Take a look at your current habits. Are you living your life in a way that’s going to help you reach your potential maximum life span? What if you could follow a simple program that helps you feel younger, lose weight, maximize your mental sharpness and keep your body working as long as possible — likely even well into your 90s?
These are the exact questions that drove researcher and writer Dan Buettner to write the best-selling book “The Blue Zones,” a detailed guide as to what Buettner came across when he traveled to five areas throughout the world as part of a large anthropologic and demographic project to study people who have, and are most likely to, live past their 100th birthday.
What Can the World’s Blue Zones Teach Us?
Researchers estimate that in the U.S. today, the average adult life expectancy is about 77.8 years but likely to plummet due to high rates of chronic diseases — many of which are preventable with certain simple lifestyle changes. (1) Buettner’s goals were to find key populations in the world with the highest number of centenarians (people who live over 100), deemed the ‘blue zones,’ and then take lessons learned from these populations and spread them within U.S. borders and elsewhere.
Researchers observed that people living in the blue zones share several common behavioral and lifestyle characteristics, despite being from different areas of the world and of different races, nationalities and religions. Particularly, the investigators of the blue zones reported that …
“some lifestyle characteristics, like family coherence, avoidance of smoking, plant-based diet, moderate and daily physical activity, social engagement, where people of all ages are socially active and integrated into the community, are common in all people enrolled in the surveys.” (2)
Where Are the World’s Blue Zones?
The five blue zones where researchers discovered the longest-living people on earth include:
- Sardinia, Italy (a small island off the coast of Italy, specifically an area called the Nuoro Province)
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Loma Linda, California (an area where the religious group called the Seventh-day Adventists live)
Buettner cautions that if you live the average U.S. lifestyle, with a diet high in processed foods and a schedule packed with responsibilities that leaves little time for exercising or relaxing, you might never reach your potential maximum life span and could be shortening your life by as much as a decade. By making changes to your diet, exercise routine, attitude and outlook on the world, the researchers conclude that anyone can increase their chances of getting back that extra decade of a healthy, happy life.
This brings up a good point. What’s even more impressive than the average ages that people in the blue zones live to? Their quality of life! They grow old in a much better state, and statistics reveal a significantly lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and dementia in older people living in the blue zones compared to the U.S.
As Buettner puts it,
“The world’s longevity all-stars not only live longer, they also tend to live better. They have strong connections with their family and friends. They’re active. They wake up in the morning knowing that they have a purpose, and the world, in turn, reacts to them in a way that propels them along. An overwhelming majority of them still enjoy life.”
7 Key Lessons to Adopt from the Blue Zones
1. Learn to Appreciate Whole, Real Foods, Especially Plants
Centenarians aren’t usually vegans or vegetarians, but they follow a predominately plant-based diet, mostly as a result of a dependency on their own homegrown or locally grown foods. Traditional Sardinians, Nicoyans and Okinawans eat nutrient-dense foods they produce in their own gardens, supplemented by smaller amounts of animal protein foods and staples that include legumes, ancient whole grains, sweet potatoes and corn tortillas.
Foods that are especially prominent in the diets of the blue zones include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Quality fats like olive oil
- High-quality dairy products, like grass-fed goat milk and homemade cheeses
- Fermented products like yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso and natto
- Whole grains, such as durham wheat or locally grown (organic) corn
Eating plenty of high antioxidant foods just like people in the blue zones do — such as making them about half of your plate or more at any meal — contributes disease-fighting nutrients and naturally controls your body’s hunger signals so you know when you’re full. These types of foods lower inflammation, which is crucial because we know inflammation is at the root of most diseases.
Plant foods deliver loads of fiber, antioxidants, potential natural anti-cancer agents (insoluble fiber), cholesterol reducers and blood-clot blockers, plus essential minerals. This is likely one reason why people in the blue zone eating a healing diet suffer much less from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia and cancer than people living in the U.S.
