These 'Blue Zones' Foods May Help You Live Longer—Wine and Bread Included
The longest-living people on Earth eat a diet based on these principles.
It sure is tempting to think that you could (healthfully) eat your way to 100. The reality is that what you eat really does play a role in how long you live—as do many other factors. A Danish study of nearly 3,000 pairs of twins found that genes only dictate 20% of how long we live. Eighty percent is determined by our lifestyle, which includes what we eat. Turns out there are a handful of areas around the world where there are larger populations of centenarians—people who live to 100 or older. Folks who live in these areas, called Blue Zones, practice some of the same lifestyle habits and eating patterns that help them reach that 100th birthday milestone still in good health. Here's what to know about the Blue Zones and tips to eat like the centenarians who live in them.
Where Are the Blue Zones?
In 2004, Dan Buettner and a team of scientists interviewed hundreds of 100-year-olds to explore what they had in common. Looking at the data, they identified 5 communities around the world where people reach age 100 at 10 times greater rate than the United States. They named them the Blue Zones and they are Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
What Is the Blue Zones Diet?
There isn’t actually a single Blue Zones diet, or even one way of eating. As varied as the locations are, so are the diets. Here’s a summary of the common diet in each of the Blue Zones.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: Here it’s the 'three sisters' that are most common in the diet—beans, corn, and squash. Plus, papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms (a small Central American oval fruit).
- Loma Linda, California: The residents here are Seventh Day Adventists and, thus, are vegetarian. They follow a biblical diet, which is predominately grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Their most common foods are avocados, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, soy milk, and salmon, if they eat fish or meat (some do eat small amounts of fish). They only drink water.
- Sardinia, Italy: Their diet is heavy in goat’s milk and sheep’s cheeses, eating around 15 pounds of cheese per year. They also eat a fair amount of carbs—sourdough bread, flatbread, barley. And also fennel, beans, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea, and wine.
- Okinawa, Japan: Their so-called “longevity foods” are bitter melon, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea, and shiitake mushrooms.
- Ikaria, Greece: Another community that eats a version of the Mediterranean diet. Their diet focuses on lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes, and olive oil.
Although there are variations in their diets, there are four foods they all ate, and four they all avoided.
The Four Foods Every Blue Zone Eats
If we were going so far as to say these are the foods that make up the Blue Zones diet, this is what would be included.
- 100% whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes, beans, and pulses (pulses include dry beans, lentils, and chickpeas to name a few)
- Fruits and vegetables
The Four Foods Every Blue Zone Avoids
If we were to put together a list of foods forbidden on a so-called Blue Zones diet, these would be the foods that are off-limits.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Salty snacks
- Packaged sweets
- Processed meats
When researchers studied the Blue Zones, they found—as you now might expect—that it wasn’t just what the residents of those communities ate, but the lifestyles they lived, too. The Blue Zones shared 9 characteristics, which scientists dubbed the Power 9. Of those “Power 9,” these are the three that characteristics that apply to diet.
- The 80% Rule: In Okinawa, there’s a mantra said before meals—Hara hachi bu—which reminds dieters to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. The 20% difference between not being hungry and being full is significant.
- Plant Slant: Beans are the cornerstone of most of the Blue Zones communities, while meat and fish are eaten much less compared to the standard Western—or American—diet. All adhere to a more plant-focused way of eating.
- Wine at 5:00: With the exception of the Adventists in Loma Linda, the people in all of the other Blue Zones drink red wine moderately—and typically with friends and/or family.
How to Eat Like You Live in the Blue Zones
The experts behind the Blue Zones findings pulled together tips on how you, too, can eat as if you lived in one of the Blue Zones and lengthen your life. Here are their tips.
People in the Blue Zones eat a lot of vegetables—fresh when in season and picked or dry when they're not. The top longevity veggies are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beet and turnip tops, chard, and collards.
Using and cooking with plant-based oils instead of animal fats is a healthier choice—and in the Blue Zones the primary oil used is olive oil.
The average quantity of nuts that Blue Zones people eat is about two handfuls a day—almonds in Ikaria and Sardinia, pistachios in Nicoya, and all types of nuts with the Adventists.
Bread consumed in the Blue Zones is unlike the bleached white flour-based bread most Americans buy. Blue zones bread is either 100% whole grain or sourdough.
People in Blue Zones traditionally eat the whole food—they don’t throw out the yolk and make an egg-white omelet, nor do they skip the juice in their fruit. They eat raw, cooked, ground, or fermented—and not highly processed—foods, and most of their dishes typically contain only six or so ingredients.
Although coffee, tea, and red wine (in moderation) are all consumed by different Blue Zones people, water is the primary beverage.
Research on The Adventists in Loma Linda found that the people who lived the longest were vegans or pesco vegetarians, but those who ate fish didn’t eat much, which is why to eat the Blue Zones way, it’s recommended to eat fewer than 3 ounces, up to three times weekly.
People in four of the five blue zones consume meat, but sparingly—as a small side, or a way to flavor dishes, or at celebrations. Researchers found that, on average, Blue Zones people ate about two ounces or less about five times per month.
Only some of the Adventists drink cow's milk. Two other groups, however, consume goat and sheep’s milk—the Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones. And they don’t drink it so much as milk as they eat it fermented as yogurt, sour milk, or cheese.
People in all of the Blue Zones eat eggs about two to four times per week—and researchers’ advice is to eat no more than three eggs per week.
If you're the resolution-making type and this year you've set a goal of eating for longer (and healthier) life, implement some of the Blue Zones principles and cooking methods that help people in these areas make it to 100 to learn other longevity tips.