By comparing the mortality rate of 136 causes of death at state and national levels, the CDC found the most common atypical ways people died in every state.

In Michigan, for example, coronary artery disease killed 35 out of 100,000 people, while nationwide only 20 of 100,000 people perish from the condition. Because of the way these calculations are done, most of the diseases in the CDC report are obscure, from “unclassified lab findings” (Georgia) or highly associated with certain industries; “black lung disease” is the most disproportionate killer in coal-rich West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Head west and deaths from law-enforcement intervention were atypically high in three states. The CDC refers to law enforcement intervention as “deaths due to injuries inflicted by police or other law enforcement agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and performing other legal actions.” These interventions killed 0.12 people out of 100,000 nationwide from 2001 to 2010, but that rate tripled in Nevada and Oregon, and was nearly four times higher in New Mexico.

The flu mortality rate was abnormally high in colder states like Maine, Wyoming and the Dakotas, but the coldest state–Alaska–had atypically high deaths from boat and motor transportation accidents. In the District of Columbia, HIV killed 35 out of 100,000 people, over eight times the national rate of four. Other sexually transmitted diseases caused relatively high number of deaths in Florida, New York, Connecticut and Louisiana.

Included in the last category are thousands of deaths of unknown cause, listed by the CDC as “unspecified events of undetermined intent.” These were unusually common in six states, like Maryland with 6,588 mystery deaths.

TIME Research

Too Much Salt May Delay the Onset of Puberty, Suggests Study

Think twice before allowing kids unlimited access to salty condiments

Consuming too much sodium may stunt the commencement of puberty in humans, leading to reduced fertility and higher stress levels in affected individuals.

A new study published by researchers from the University of Wyoming found that rats that consumed a sodium-rich diet had a “significant delay in reaching puberty” compared to fellow rodents that imbibed normal levels of salt, reports Science Daily.

“Current salt-loading in Western populations has the potential to drastically affect reproductive health, and warrants further attention,” said Dori Pitynski from the University of Wyoming.

But don’t give up on salt completely, researchers claim. According to the study, too little sodium may also delay the onset of puberty as well.

The World Health Organization says adults should “consume less than 2,000 mg of sodium, or 5 grams of salt” daily, according to revised guidelines published in 2013.

[Science Daily]

TIME health

How Anti-Vaxxers Are Hurting People of Faith

Hurts for a second, helps for a long time
Bloomberg; Bloomberg via Getty Images Hurts for a second, helps for a long time

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A defensible vaccine opt-out is being threatened by a frivolous one

Science and religion have not always gotten along—especially when it comes to medicine. If you believe your body is a temple and your faith can keep you well, you don’t take kindly to doctors telling you how to look after yourself and your family. If you believe faith is fine but it’s medicine that saves lives, you frown on people who endanger themselves—and their children—by resisting scientific progress.

When it comes to vaccines, however, both camps—with the help of lawmakers—had reached a workable truce. All states require children to be vaccinated to attend school, and all states also provide exemptions for the small share of kids who, for legitimate medical reasons, can’t be vaccinated. All states but Mississippi and West Virginia have also allowed parents with religious objections to opt out of the vaccination rules.

It’s undeniable that that can put their kids at risk. By definition, the child who is vaccinated against polio will not contract the disease and the child who’s not vaccinated possibly could. But that possibility can be a remote one, thanks to what’s known as herd immunity. As long as about 95% of a population is vaccinated against a particular disease, it’s exceedingly difficult for a virus to find enough holes in that herd to reach the few people who aren’t protected. And since religious opt-outs had been relatively rare, the system worked.

But that’s all changed, thanks to what’s known as the philosophical or personal belief exemption, an expansion of the no-vax loophole allowing parents to refuse vaccinations for pretty much any reason at all—they don’t like the state telling them what to do, or they can’t be bothered by all those trips to the doctor, or they’ve read something on the Internet that about how vaccines are a mortal health peril, despite the fact that that virtually every medical authority on the planet assures them that that’s not so. Call it a personal belief and you get a free pass. This has done very bad things to the herd.

