Have you heard of the “Blue Zones”? They are longevity hot spots found across the globe where people are most likely to live long and healthy lives. The term was coined by National Geographic Fellow, Dan Buettner, and the locations include Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and the Seventh-day Adventist population in Loma Linda, California.
Considering most people are looking to live long and healthy lives, many researchers have studied these populations to uncover their secrets. What they found is that a handful of lifestyle behaviors were consistent across all Blue Zone populations. People living in these longevity hot spots were all likely to do the following: not smoke, be active, have strong social/community support, manage stress and find purpose in life. In addition, they all tend to eat a similar diet.
Here are the top five diet tips from the world’s healthiest and longest-living populations:
1 | MAKE PLANTS THE FOCUS
A plant-based diet is consistent across all Blue Zone locations, where roughly 90–100% of calories come from plants. Diets rich in plants provide a wide variety of disease-fighting and life-extending nutrients, such as antioxidants, polyphenols and anti-inflammatory compounds. Some of the best life-extending foods include dark leafy greens, vegetables, berries, whole grains, sweet potatoes, corn tortillas, nuts and fruit. But the food most associated with a long and healthy life is beans.
2 | EAT A CUP OF BEANS A DAY
Although shunned by low-carb/paleo diets, beans are a staple food in the Blue Zones. In the Mediterranean, meals often feature fava beans, garbanzo beans and lentils. Black beans reign supreme in Costa Rica, Okinawans eat mostly soy beans (including tofu), and in Loma Linda, it’s all of the above. Beans appear to be the one food most associated with healthy aging, so it’s no surprise they’re found in every Blue Zone. ₁ Because they’re a good source of protein, beans are a great food to replace meat. Add some garbanzo beans to your salad, opt for the black bean burger, switch to a tofu stir-fry, or make a pot of bean and vegetable soup.
3 | DRINK RESPONSIBLY
Plain old water is the best beverage option when we’re thirsty, but other beverages can add a nutrient boost to our diet. Coffee, tea (especially green tea) and red wine all contain polyphenols, which are a group of compounds that appear to ward off degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia and many types of cancer. These beverages are featured frequently in longevity diets. Green tea is common in Okinawa, coffee in Greece and Costa Rica, and red wine is a favorite in the Mediterranean regions. Although these beverages can be part of a healthy longevity diet, they don’t have to be. The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, who tend to eat vegetarian/vegan for biblical reasons, also tend to abstain from alcohol and caffeine. However, one thing these populations all have in common is that they avoid sugary beverages and cow’s milk, and rarely drink alcohol in excess.
4 | EAT UNTIL YOU'RE 80% FULL
In Okinawa, Japan, where women boast the longest life expectancies in the world (90 years old), there’s a cultural practice of not overeating. Elders on the island will often state the phrase, “hara hachi bu” before a meal, which is a Confucian teaching that instructs people to eat until they are 80% full. This doesn’t mean that they try and calculate exactly how full they feel with each bite, but it’s a reminder to eat mindfully and not overindulge. This practice may help people maintain a healthy body weight—a characteristic associated with better health and longevity—by keeping calorie intake within an appropriate range. The traditional Okinawan diet, which was 96% plant-based and heavily featured purple Okinawan sweet potatoes, most likely played a significant role in their long life expectancies as well. ₂
5 | HAVE FAMILY-STYLE MEALS
Another common feature among these healthy, long-living populations are shared meals. One of the best predictors of happiness is strong social connection, and having shared, family-style meals is a great way to build these connections. This may not be appropriate during our current pandemic, but it can still be accommodated by practicing social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene, eating outside or simply having sit-down meals with immediate family members. It doesn’t have to be every meal, but aim for one per day, or at least a few per week.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Many people scoff at the idea of living until they’re 90 or 100 years old because we’ve associated aging with a decline in quality of life. But many of these long-living populations don’t just have a long life expectancy, they have a long health expectancy as well. In other words, they’re living longer and staying in relatively good health into their later years. If you could still garden, travel, socialize with friends/family, go to the movies, have sex, do crossword puzzles or other activities you currently enjoy with limited aches and pains, wouldn’t you want to live longer? By practicing these healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors we can add years to our lives, and life to our years.
- Darmadi-Blackberry, Irene et al. “Legumes: the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities.” Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition vol. 13,2 (2004): 217-20.
- Willcox, Bradley J et al. “Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet, and healthy aging: the diet of the world's longest-lived people and its potential impact on morbidity and life span.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1114 (2007): 434-55. doi:10.1196/annals.1396.037