The Blue Zone Diet: Achieve a Longer Life Through Food

blue zone diet foods
Emilee Petkus

Written by Emilee Petkus | Edited By: Aditi Khandelwal

January 29, 2021

A long and fulfilled life is what the majority of us fantasize about and strive for. Within America, the average life expectancy rests around 78.2 years. (1) For five special places around the world, a life beyond 100 years is not just a dream but a reality, and we are going to tell you how. 

In 2004, Dan Buettner traveled around the world in search of the healthiest places on the planet with the highest concentration of centenarians. In case you do not know, centenarians are individuals who live to 100 years of age and beyond. After carrying out almost 150 studies, Buettner and his team determined five regions as the healthiest places on the planet. (2) (3)

These areas, spread all around the globe have now been dubbed the blue zones. However, an extended life expectancy is not the only amazing aspect of these locations. All five have low instances of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes as well. (2) Obviously, these regions must be doing something that the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily for us, Buettner has uncovered what he believes is the key to a successful, long life, and it’s actually a pretty simple explanation. These zones all share a diet with similar key staples and a slightly active lifestyle.

In this post, we bring to you information on what makes these five zones so healthy and the top factors that promote longevity. However, if you are craving to learn more go hop over to the Blue Zones website for more in-depth articles and further research.  Buettner suggests that an additional 10-12 years can be added to your life if you simply follow a diet similar to what they eat in the blue zones. (1) This is because genetics are only responsible for 10% of your lifespan, while the other 90% is dependent upon your food choices and lifestyle. (3) It is pretty empowering to have that much control! With this information in mind, are you ready to learn about how to live a longer life through food?

The Five Blue Zones

First, we will start with a brief overview of what makes each zone so unique. While every location has its own culture, they all share the commonality of prioritizing health and happiness above all else, which are definitely traits that we should adopt within our own lives. (2) They also incorporate their own unique “longevity foods,” which play key roles in increasing one’s lifespan. 

However, all blue zone diets have a common denominator: majorly plant-based with “5 pillars” including leafy greens, potatoes, nuts, beans, and whole grains. (2)

blue zone diet locations

1. Ikaria, Greece 

Ikaria, Greece was first identified because the island has the lowest rates of middle-age mortality and dementia in the world. (1) In fact, the rate of dementia within Ikaria is only one-fifth of the rate in the United States, and its cardiovascular disease rate is half! (4) So what are the Ikarians doing that is so special?

Well, they follow something similar to the long-praised “Mediterranean diet,” known for promoting brain and physical health. The foods they eat daily also help keep various chronic diseases at bay. In general, their diet has a focus on potatoes, goat’s milk, beans (mostly garbanzo), honey, green leafy vegetables, and small amounts of fish. Buettner states that the tradition of “preparing the right foods in the right way,” meaning without preservatives or processed ingredients, is a major reason that Ikarians live such healthy and long lives. (2)

2. Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa has the highest centenarian ratio in the world with about 6.5 in 10,000 living to 100. This is a stark contrast to America, where only 1.73 per 10,000 become centenarians. (2) Beyond Okinawa’s laidback lifestyle, their diet also has major benefits. Surprisingly, 60% of their diet consists of only sweet potatoes. These complex carbs are amazing sources of beta carotene, which has major antioxidant properties. (3) 

However, they are not just eating meals consisting of sweet potatoes. Some other important staples including tofu, seaweed, garlic, brown rice, green tea, melons, and shiitake mushrooms. The herb otani-watari is also a common addition to various meals such as stir-fries, soups, and salads. (2) (4)

Another interesting fact is that in Okinawa, most people only eat till they are 80% full. This mindset is great for weight management and preventing obesity from developing in the first place! If you are finding trouble implementing this change, try eating slower and putting down your utensils after every bite. This will ultimately help you stay in tune with your body. (6)

3. Sardinia, Italy

Home to the longest living men, Sardinia has a ratio of men to women centenarians of one to one. Compare this to the rest of the world where it is closer to one man to every five women. (2) Quite astounding! Beyond this, they also have ten times the centenarians than the United States. (4)

This region of Italy is quite mountainous and home to many shepherds who trek the terrain daily; therefore, it is thought this active lifestyle plays a major role in the men’s longevity. (2)  

Nonetheless, their diet plays a major role as well. Sardinian’s longevity foods include, yep you guessed it, goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese. (2)  These alternatives are less processed and more filling than traditional milk products. (4) In fact, the average Sardinian will eat about 15 lbs of cheese per year! (2) They also enjoy sourdough, barley, fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, almonds, thistle tea, and, surprisingly, around two glasses of red wine per day. (2)  

4. The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

The Nicoya Peninsula has the lowest rate of middle-age mortality and their centenarians rarely experience heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, or obesity. (4) These individuals not only live long but also maintain an amazing quality of life. 

