The Blue Zones Diet: What Can We Learn From the World’s Healthiest Adults?

By | September 10, 2019

Please Note: This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness. If you have any health concern, see a licensed healthcare professional in person.

Can the Blue Zones Diet help you live past 100 years old?

It might, based on research from the healthiest places in the world.

This article will look at diet and lifestyle practices common to the Blue Zones, and explore why people in these regions live longer than those from other parts of the world.

What is the Blue Zones Diet?

The Blue Zone Diet isn’t a diet, per se.

Rather, it’s a set of diet and lifestyle practices that are said to promote longevity.

It’s based on a book called The Blue Zones, in which author Dan Buettner looks at the diet and lifestyle practices of five regions in the world with the longest lifespans and the lowest rates of disease. These regions include:

  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Ogliastra (Sardinia, Italy)
  • Loma Linda, California (specifically, the Seventh Day Adventist population in this community)
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Remarkably high rates of people in the Blue Zones live well into their nineties, and even beyond the age of 100 (12).

This is especially impressive considering the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years.

Genetics play a role, of course, but a surprisingly small one. Studies suggest that longevity is only about 25% dependent on genetics (3).

The remaining 75% comes down to diet and other healthy lifestyle choices. The remainder of this article will look at some lifestyle practices common to the Blue Zones.

Summary: The Blue Zones diet is based on a book called The Blue Zones, by author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner. Buettner and his colleagues identified five regions of the world where high rates of people live past the age of 90, mostly due to healthy lifestyle choices. These regions include Ikaria, Okinawa, Sardinia, Loma Linda, and the Nicoya Peninsula.

Common Diet Practices in the Blue Zones

There are many cultural differences among the Blue Zones, but their diets are pretty similar.

Most important is a heavy emphasis on plant foods. People in the Blue Zones eat only 11-15 pounds of meat per year on average (mostly pork) (4).

By contrast, Americans were projected to consume an estimated 223 pounds of meat per person in the year 2018. While this statistic doesn’t account for food waste or nonfood uses, it highlights one possible reason why people in the Blue Zones live longer.

Indeed, large studies have linked healthy plant-based diets with decreased risk of death from all causes (56).

Let’s look at some of the reasons for this.

Body Weight

Obesity increases the risk for diabetescardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and other health problems.

Plant-based diets may promote longevity, in part, by lowering the odds of obesity.

Canadian epidemiological studies indicate that 62% of the entire population is overweight, and that 25% are obese.

However, the prevalence of obesity is much lower in Canadians who follow plant-based diets. Data indicate that fewer than 6% of Canadian vegetarians and vegans are overweight (7).

Further, large observational studies suggest that body mass index (BMI) increases with larger amounts of animal foods in the diet, and that plant-based diets decrease the risk for weight gain over time (89).

This is one of many ways that plant-based diets might promote longevity in the Blue Zones.

Protein Sources

In general, animal proteins are higher in saturated fats and cholesterol than plant proteins.

Recent studies have challenged the decades-old argument that saturated fats increase the risk for heart disease and death. However, other recent studies point out that they’re still less healthy than unsaturated fats, which are more prevalent in plant-based diets (10).

In this way, the Blue Zones Diet may promote longevity by incorporating fewer animal proteins and more plant proteins.

In one study including more than 81,000 adults, those who obtained the most protein from meat were significantly more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who obtained the most protein from nuts and seeds (11).

Other large studies have linked higher meat intake with increased risk of death, particularly for people with a history of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer (1213).

On the other hand, plant-based diets have been linked with lower death risk. One large study of more than 131,000 adults compared mortality risk for meat-eaters versus plant-eaters. In this study, replacing 3% of calories from animal protein with 3% of calories from plant protein was linked with a 10% lower risk of death.

What’s more, the effect was incremental, meaning that the risk of death was 50% lower for people who replaced 15% of calories from animal protein with equal calories from plant protein (13).

In other words, you may be able to lower your disease risk simply by eating less meat, even if you’re not ready to commit to vegetarianism.

Fiber

Plant-based diets tend to be higher in fiber, due to their emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds (14).

This is important, because high-fiber diets have been linked with many health benefits, including (1516171819):

  • A healthier and more diverse gut microbiome.
  • Lower body weight.
  • Decreased risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Less risk of heart attack.
  • Decreased risk of colorectal cancer.

Because people in the Blue Zones eat a variety of plant foods, their diets are likely higher in fiber compared to people who follow Western diet patterns. This is another way their diets lower their risk of disease.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants are naturally occurring chemicals found in foods that help prevent cell damage.

Numerous studies have shown that antioxidant-rich diets help prevent and reverse chronic diseases, like cancer and heart disease.

Considering plant foods like fruits and vegetables contain more antioxidants than meat and other animal products, plant-based diets like those preferred in the Blue Zones may help to lower the risk for disease (20).

