What are the secrets of longevity? What does “living a healthy lifestyle” actually mean? That’s where the so-called Blue Zone diet comes into play. The Blue Zone diet is different than most other diets. Why? Because this diet is not really about food.
According to the Blue Zones, living a healthy lifestyle boils down to 9 basic “secrets”. So here they are!
Blue Zones is a term coined by National Geographic fellow and best-selling author, Dan Buettner. Dan set out a mission to find the places around the globe that had the highest concentrations of 100+ year old people. Not only that, but he also aimed to seek these clusters of people who grew old without diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or cancer. Here’s what he found:
This island’s Blue Zone diet is much like a Mediterranean diet, with over 60 percent of the daily food intake coming from vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Nearly 50 percent of all calories come from fat – mostly derived from olive oil. Ikarians tend to eat slowly and with other friends or family. Regular naps are common (PREACH 😉).
A large island in Japan, Okinawa is known for having the longest, disability-free life expectancy as well as nearly half the rate of dementia as seen in similarly aged Americans (1). The Okinawan longevity diet is heavy in tofu, seaweed, bitter melon, and sprouted brown rice.
Sardinia is a large Italian island in the Mediterranean sea and home to the world’s longest living men. Sardinian men often engage in low-intensity physical activity through shepherding sheep and walking the hills. The Sardinian Blue Zone diet is very low in meat (only 3 servings per month), higher in grains, includes goat’s milk or sheep’s cheese, and 3-4 small glasses of red wine a day.
Residents in Loma Linda are estimated to live a full 10 years longer than the average American (2). Nearly one-third of Loma Linda residents identify as Seventh-Day Adventists. Most Adventists follow a vegetarian diet with 5+ servings of nuts per week and some dairy. They avoid coffee, alcohol, and tobacco, and spend 1 day per week in “sanctuary time”, where they attend church, socialize with other Adventists, or spend in quiet contemplation.
This peninsula in Costa Rica hosts a Blue Zone diet with 68 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates namely: rice, beans, and maize/corn. Protein in the diet is relatively low around 10 percent of total calories. Blue Zone experts argue Nicoyans’ secret of longevity is due partly to their strong faith community, social networks, and regular low-intensity exercise.
In his travels, the National Geographic fellow and author found 9 healthy habits shared by people in the Blue Zones who live the longest – i.e. the Blue Zone method to living a healthy lifestyle.
The oldest and healthiest people in the world are not doing Cross Fit every day. All types of exercise are beneficial and an important part of living a healthy lifestyle. But, people in the Blue Zones incorporate natural, daily movement into their everyday lives. Low-intensity exercise (walking, taking the stairs, biking, etc.) has a significant, positive effect on your health. It can help to reduce fat around the belly area as well as the fat around our organs – which is the most dangerous kind to have (3). Don’t feel like you need to go “balls to the wall” at the gym in order to reap any health benefits!
No problemo, right? 😉 The Blue Zone diet mentality reports that one of the secrets of longevity is knowing your purpose in life. Having this key information and motivation adds, according to the Blue Zone authors, around 7 years to your life (4).
I’m definitely no expert on how to find life’s purpose. How do we know if we have found it? What will we feel? Another post for another time, perhaps…
To put it bluntly – stress makes us sick, slow, and stupid. Stress is a large contributor to autoimmune disease, weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and more (5, 6, 7). The Blue Zones prove that people who live the longest incorporate successful ways to reduce stress. Stress management should be a daily non-negotiable activity in the longevity diet.
I’ve spoken to my personal experiences with stress on social media before. While everyone’s ability to manage stress is different, I soon realized after starting Food Farmacist RD that I needed to find a way to reduce stressful demand in my life. Not only did I see it affecting my physical health, but also my relationships, my mental health, my creativity, and work performance. So far, I’ve found that incorporating meditation and prayer into my daily routine, as well as daily walks (especially with others – like my hubs and puppy 😊) helps a lot. What can you commit to right now to reduce stress in your life?
What can you commit to right now on a daily basis to reduce stress in your life?
Okinawans are the best at practicing this 80 percent rule, which is one of the secrets of longevity. They call it Hara hachi bu which reminds them to stop eating when their stomach is 80 percent full. Many of us are disconnected from our hunger and satiety cues, often eating until we are uncomfortably full.
Related Post: How to Stop Overeating: 7 Tips for Success
All of the 5 Blue Zones eat high amounts of plant-based foods. One of the most common foods in these areas is beans (legumes) and nuts! With the rise of Whole 30, Paleo and Ketogenic diets, beans have gotten pretty villainized in America the past few years. I do recognize that some people may not tolerate beans or legumes due to gas or bloating (especially those with IBS). But for people who DO tolerate beans, the Blue Zone diet incorporates many servings of this high fiber, plant-based proteins each week. Helpful tip – soaking beans overnight may reduce the gas-forming factor. Many areas also eat a lot of non-starchy vegetables (think broccoli, leafy greens, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, etc.).