The centenarians in the blue zones didn’t necessarily avoid meat or animal products altogether (although the Seventh-day Adventists did for religious regions); most just didn’t have access to meat very often. Meat is typically eaten only a few times a month in most of the blue zones, while sheep or goat milk, eggs, and fish are eaten more often, usually a couple of times per week. Centenarians in the blue zones usually eat animal-based meals on occasion, such as for holidays, festivals or when they have access to meat from their neighborhood farmers.
When they do have animal products, they obtain more nutrients since their food is always raised locally, grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught and free from harmful substances commonly used in the U.S meat and dairy supply, like antibiotics and growth hormones.
How can you emulate their longevity diets? Emphasize fruits and vegetables by eating four to six vegetable servings every day (about two vegetables at each meal ideally) plus one to three pieces of fruit. Eat a variety of whole foods that supply protein and healthy fats, including nuts and legumes; only eat high-quality animal products (and don’t assume you need them at every meal or even every day).
Also include natural superfoods in your diet like fresh herbs, traditional spices and teas. And don’t forget to include probiotic foods that are fermented and provide gut-friendly bacteria that increase immunity.
2. Avoid Processed, Packaged Foods
When researching diets of the blue zones, something that really stands out is how low in sugar, pesticides and artificial ingredients their diets are compared to the standard American diet (sometimes called SAD). Blue zone diets only use small amounts of natural sweeteners on occasion, while refined carbohydrates and artificial flavors are unheard of for the most part. Considering the high rate of diabetes in the U.S., many people can afford to adopt similar principles that can serve as a natural diabetes cure.
It’s not that those living in the blue zones never let themselves enjoy a “treat,” they just opt to have antioxidant-rich “guilty pleasures” like locally made red wine (1–2 glasses per day) or sake, small amounts of coffee or herbal tea, or simple desserts like locally made cheese and fruit. Soda, sports drinks, candy bars and packaged baked goods don’t play a part in their diet at all.
A nutritional assessment of diets in the blue zones showed a high adherence to whole foods and a nutritional profile similar to the Mediterranean diet, with foods low on the glycemic index, almost always free from added sugar and high in healthy fats and plants.
Based on their research, the reporters concluded …
“to reach successful ageing, it is advisable to follow a diet with low quantity of saturated fat and high amount of fruits and vegetables rich in phytochemicals … their diet is characterized by a high intake of monounsaturated fat, plant proteins, whole grains (fish is not always present), moderate intake of alcohol, and low consumption of red meat, refined grains, and sweets.” (3)
3. Set Up Your Environment for Healthy-Living Success
In the U.S. and many other developed nations, the popular solution for an expanding waistline is to start a “diet,” but none of the centenarians in the blue zones ever went on or off of a diet, and none of them were ever obese! Instead, healthy eating was just a way of life for them and something they shared in common with those around them.
According to “The Blue Zones” book, one secret to eating right for the long run is emulating the environment and habits of the world’s longest-living people by setting up your own home and environment for success. “The amount and type of food we eat is usually less a function of feeling full and more a matter of what’s around us. We overeat because of circumstances — friends, family, packages, plates, names, numbers, labels, lights, colors, candles, shapes, smells, distractions, cupboards, and containers.” Fill your home with healthy foods, get rid of things that tempt you, and be prepared by planning healthy meals and snacks ahead of time.
These kinds of changes can help you to cut back on sugar and packaged foods with artificial sweeteners, chemicals and preservatives.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight by Getting to Know Your Body’s True Hunger Signals
Most centenarians in Nicoya, Sardinia and Okinawa never had the chance to develop the habit of overeating or eating a lot of processed foods, so for much of their lives, they ate small portions and almost always their meals were made up of only whole, unpackaged foods. They’re careful not to overeat, since this can be wasteful, takes away from the food there is for other family members and can lead to a tired, sluggish mood.
In fact, in Japan, the blue zones centenarians carefully practice the traditional cultural rule of “Hara hachi bu,” which teaches people to eat until they are only 80 percent full. In Okinawa, which is nicknamed “the land of the immortals,” people on average eat three to four times the amount of vegetables as the average American eats, and centenarians stay lean throughout their lives with an average body mass index of 18 to 22. They traditionally eat a low-t0-moderate calorie diet by being mindful of their hunger, staying active and getting full on quality whole foods.
