One of the major motivations to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and engage in healthy lifestyles is to enjoy a long and quality life. Most people want to enjoy as many fruitful and productive years as possible, and thankfully advances in medicine and nutrition are making it easier than ever.
But the key to longevity and productive old age may be a lot simpler and more accessible, if the world’s “Blue Zones” are any indication. These are regions in the world – Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – that are known for having the highest number of centenarians (those living at or past 100) in the world.
In fact, not only do these Blue Zoners live long lives, but perhaps more importantly, they enjoy fairly robust mental and physical faculties: despite their advanced age, they are active, alert, happy, and lacking the diseases and disabilities that usually afflict people decades younger, let alone at or near 100.
So what do people in these communities – which span different cultures, climates, and environments – do to stay so healthy for so long?
Well, they each have their differences: for example, Sardinians consume a lot of fava beans and red wine, residents of Loma Linda, California are known for eating copious amounts of nuts and legumes, and Okinawans heavily utilize the spice turmeric in their diet.
This suggests that there are different paths to having a long and healthy life. But the similarities are what are especially informative. Here is a breakdown from NPR:
You may remember this Blue Zone from Buettner’s wonderful 2012 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Island Where People Forget To Die.”
As we’ve reported, health researchers have long praised the Mediterranean diet for promoting brain and physical health and keeping chronic diseases at bay. So what makes the diet of the people on Ikaria, a small island in the Aegean Sea, so special?
“Their tradition of preparing the right foods, in the right way, I believe, has a lot to do with the island’s longevity,” writes Buettner.
And “what set it apart from other places in the region was its emphasis on potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit and relatively small amounts of fish.”
Ikaria has a few more “top longevity foods:” feta cheese, lemons and herbs like sage and marjoram that Ikarians use in their daily tea. What’s missing that we usually associate with Greece? Lamb. The Ikarians do eat some goat meat, but not often.
Buettner calls the islands of Okinawa a kind of “Japanese Hawaii” for their laid-back vibe, beaches and fabulous weather. Okinawa also happens to have one of the highest centenarian ratios in the world: About 6.5 in 10,000 people live to 100 (compare that with 1.73 in 10,000 in the U.S.)
Centenarians on Okinawa have lived through a lot of upheaval, so their dietary stories are more complicated than some of the other Blue Zones. As Buettner writes, many healthful Okinawan “food traditions foundered mid-century” as Western influence brought about changes in food habits. After 1949, Okinawans began eating fewer healthful staples like seaweed, turmeric and sweet potato and more rice, milk and meat.
Still, Okinawans have nurtured the practice of eating something from the land and the sea every day. Among their “top longevity foods” are bitter melons, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea and shitake mushrooms.
On this beautiful island in the middle of the Mediterranean, the ratio of centenarian men to women is one to one. That’s quite unusual, because in the rest of the world, it’s five women to every one man who live that long.
The sharp pecorino cheese made from the milk of grass-fed sheep in Sardinia, has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Buettner writes that the Sardinians explain their exceptional longevity with their assets such as “clean air,” “locally produced wine,” or because they “make love every Sunday.” But when Buettner brought along a researcher to dig deeper, they found that pastoralism, or shepherding livestock from the mountains to the plains, was most highly correlated with reaching 100.
So what are those ancient Sardinian shepherds eating? You guessed it: goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese — some 15 pounds of cheese per year, on average. Also, a moderate amount of carbs to go with it, like flat bread, sourdough bread and barley. And to balance those two food groups out, Sardinian centenarians also eat plenty of fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea and wine from Grenache grapes.
Loma Linda, Calif.
There’s a Blue Zone community in the U.S.? We were as shocked to learn this as you may be. Its members are Seventh-day Adventists who shun smoking, drinking and dancing and avoid TV, movies and other media distractions.
Tofu links sold in Loma Linda, Calif. The Blue Zones research shows that adherents of the Adventist diet, which is mostly plant-based, have lowest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. and very low rates of obesity.
David Mclain/Courtesy of Blue Zones
They also follow a “biblical” diet focused on grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, and drink only water. (Some of them eat small amounts of meat and fish.) Sugar is taboo, too. As one Loma Linda centenarian tells Buettner: “I’m very much against sugar except natural sources like fruit, dates or figs. I never eat refined sugar or drink sodas.”
Gary Fraser, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Loma Linda University and an Adventist himself, has found in studies that Adventists who follow the religion’s teachings lived about 10 years longer than people who didn’t. Another key insight? Pesco-vegetarians in the community, who ate a plant-based diet with up to one serving of fish a day, lived longer than vegan Adventists.
Their top foods include avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and soy milk.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
We’d love to be invited for dinner by a centenarian here, where they #putaneggonit all the time. One delicious-sounding meal Buettner was served by a 99-year-old woman (who’s now 107) consisted of rice and beans, garnished with cheese and cilantro, on corn tortillas, with an egg on top.
As Buettner writes, “The big secret of the Nicoyan diet was the ‘three sisters’ of Mesoamerican agriculture: beans, corn and squash.” Those three staples, plus papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms (a small Central American oval fruit high in vitamins A and C), are what fuel the region’s elders over the century.
Here is a visual of the data from three of the earliest discovered Blue Zones (absent Nicoya and Ikaria, though they too meet at the middle):
So to recap: people in Blue Zones tend to enjoy varied diets made up of fresh and whole foods, particularly greens, nuts, herbs, and seafood; they consume portions that are often smaller than average, with an emphasis on eating only enough to be satiated (rather than stuffed); and they tend to eat little meat proportionally, aside from lean cuts and seafood.
Beyond diet, Blue Zone residents engage in regular moderate exercise – usually walking, gardening, or yard work – and also maintain active social and community lives, especially with their families. They maintain an easy-going and slow pace of life, often setting aside time to relax and de-stress. Smoking is also virtually nonexistent.
In short, the people living in Blue Zones work on all dimensions of a healthy life: not just a healthy diet, but a modest and light one; strong social ties with an even stronger, life-affirming dedication to family and the community; and an appreciation of the finer things in life, like a nice walk or time to unwind, which does wonders for mental health.
Though there is still a lot of research to be done, the evidence seems clear: a long and healthy life doesn’t require anything fancy or technological, but the sort of diet and values that are accessible to most of us — at least up to a point.
It is telling that among the handful of similarities common to all the Blue Zones was strong family and social ties and healthy community life. I think it says as much about the importance of building a good and generous society, and what such a relatively prosperous society may look like, then its does about the importance diet (which is just one dimension of overall health and wellness).
Just as physical and mental health are intricately intertwined, so too are individual and community health. It is much easier and more feasible to live a long and healthy life when your society provides the sort of stability, socioeconomic support, and environment to facilitate it all.
When your economic system requires you to work long, punishing hours at too fast of a pace to relax; when your food distribution system makes fresh produce expensive or inaccessible, and conversely makes less healthy processed food plentiful in its place; and when your society lacks mutually beneficial values of generosity and altruism, it is a lot harder for most people to maximize the potential of their minds and bodies.
Here is hoping that Blue Zones become less of an anomaly and more of a model to emulate and expand elsewhere. We see clear examples of the sorts of behaviors and