Many Blue Zones eat only small portions of meat. Personally, I incorporate small amounts of meat into my meals while incorporating 1-2 vegetarian meals per week. Aim for high-quality meats as a “condiment” to your meals, such as grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, and pasture-raised eggs or poultry as able. While these quality sources ARE more expensive – eating small amounts and filling up on plants allows you to spread out the cost.
Did you perk up a bit? 😉 People in almost all of the Blue Zones (except for some Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly – one to two glasses a day with friends and/or food. Most sources of alcohol in these areas come from locally produced wines. Honestly, the research on alcohol and health benefits is mixed. Some research indicates no superior health benefits to regular alcohol intake compared with abstinence (8). While others conclude a slightly lower risk of death and lower rates of heart disease with moderate alcohol intake (9). Generally, wines in Europe are much lower in preservatives and sugar than wines in America. Cannonau wine, the wine of choice in Sardinia, is made from local sun-stressed grapes and has higher levels of antioxidants than other wines (10).
If you don’t like wine or don’t usually drink it – you don’t have to start now. However, if you DO like wine, know that a small glass with dinner or friends is included in the Blue Zone diet and may have positive benefits to your overall health.
Interested in finding a wine that is lower sugar and free of added preservatives? Check out Dry Farm Wines!
Have you ever heard the saying that you are the average of the five people with which you spend most of your time? Okinawans seem to practice this theory – forming groups called moais – five friends who are committed to each other for life. They provide a source of social support throughout life. Research shows that positive, interpersonal relationships can literally reduce inflammation in your body and even affect gene expression (11).
Do an evaluation of your social circles. Which friends make you feel positive and lifted? Which friends may lead to less-healthy behaviors and feelings of stress?
Along the same lines, a big part of the Blue Zone diet is incorporating a sense of community. If a long life is your goal, going to church may be the answer to your prayers. Research shows that regularly attending a faith-based service can reduce your chance of death by up to 33 percent (12). The Blue Zones seem to indicate that, no matter the denomination, attending faith-based services can add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.
While I’m not one to preach, faith-based communities may help with some of the other “secrets of longevity” like maintaining your tribe and finding purpose in life!
The last secret to longevity includes how centenarians (100+ years old) put their families first. Investing and devoting time spent with family – kids, parents, grandparents, extended family – can add years to your life (as much as it may feel the opposite sometimes 😆).
What else do you and your family do to spend time together?
There are a few very interesting points to make about the Blue Zones and their secrets of longevity.
Many of these habits are not about food. While food is foundational to a healthy lifestyle, it is not the only part. You can have the healthiest diet in the world, but if you are a chronic stress bunny, sit at your desk most of the day, and never socialize or belong to a community – your body will eventually suffer from the negative side effects.
Another big non-food related point about the Blue Zones is that all of them get adequate sleep each night. Proper sleep is probably one of the most underrated health recommendations out there! During sleep, our body regenerates, repairs itself, and fosters greater emotional intelligence and creativity thanks to our REM and Non-REM sleep phases. Related Post: 20 Shocking Sleep Facts.
If you see someone on social media or TV proclaiming that ONE diet can solve everyone’s problems in life – this should be a red flag. All five of the Blue Zones eat a very different diet. For example, Ikarians from Greece eat a higher fat (50%) diet that is a bit lower in carbohydrates. On the other hand, the Blue Zone diet from Nicoyans in Costa Rica is much higher in carbohydrates (68%) while lower in fat and protein. Some zones eat dairy (in the form of sheep or goat’s milk), and some do not.
There are a few underlying factors in all of these communities, besides the non-food habits. First, no matter the macronutrient distribution, there is very little processed food in these diets. Most of the foods are homemade, locally grown, and grown without pesticides. Additionally, centenarians eat most of their meals with family at the dinner table and over a longer period of time. Finally, all of the blue zone diets eat a lot of plants – namely vegetables, beans, and nuts.
Slow down and smell the roses. If you’re like me, you thrive on constant goals, movement, and progress. But, people in the Blue Zones live much simpler lives. They take time to decompress, they usually aren’t rushing from one thing to another, and they avoid unhealthy distractions. Saying “no” every once in a while and avoiding over-scheduling is a good place to start.
Which of these 9 aspects of the longevity diet do you feel is most lacking and/or affecting your life? That is probably a good place to start! We don’t have to do #allthethings right away. In fact, working on a small, realistic habit and building up from there is often the best way to achievelong-termm change.
Need help finding a good place to start? Download my Blue Zone Rating workbook to find out where your own life scores on these different secrets to longevity!