One of the keys to controlling your own hunger signals? Get a good night’s sleep. Missing sleep can take years off your life, and we know that sleep helps control hormones that play a big part in appetite and fat storage. Populations in the blue zones get a full, restful eight hours of sleep or more on average, which helps them control stress and cravings. Can’t sleep and feel like you’re always tired? Relieving stress, exercising and eating a healthy diet can all help.
5. Exercise Often but Make It Enjoyable
Centenarians in the blue zones lead active lives, yet they never set foot in a gym and don’t dread exercise. Being active is just a part of their day and way of life: They walk almost everywhere (usually up to five to six miles every day), they do chores using their hands instead of machines and their errands are run on foot. They tend to be active by practicing types of exercise they enjoy, such as yoga, tai chi, or playing sports and games with friends.
Many of them also have jobs that are physically demanding, such as farming — which is a big contrast to sitting behind a desk all day. And almost all of them love to garden, which gives them some exercise; time spent de-stressing in nature; and also provides fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit. Staying active consistently in a healthy way adds to longevity by reducing inflammation, improving heart health, improving resilience to stress, and maintaining bone and muscular health.
According to a 2012 report about longevity published by the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Center of Quebec,
“Numerous studies have shown that maintaining a minimum quantity and quality of exercise decreases the risk of death, prevents the development of certain cancers, lowers the risk of osteoporosis and increases longevity. Training programs should include exercises aimed at improving cardio-respiratory fitness and muscle function, as well as flexibility and balance.” (4)
6. Establish a Healthy Support System to Reduce Stress
According to Buettner, this is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to change your lifestyle for the better: Surround yourself with family members and close friends who share your values. For residents of the blue zones, this comes naturally because social connectedness is ingrained into their cultures. Satying connected is a natural way to bust stress and improve quality of life.
People in the blue zones “have better and stronger systems of support, they’re much more engaged with and helpful to each other, more willing and able to express feelings, including grief and anger, and other aspects of intimacy.” This type of social system reinforces healthy, positive behaviors and reduces chronic stress, which is one of the biggest contributors to chronic disease. There’s a lot of existing evidence that shows acute or chronic psychological stress can induce a chronic inflammatory process, which over time can increase the risk for diseases like heart disease, mental disorders, autoimmune diseases and digestive problems. (5)
For example, Okinawans have “moais,” groups of people who stick together their whole lives and spend time together daily talking, cooking and supporting each other. Similarly, Sardinians finish their days in the local bar, where they meet with friends for some red wine, or they enjoy annual grape harvests and religious ceremonies in their village that require their whole community to pitch in. Sardinians have been isolated geographically in the Nuoro highlands for 2,000 years so they work and socialize with one another as a means of both support and entertainment.
Seventh-day Adventists make a point of associating with one another weekly or even daily as a practice reinforced by their religious practices and observation of the sabbath on Saturdays, when they rest and socialize. These are all examples of natural anxiety remedies that can keep you sharp, sociable and upbeat well into old age.
7. Spend More Time with Family and in Nature
Family seems to be everything to the people living in the blue zones. For example, during the weekly 24-hour sabbath that Seventh-day Adventist practice, they spend time focusing on family, God, camaraderie and nature. While chronic stress can wreck your life, Adventists claim that their routine relieves their stress, strengthens their families and social networks, and provides consistent exercise too, since the whole family participates together in outdoor games, walks and other activities.
Old-age homes don’t exist in the world’s blue zones because people are expected to take care of the elderly, especially older family members. In fact older, people play a pivotal role in the blue zones and remain an important, active part of the family well into their 90s. “A combination of family duty, community expectations, and genuine affection for elders keeps centenarians living with their families … Likable old people are more likely to have a social network, frequent visitors, and de facto caregivers. They seem to experience less stress and live purposeful lives.”
What’s the Takeaway Message?
Living a longer, healthier, more enjoyable life doesn’t come from a single practice alone, such as a good diet or even good genes, but from a combination of habits. How does your lifestyle compare to those living in the blue zones? What can you take away from their routines, diets, viewpoints on exercise and beliefs?
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