Have you ever heard of Blue Zones? They aren’t places where people are sad, but instead can tell us a lot about healthy diets and longevity.
Legend has it that in the 16th century, intrepid Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León traveled to what is now considered Florida to find the mythical Fountain of Youth, which contained waters that could cure aging. The search was fruitless, and unfortunately his long life was cut short by a poisoned arrowhead.
Nevertheless, others including fellow adventurers and scientists before and after his time have continued the search for solutions to growing old. As of yet, none has found remedies to halt the aging process. However, journalist Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, claims to have identified some practical lessons that, if followed, could add years to your life.
Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, worked with nutrition experts, demographers, and organizations such as the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to identify areas of the world where “people live the longest, healthiest lives.” Specifically, these “Blue Zones,” a term coined by Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer who studied the region of Sardinia, Italy, are municipalities with the highest number of long-lived people circled in blue ink. They contain a high proportion of centenarians with low levels of disease (when compared to Americans).
The geographic pockets that fit this definition, and those which Buettner and his team chose to study at a closer level, include Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.
Though diverse in location, ethnicity, religion, and diet, centenarians in these communities demonstrated some commonalities through an NIA survey on lifestyle components. These survey results were further exemplified by Buettner’s in-depth interviews with the most revered elders, which provided qualitative data and anecdotes about daily habits.
What developed next was a “de facto formula for longevity” comprising nine key lessons (summarized below) based on the Blue Zones, and characterized by what to do, how to think, how to eat, and how to build social relationships. The list may seem overwhelming, but Buettner notes that you should only focus on a couple (max three) lessons at a time. So with that advice, I tried to incorporate all of the lessons into my life over the course of a weekend (I guess I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever), but I will primarily focus on the three nutrition-related lessons (2-4), since this is, after all, an article on diet.
Blue Zone Example
1. Move Naturally: Use functional movements throughout your day to reach 30-60 minutes of physical activity (at least five times a week)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), routine exercise can help older adults protect against osteoporosis, and live more independent lives.
In Sardinia, shepherds routinely walk around five miles during their work day (roughly the same recommendation of the U.S. Surgeon General of 10,000 steps per day).
2. Hara Hachi Bu: Stop eating when your stomach is 80% full and cut calories by 20%
Studies conducted over the last several decades indicate that mice live 40% longer when fed a diet that contains 30% fewer calories than a normal meal. Current research investigates whether these results are applicable to humans.
Okinawans say the Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu” out loud before each meal, a constant reminder to not overeat.
3. Plant Slant: Focus on nutrient-dense foods
The. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urges citizens to fill their plates with vegetables that are nutrient-dense, providing ample potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and other nutrients vital to reducing blood cholesterol levels and protecting against infection.
It is not uncommon to find a garden in an Okinawan elder’s backyard. This natural feature provides them with not only fresh food, but also a great source of low-impact exercise.
4. Grapes of Life: Drink wine … in moderation. Seek out foods that are rich in flavonoids.
Flavonoids are found in a number of different foods (including citrus, berries, tea, coffee, soy, dark chocolate and … red wine). They optimize functions of your heart, brain, and entire body.
Cannonau di Sardegna is a type of wine that is made from a variety of grape specific to the Sardinia region, and is mentioned in the book for its particularly high flavonoid content (three times the flavonoids of other wines).
5. Purpose Now: Take time to see the big picture
Learning complex skills, such as practicing a new hobby—especially at an older age—can increase cognitive function (i.e., preserve one’s memory).
Okinawans embrace what they refer to as the ikigai, or a sense of purpose. This ikigai can come from a variety of places including caring for grandchildren, or maintaining a garden.
6. Downshift: Take time to relieve stress
The American Psychological Association notes that chronic stress can have several adverse effects on health, like cardiovascular disease and depression.
Some Ikarians take time out of their afternoon to rest, aka nap (like kindergarteners).
7. Belong: Participate in a spiritual community
Several studies have shown a connection between social support, like the kind found in spiritual communities, and positive health outcomes (like resilience to stress).
Many older adults in Loma Linda are Seventh-Day Adventists who spend their sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) with fellow worshipers and their family members.
8. Loved Ones First: Make family a priority
Many health experts recommend a strong social support system as a component of a healthy lifestyle.
Costa Ricans place an emphasis on family, and adults tend to live with children or grandchildren as they grow older.
8. Right Tribe: Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values
The results from one study reveals that fostering friendships can prolong one’s life and that these friends can encourage healthier habits, including better food choices and increased exercise.