Many states like Colorado and California, which have easy opt-out rules, have fallen below the 95% compliance levels needed to keep their populations healthy, and recent outbreaks of measles in New York City, mumps in Columbus, Ohio, and whooping cough in California directly correlate with poor vaccination levels. A multistate measles outbreak in the southwest that is only now subsiding was similarly linked linked to a single infected person who visited Disneyland and spread the virus among unvaccinated visitors there.

Meantime, states with high vaccination rates are experiencing few of these problems. Most notable among them are Mississippi and West Virginia, which have neither religious nor philosophical opt-outs and thus have first-in-the-nation vaccine compliance levels of 99.9%.

Now some states are pushing back. As TIME reported, the California state Senate has just advanced a bill to eliminate both philosophical and religious exemptions, leaving only demonstrated medical problems as a reason for parents to refuse vaccines. Legislators who opposed the bill objected to eliminating the religious exemption, and their argument does have merit. Not only does the new bill raise First Amendment issues, statistics also make it clear that it’s not the faith community that’s causing most of the trouble. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, states that have a personal belief exemption have 2.54 times the vaccine refusal rate of states that have only the faith exemption. Left to themselves, the religious refuseniks would not be causing too much of a problem

But California legislators know the population they’re dealing with. Anti-vaxxers are like water, flowing to the nearest handy opening. Close off the personal belief portal, and they’ll just slosh over to the religious side, claiming a sudden spiritual epiphany that excuses them from vaccinating. The only way to keep kids safe is to close both exit routes.

The victims in all this are the truly devout. Lawmakers have long made clear that not all religious objections to medical procedures will be tolerated, particularly when it comes to the welfare of minors. Parents who cite religious beliefs in refusing to treat a child for, say, leukemia will likely lose that child to the state, which will provide the necessary care.

In the case of vaccines, however, there is—or was—a workaround. With the thinning of the herd, however, religious practices have to come second to saving the lives and health of babies. People of faith may resent the states, but if blame is to be laid, it belongs to the anti-vaxxers. They’re a crowd that’s always excelled at making avoidable messes, and they’ve just added one more to their long and growing list of them.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Fast Food

Here’s How McDonald’s Became the King of Burgers

Signs are posted on the exterior of a McDonald's restaurant on April 22, 2015 in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Signs are posted on the exterior of a McDonald's restaurant on April 22, 2015 in San Francisco.

As the iconic burger chain turns 75, it faces some of its biggest challenges ever

It is in no way surprising that McDonald’s recent troubles have drawn so much media attention. It’s not just because it’s a huge company, it’s because it is one of a small handful of corporations that are closely associated with the idea America itself, part of our national identity. And that has been the case for most of McDonald’s 75-year history.

There are many reasons for this, but the chief one might have been expressed best by the quotation TIME chose to open its September 17, 1973 cover story on McDonald’s: “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they nourish themselves.” The quote came from The Physiology of Taste, written in 1826 by Jean Brillat-Savarin.

 McDonald's 1973
TIME

The cover story was titled “The Burger That Conquered the Country.” At the time—and for decades thereafter—nobody could seriously argue the title’s point. McDonald’s has faced stiff competition all along, from Burger King, from Wendy’s, from Taco Bell, and from any number of other fast-food chains. But none of those competitors ever came close to McDonald’s, especially in terms of image. McDonald’s—even now, when it faces some of its greatest challenges ever—is America’s burger joint.

In the 1973 article (in which McDonald’s main product is rather quaintly referred to as a “ham burger”—two words), TIME declared that if Brillat-Savarin’s quote was correct, “America’s destiny manifestly depends to no small degree on the ham burgers, French fries and milkshakes served beneath the golden arches of McDonald’s.”

Though it would grow much, much larger in the years ahead, McDonald’s was by 1973 a fully realized entity. It employed 130,000 employees in nine countries, and operated 2,500 outlets in the United States. And although Time declared that it “gone from a uniquely American to a truly global operation,” its image remained fully American, as it still does 42 years later—for better and, in some respects, worse.