Buettner claims that the “big secret of the Nicoyan diet [is] the ‘three sisters’ of Meso-American agriculture: beans, corn, and squash.” (2) In fact, 70% of their diet consists of beans, squash, and corn tortillas. (3)

The second secret is how they prepare their tortillas. Before doing anything, they always soak the corn kernels. This way all the vitamin B and fiber stored in the skin are easily absorbed when digested. In the end, these carefully crafted tortillas can help lower cholesterol and prevent cognitive decline. (1) 

5. Loma Linda, California

Now don’t be too surprised about seeing America on the list. Loma Linda has a large population of Seventh-day Adventists, a sect of Christianity, who prohibit smoking, alcohol, and caffeine. Members of this faith actually live 10 years longer than other Americans. 

They all follow a “biblical diet” that focuses on grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. (1) Perhaps most shocking is that they only drink water, meaning no sugary sodas or juices. They will occasionally have some fish, but limit their intake to about three times per week. (2)

Simple Blue Zone Tips To Follow

It is important to note that the foods cherished differ between the five blue zones. However, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to help put on the path towards a healthier lifestyle that celebrates rather than restricts food. 

Eat Mostly Plants

The blue zones typically follow a diet that is 95% plant-based, with a major emphasis on fresh produce and beans. This is a more traditional diet focused on whole foods that most of the world abandoned with the advent of greasy fast food and processed overly-sugary snacks. (2) Whole foods remain in their natural state from when they were grown. They do not contain any additives, preservatives, extra flavorings, or added sugars. These foods are unprocessed and super healthy for you. (9)

In fact, 30-year-old vegetarian Adventists outlive their meat-eating counterparts by 8 years! (1)(6) The plant-sources that these regions rely upon are leafy greens, with an emphasis on kale, spinach, chard, and collards. Don’t throw away your beet and turnip tops either! These can be repurposed in various recipes and have major longevity benefits. (7) 

All necessary nutrients and vitamins come directly from their mostly plant-based food sources that are not enriched in any way. They snack on entire fruits and vegetables, pickle their own produce, and use every food in its entirety. (8)

Another great addition to your diet is two daily handfuls of a mixture of different nuts. (8)

fruits and vegetables for the blue zone diet

Have Beans Everyday

As a source of protein, most blue zones rely on beans and its consumption is up to four times as compared to Americans. (8) Beans are an amazing superfood packed with fiber, protein, and numerous vitamins/minerals. (6) In fact, enjoying a cup per day could possibly add two or three years to your life! (5)  These are great and easy additions to your diet as beans are quite cheap and can be added to just about everything.

beans

Enjoy Some Fish But Less Meat

Even though we have established you should eat more plants, we are not insisting you abandon meat altogether. However, it is recommended that you only include small portions of meat twice in your weekly meals, or even better, only 2 oz servings around 5 times per month. (3)(8)

Craving for more protein? Then cook up some fish instead! The Blue Zones also recommends you limit your intake of the animal protein to 3 oz servings only three times per week. (8)

salmon

Sip On Tea, Coffee, Wine & Water

Many people prefer to sip herbal tea throughout the day, with green tea being a favorite in Japan and tea made from oregano, rosemary, and mint in Ikaria. Interested in learning more about what tea can do for you? Check out our blog post about the health benefits of chamomile tea. Seven glasses of water also are consumed every day. These are both healthy alternatives to the sugary drinks we often over-indulge in America. You won’t find any additional sugar in the blue zones! (1)(6)(8)

Dairy, with the exception of occasional goat’s milk, is generally avoided as well. (8) If you are trying to reduce your dairy intake and don’t know where to start, check our guide about the plant-based alternatives.

I know it seems crazy to be promoting alcohol for a diet, but it turns out that red wine has a lot of health benefits when enjoyed in moderation. In fact, Sardinian Cannonau Wine has a large store of healthy flavonoids because of the Grenache grapes they use. (6)

So savor a glass to unwind or during a meal with friends. Most blue zones drink 1-2 glasses per day! (8)

herbal tea

Move Naturally

Turns out that your health does not only involve specific foods but a certain lifestyle as well focused around a supportive community of friends and family and stay moving throughout the day. In general, the Blue Zones are located in mountainous terrain and in areas where walking is more efficient than taking a car. As a result, people generally remain active on a day-to-day basis, usually by tending to the garden, cooking a meal, doing housework, or even going on a daily walk. These lifestyle choices improve your health and will keep your body in shape longer. (1)(6) They may also provide you the necessary time needed to destress. (2)

gardening

Rather than viewing this as a new restrictive lifestyle, instead, celebrate every day with these healthy foods that not only nourish your body but taste great too. Remember, maintaining that positive outlook and daily exercise are crucial as well.

If you decide to make the shift towards eating more “blue,” let us know through Instagram! 

*Cook & Culture is not affiliated with any of the websites linked or mentioned*

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