In the early 2000s, Dan Buettner embarked on a mission to determine what specific aspects of lifestyle and environment help humans live longer. He teamed up with National Geographic and the National Institute of Aging on his quest, and through research, they were able to identify five areas with the highest percentage of centenarians (i.e. a person who is 100 years old or older). Known as the Blue Zones, these areas also have low rates of chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Buettner and his team of anthropologists, epidemiologists, and researchers traveled to these particular areas to study the lifestyle characteristics of the people who lived in these Blue Zones. From there, the "Blue Zone" diet became of interest to help people outside of these locations practice that way of life. Here's everything you need to know about the Blue Zones, including diet recommendations and more.
What are the five specific locations of the Blue Zones?
- Sardinia, Italy: Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and home to some of the world's longest-living males. The local shepherds walk at least five mountainous miles daily and follow a predominately plant-based diet. Meat is enjoyed on Sundays and special occasions only.
- Okinawa, Japan: The world's longest-living women are from Okinawa, a chain of islands in Japan. Their longevity is suggested to be in part due to their close-knit social circles, as well as an old Confucian mantra said before meals that reminds them to avoid overeating and stop when they are 80% full.
- Loma Linda, California: The residents of this city in San Bernardino have one of the highest rates of longevity in America. The community of Seven-Day Adventists in Loma Linda follow a primarily vegan diet and also recognize their Sabbath day weekly.
- Nicoya, Costa Rica: The Nicoya Peninsula is known for elders with a positive outlook on life. Their diet is abundant in tropical fruits packed with antioxidants, and their water is rich in calcium and magnesium that helps to prevent heart disease and builds strong bones.
- Ikaria, Greece: This island in Greece is known for the long-living locals who embrace a Mediterranean diet abundant in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Ikarians also take time for a mid-afternoon break. They experience half the rate of heart disease and 20% less cancer than Americans do. Additionally, most Ikarians are Greek Orthodox Christians that follow several periods of fasting throughout the year where they essentially follow a vegan diet.
What habits contribute to the Blue Zone lifestyle?
Although the Blue Zones are all over the world, they share quite a few commonalities. After studying the Blue Zone populations, Buettner and his team narrowed down nine evidence-based common denominators among all of the world's centenarians. Known as the "Power 9," these factors are said to be the most influential in promoting longevity in these Blue Zone groups.
- Move naturally: Centenarians don't run marathons or frequent the heavy lifting section of the gym. Instead, they are just constantly active throughout the day by tending to their gardens, cooking, doing house work, and walking. Research on Sardinian men specifically found that residing in mountainous areas, walking longer distances to work, and shepherding are linked to their longevity.
- Purpose: Blue Zone natives have a keen sense of purpose which motivates them in every day life. Ikigai and plan de vida are phrases from the Okinawans and Nicoyans, respectively, and both translate to, "why I wake up in the morning."
- Downshift: Stress is inevitable wherever you live, but centenarians take time each day to de-stress whether it's praying, taking a nap, or enjoying a glass of wine.
- Eighty percent rule: The Okinawan phrase hara hachi bu is said before meals to remind Okinawans to stop eating when they are 80% full. This plays a role in weight management as well and fighting off obesity.
- Plant slant: Fresh produce, especially homegrown, and beans are the cornerstones of most diets of Blue Zone people. On average, meat is only eaten five times per month in the Blue Zone regions.
- Wine: Most Blue Zone people, except Adventists, drink 1 to 2 glasses of alcohol per day with friends or at a meal. Sardinian Cannonau wine, made from Grenache grapes, specifically has significantly more healthy flavonoids than other wines. Tea is also sipped daily throughout the Blue Zone regions, but beverages like soft drinks are practically unknown.
- Faith: The vast majority of Blue Zone people belong to a faith-based community and attend faith-based services regularly.
- Family: Centenarians put family first and are all about keeping the family close. They commit to a life partner and take time to build memories with their children.
- Social networks: Friendship and close social circles support healthy behaviors in the Blue Zone regions. Okinawans in particular have created something called moais, which are groups of five friends that are committed to each other for life.
What is the 'Blue Zone' diet and how does it work?
Research suggests that a strong mechanism behind the longevity and reduction of chronic disease in Blue Zone people is the anti-inflammatory benefits of their dietary choices. While these centenarians aren't necessarily completely vegan, their diets do have a predominant focus on plants.
Vegetables, especially homegrown, are a huge emphasis for Blue Zone people and provide a ton of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidant benefits. Beans and lentils are strong plant-based sources of protein in these populations. Similarly to vegetables, legumes also provide a ton of fiber which has benefits ranging from reducing risk of cardiovascular disease to helping control blood sugar levels. Healthy fats, such as olive oil, are used in several of the Blue Zone regions and provide a slew of heart-healthy fatty acids and antioxidants.
Blue zone people limit their consumption of red meat, and even only enjoy small portions of fish about three times per week. These populations do still indulge in moderation regarding sweets and other foods, but they eat sensibly and don't overindulge. By maintaining moderation and balance with food choices, especially following rules such as the Okinawans do with the hara hachi bu principle, weight stays controlled and obesity is not as prevalent to fuel chronic disease.
Blue Zone diet food list:
Based on the "Power 9" principle of plant slant that the Blue Zone regions embrace, we've put together a food list that can help you get started on eating the Blue Zone way.
- Fruit: apples, bananas, berries, grapes, oranges, papaya, pineapple, plums, watermelon, etc
- Vegetables: bell peppers, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, chard, collard greens, cucumber, garlic, green beans, kale, onions, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, etc.
- Beans & legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, etc.
- Eggs (up to two to four times per week)
- Fish (up to three small servings a week): anchovies, salmon, cod, swordfish, tuna, sardines, etc.
- Goat milk and goat-based dairy products
- Nuts: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, etc.
- Seeds: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, etc.
- Tofu, extra-firm
Grains & Pantry Staples
- Brown Rice
- Dried spices and fresh herbs
- Oatmeal, preferably steel-cut
- Olive oil
- Red wine
- 100% Whole wheat, sprouted grain bread, and sourdough bread
Blue Zone Diet books and recipes:
If you're looking to adopt some of the Blue Zone diet and lifestyle habits, these resources can help get you started.
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