Our destiny since then has manifested itself largely in our waistlines, a concern that in 1973 was just starting to creep into the national dialogue. The company most often cited by health-conscious critics of our food economy is, of course, McDonald’s. Our economic destiny meanwhile has in recent years manifested itself in the form of a growing wealth gap, with low-wage retail jobs taking the place of vanishing, high-wage manufacturing jobs. The company most-often cited in discussions of this problem (along with Wal-Mart) is, again, McDonald’s.

In the past few years, these trends have hit critical mass, to McDonald’s detriment. Consumer tastes for quick meals remained static for decades. Now they’re changing. Largely motivated by health concerns, but also by the desire for higher-quality eats, diners are increasingly opting for “fast-casual” outlets like Chipotle and Panera Bread. In response, McDonald’s is grasping for solutions that might not exist.

MORE These Are the States With the Most McDonald’s

At the same time, the company is facing pressure on the labor front. In 1973, most of its employees were teenagers working as burger flippers and “window girls.” Now, most of it workers are adults, many of them trying to support families. Last month, the company said it was raising wages and increasing benefits, though that applies only to employees of company-owned outlets, not to franchisees, meaning that most McDonald’s workers aren’t affected.

Officially, McDonald’s traces its history only back to 1955, when businessman Ray Kroc joined the company as a franchise agent. But the first McDonald’s (“McDonald’s Barbecue Restaurant”) actually opened on May 15, 1940, in San Bernardino, Calif. Kroc, impressed by the company’s production-line methods, purchased the chain from the McDonald brothers in 1961, and set about turning it into a burger leviathan.

The chain now includes about 30,000 outlets (14,000 in the United States) in 119 countries and employs about 1.7 million people.

By 1987, TIME was declaring “McDonald’s as a corporation looks more and more like a case study in how to concentrate on providing one service exceedingly well.” Despite all the grief it was taking from critics of its fatty, salt-laden fare and its monolithic corporate image, the company was still largely beloved. “McDonald’s has become such a pervasive reference point in American life that many consumers think of the company as a public institution—one that is often more reliable than the post office or the phone company,” wrote Stephen Koepp.

The company’s growth continued more or less unabated until after the 2008 recession, when the restaurant industry as a whole was hit hard—fast food included. As recently as 2005, TIME was describing fast food as a “quintessentially American dining experience” and a “perfect expression of those bedrock values of efficiency, thriftiness and speed.” Total spending on fast food had quadrupled in the preceding decade.

But even then, fast-food chains—McDonald’s definitely included—saw the writing on the wall, and were working to change their images. Consumers still wanted to dine out, but they were looking for a more pleasant experience, and healthier food. Stores were redesigned, menus were upgraded. Then the recession hit.

Fallen Arches,” read a headline in Fortune magazine last November. “Can McDonald’s Get Its Mojo Back?” The company “has risen to the top of the fast-food chain by being comfortably, familiarly, iconically ‘mass market’ and so ubiquitous as to be the Platonic ideal of ‘convenient,'” wrote Fortune‘s Beth Kowitt. “Neither of these selling points, however, is as high as it was even a decade ago on Americans’ list of dining priorities. A growing segment of restaurant goers are choosing ‘fresh and healthy’ over ‘fast and convenient,’ and McDonald’s is having trouble convincing consumers that it’s both. Or even can be both.”

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So much for “providing one service exceedingly well.” If people don’t want that one service, what’s a company to do? McDonald’s is still looking for answers, from making burgers more customizable to adding various new menu items (and subtracting others) to launching attention-getting promotional campaigns with varying degrees of success.

Kale, of all things, provides a nice microcosm for McDonald’s challenges. Several months back, the company made fun of the trendy, often-mocked “superfood” in TV advertisements. Over a camera close-up of the lettuce on a Big Mac, the narrator intoned: “This will never be kale.” Earlier this month, McDonald’s started test-marketing a breakfast bowl consisting of turkey sausage, egg whites, and … kale.

It seems that McDonald’s still hasn’t decided which one service it wants to provide exceedingly well. But America will likely be watching.

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