Want to extend your life for a few more years? Then consider eating what the longest-lived populations on the planet eat! Scattered around the globe are a handful of “Blue Zones,” regions where life spans are impressively long—Ikaria, Greece…Nicoya, Costa Rica…Okinawa, Japan…Sardinia, Italy…and the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. There are more 100-year-olds in these areas than anywhere else, and their rates of heart disease, dementia and diabetes are a fraction of those in the overall US. Genetics alone do not explain this longevity. People living in these communities consume diets that help them live long lives.
Recent research suggests that the rest of us might be able to live significantly longer, too, if we ate the way they do—potentially 13 years longer for men…10.7 years longer for women, according to a team at Norway’s University of Bergen. Substantial longevity gains appear feasible even for people who have consumed a typical Western diet for many decades—up to perhaps 8.8 extra years for those who make these eating changes at age 60…or 3.5 years at age 80.
How do you get started? Here are key Blue Zone dietary guidelines, based on an analysis of more than 150 surveys…
Eat more plants and less meat. Blue Zone dining does not require you to become a vegetarian, but it does mean eating a lot less meat than the average American does. The diets of people in these long-lived communities are at least 90% plant based, and they consume meat only five times per month or less. By comparison, people in the US consume meat five times a week, on average.
Despite what many meat fans fear, switching to a plant-focused diet does not doom you to disappointing dining. Americans often are less than thrilled when they first attempt to cook without meat. But that’s not because plant-based dishes can’t be tasty. It’s because people who have been eating mostly meat-based meals their whole lives often lack experience preparing plant-based dishes. Keep at it for a few months and experiment with a wide range of recipes from around the world, and you will discover plant-based dishes that you love.
Another meat-eater fear—that a plant-based diet won’t provide enough protein—also is inaccurate. Plenty of plants are excellent sources of protein including broccoli, spinach and beans.
Helpful: Meat fans who think they dislike tofu might try cooking with extra-firm tofu, which is popular in Okinawa, Japan. It replicates meat’s texture better than other, softer tofu varieties.
Also: Cooking in a healthful fat can make plant-based dishes more satisfying. Olive oil, popular in Ikaria, is among the healthiest fats—drizzle it over vegetables…and/or use it to sauté ingredients at temperatures no higher than 350°F.
Limit fish consumption. Surprisingly, the longest-lived populations tend to consume no more than three servings of fish per week—even though most of them are located near coasts. This might come as a surprise, since seafood is considered a healthy alternative to meat. When Blue Zone communities do consume fish, it tends to be relatively small fish from the middle of the ocean food chain, such as sardines and anchovies. Ocean predators such as swordfish can contain troublingly high levels of mercury, among other dangers.
Reduce dairy and egg consumption. In the US, milk and eggs often are presented as ultra-healthy protein sources, but that’s largely because these products have extensive lobbying and marketing campaigns. In fact, no Blue Zone community consumes much cow’s milk. Goat and sheep milk do have a place in Sardinian and Ikarian diets, but largely in the form of cheese and yogurt. It is not common in these cultures to drink a glass of any type of milk.
Eggs play only a modest role in Blue Zone diets—people in these places eat eggs only two to four times per week, on average, and the eggs they consume are inevitably from free-range chickens.
Drink water, coffee, red wine and/or tea. People in Blue Zones drink little or no soda. But they do consume a rich range of beverages—in addition to water, many of them enjoy coffee, red wine and tea (typically green or herbal) virtually every day. Nutritionists have been debating the healthfulness of coffee and red wine for years, but the fact that the people who live the longest drink lots of these seems like compelling evidence that, on balance, they must not be too bad for us.
Eat beans. Blue Zone populations often eat a cup of beans per day. Beans have more nutrients per gram than any food group…are wonderful sources of protein and complex carbohydrates…and are so fiber-rich and satisfying that they reduce the temptation to overeat. Experiment with a range of beans—in Nicoya they often use black beans…in Okinawa, it’s soybeans…and in Ikaria and Sardinia, favorites include garbanzos, white beans and lentils. Helpful: Add beans to your diet slowly to reduce the odds of digestive distress. Seasoning bean-based dishes with turmeric, ginger and/or fennel also helps control this problem.
Make nuts a go-to snack. Any diet plan that requires you not to snack is likely to fail. Instead, replace life-shortening snacks with one that extends lives—eat two to four ounces of nuts each day. Nut consumption is common in Blue Zones—almonds are favored in Ikaria and Sardinia, and pistachios in Nicoya. A study of nearly 100,000 members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church by researchers at Loma Linda University concluded that nut eaters outlived people who don’t eat nuts in that community by an average of two to three years.
Eat naturally sweet foods…skip sugar-added foods. Blue Zone populations don’t avoid sweet foods—they just choose naturally sweet fruit rather than sugar-added snack products. Based on the eating habits of these long-lived populations, it seems that we can treat ourselves to more or less all the fruit we want without shortening our lives.
Blue Zone diets tend to include no more than seven teaspoons of added sugar per day, one-fifth of what the average American consumes. Much of the added sugar consumed in these regions is stirred into coffee or tea. Blue Zone groups eat virtually no processed snack foods.
Choose either sourdough or whole-grain bread. Most bread sold in the US is made from bleached white flour, which the body metabolizes into sugar. It has been linked to higher risk for life-shortening health issues including obesity and diabetes. People in Blue Zones favor sourdough or whole-grain bread. Several studies, including one by researchers at Canada’s University of Guelph, have found that sourdough has a low glycemic index, meaning that it helps keep blood sugar levels in check. Whole-grain breads, such as whole wheat, are high in healthful fiber.
Warning: Many breads marketed as “sourdough” are not baked using the lactobacilli that sets true sourdough bread apart…and some breads marketed as “whole grain” or “whole wheat” are not really 100% whole grain. Either bake these breads yourself—Breadtopia.com is a good place to find recipes—or buy from a highly regarded local bakery, and ask for confirmation that it’s a true sourdough or 100% whole-grain bread.
Eat foods that look like what they looked like on the farm. The majority of the food consumed in Blue Zones enters people’s kitchens looking more or less like a part of a plant—or, less often, a part of an animal—straight from a farm.