In Okinawa, individuals are part of a moai, a social network that provides individuals with financial, emotional, and health-related support.
What I Did
First Things First: Preparation is Key. In order to eat like those living in the Blue Zones, I needed to equip myself with the right ingredients. Commence a trip to the local grocery store. Fortunately, I enjoy my veggies. However, I also enjoy eating meat. Typically I have some type of animal protein at least once a day. Instead of reaching for the bag of frozen chicken breast, I picked up a couple cans of black beans. Next stop: the dairy section. Two Blue Zones in particular (i.e., Sardinia and Ikaria) highlighted goat’s milk as a staple of resident’s diets. I was unable to locate goat milk, but did find yogurt made from goat’s milk. Final stop: the wine aisle. I searched for the elusive Cannonau di Sardegna, but to no avail. Fortunately, there was a diverse selection of other Italian red wines to choose from. I grabbed a bottle and headed to the checkout line.
Jumping Into the Blue Zone. I woke up early on Saturday morning feeling refreshed and ready to start my new lifestyle. In my kitchen, I cooked my routine breakfast of eggs, spinach, mushrooms, and onions, but nixed the turkey sausage. After eating I didn’t feel completely full, but I resisted the urge to open the fridge and scrounge for more sustenance.
To the Woods. Often on the weekends, I like to step away from my desk and head to neighboring nature locales to go trail running. Saturday was no exception. I met up with a friend, and we drove to Occoquan, Virginia, to tackle the trails. I’m always astounded by the absence of noise and pollution when out in the woods. Such serenity is always welcomed after busy work weeks. After the run, I refueled with a snack of goat’s milk yogurt, almonds, and cranberries.
Pit Stop. On the way back, we stopped at Ikea for a few household items. The store was a bit of sensory overload with the number of products and people inside. My first true test to the diet was the cafeteria, and the imminent threat of Swedish meatballs. I opted for the vegetable medallions, but I did steal a meatball off my friend’s plate. Although the diet places emphasis on plant-based foods, it does note that meat can be consumed on special occasions (i.e., Ikea trips).
Family Fun. Once home, I quickly packed my bags and headed out once more, this time to northern Maryland. My brother, who lives out of town, had returned home for an unexpected visit, and both my sister and I quickly changed our schedules to congregate at our parents’ house for a full family dinner. Such a gathering is quite rare, and certainly a special treat. I anticipated that the dinner would contain meat, as is customary in my family, so I came prepared with ingredients for black bean burgers. I received a few questioning looks from my family members, but I received praise for my selection of wine. Soon enough, familiar laughter and banter filled the dining room.
Day 2. Sunday began a bit sluggish, and I was half tempted to sleep in. However, my father was planning on going for a run, and I had agreed to join him. I feel fortunate to have this shared passion with him, and we both motivate each other to keep going, even when our legs want to slow down or stop. The rest of the day went as planned, mostly consisting of a few errands and some schoolwork. I successfully avoided eating meat and was able to eat leftover black bean burgers for dinner.
For me, the Blue Zone diet was not a huge stretch from the foods I typically consume. However, the tweaks I did make to my diet, coupled with exercise and social interactions, resulted in an immensely satisfying weekend. By Sunday evening, I was relaxed and ready to confront the coming work week.
The nice thing about the Blue Zone lessons is that there are many to choose from, and you don’t have to make numerous changes all at once. When you do decide to address one of these categories, there are examples from the Blue Zones that can effectively guide your new routine. The main challenge for me was locating some of the food items, and trying new recipes.
As for the science of the diet – we know that an individual’s aging process is determined by both genetics and lifestyle choices. While there’s not much we can do about the former, we can make choices that affect the latter. Some of the diet’s recommendations are based on scientific studies, such as consuming more vegetables. However, other recommendations are more observational (and less practical) in nature, with health benefits related to associations rather than causation. Take, for instance, drinking a glass of goat’s milk every day. This may work for a shepherd who has access to a herd of goats, but it’s not feasible for your average American city-dweller.
One of Buettner’s big tips should be viewed with skepticism: Although advising readers to “avoid processed foods” makes for a good soundbite, this tip is not based on sound science. Lots of processed foods have added benefits, like increased shelf-life and fortification with vitamins and minerals. You don’t need to rid your diet of processed or packaged foods to enjoy the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
While winning the genetic lottery or discovering the elusive fountain of youth sound like the best options, I’ll hedge my bets on making better lifestyle choices.
This blog post was written by Liz Kohlway.