There are lots of different types of antioxidants. However, one common practice in 4 of the 5 Blue Zones increases the intake of a specific type of antioxidant that’s thought to lower the risk for disease and death.

While Seventh Day Adventists traditionally abstain from alcohol, many adults in the other Blue Zones enjoy red wine regularly. Red wine is rich in a certain type of antioxidants called polyphenols, and studies suggest that moderate amounts of them may lower the risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and early death (21).

In this way, the Blue Zones diet is similar to the Mediterranean Diet, which encourages small amounts of red wine with meals.

Of course, there are a couple of caveats. As of now, experts generally agree that there’s no good reason to start drinking wine if you don’t already.

For those who already drink alcohol, wine consumption should be limited to 1-2 glasses per day, always with food and preferably with friends or family. Keep in mind that wine, or antioxidants in general, can’t make up for an unhealthy diet.

As such, wine should be enjoyed with a diet consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and healthy fats.

Summary: People in the Blue Zones follow plant-based diets, eating less than one pound of meat per month on average. Plant-based diets tend to be lower in calories and saturated fat and higher in fiber and antioxidants than omnivorous diets, and studies have linked them with lower rates of chronic disease. Adults in the Blue Zones also tend to have 1-2 glasses of red wine per day, always with food and often with family or friends.

Healthy Lifestyle Practices in the Blue Zones

A healthy diet is key to longevity and health, in the Blue Zones and otherwise.

However, optimal health requires more than just a healthy diet. People in the Blue Zones share some common lifestyle behaviors that complement their healthy food choices. Here are a few that you can try.

Stop Eating When You’re Only 80% Full

Okinawans practice “hara hachi bu,” a Confucian mantra that loosely translates to “belly 80 percent full.”

The healthiest people in the world don’t eat until they’re uncomfortably full. Rather, they stop eating when they are about 80% full. In doing so, they tend to eat fewer calories overall and also lower the risk for obesity and obesity-related disease.

It sounds simple, but it can take some practice to stop eating at the point of satisfaction when you’re used to eating until you’re stuffed. The best way to do this is to adopt mindful eating practices. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Eat your meals at the table, with all devices turned off.
  • Take your time at meals, and chew your food thoroughly.
  • If you’re not sure if you’re 80% full, take a short break! You can always have more if you’re still showing physical signs of hunger (like a growling stomach).

Above all, stay patient. With time, it’s possible to train your body to stop eating when you’re 80% full.

Eat Your Smallest Meal Later in the Day

Have you heard the saying, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”?

People in the Blue Zones tend to follow this dining pattern, and may be healthier for it. Indeed, large observational studies have linked large evening meals and nighttime snacking with increased risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome and related health conditions (222324).

Ready to give it a try? Start by avoiding snacks after dinner. Once your appetite adjusts, you can work toward eating larger meals during the day and smaller ones at night.

Stay Active

People in the Blue Zones are active but don’t necessarily “work out.”

Rather, their communities promote activity in subtle ways. People in Blue Zones tend to walk or bike more than drive, and they don’t shy away from manual labor at home or in the garden. This is one reason why they live longer than people in other regions.

One study of Sardinian men linked behaviors like walking to work up steep hills and farming with longer life span (25).

Other studies indicate that people who walk more throughout the day tend to live longer than people who are sedentary (26).

For example, one large study compared daily steps and mortality rate in middle-aged adults for up to 10 years. In this study, participants who increased their step count from sedentary to 10,000 steps per day were 46% less likely to die from any cause (27).

This practice common to the Blue Zones is fairly easy to implement. Simply look for more opportunities to move throughout the day. Get up from your desk every hour and walk for five minutes, park farther away from the door while running errands, or meet your friends for a walk rather than a meal.

Manage Stress

Everyone experiences emotional stress from time to time.

People in the Blue Zones find ways to lower their stress every day, including prayer, meditation and naps. In doing so, they may help lower the likelihood of inflammation and cardiovascular disease (2829).

Try making a list of activities that bring you joy and peace, like a long walk, a phone call with a friend, a hot bath or meditation. Making time for these activities can help fend off stress before it starts, and also make you feel calmer when you do experience stress.

That said, it’s best to seek help from a trained mental health professional if you often feel overwhelmed by stress.

Spend Time with Friends and Family

People in the Blue Zones prioritize time with friends and family, and may prolong their lives by doing so.

For example, children in Okinawa are placed into groups of five called “moai.” These small friendship circles provide social and emotional support for each other from early childhood to death. In other Blue Zones, it’s common for aging adults to live with their adult children or other relatives.

One review of studies conducted over a period of 34 years found that loneliness and social isolation contributes just as much to risk for death as other well-established risk factors (30).

What’s more, another large analysis including more than 300,000 people suggests that the risk for death is 91% greater among people who are socially isolated (31).

No matter how busy you are, it’s important to make time for important people in your life. If you need to broaden your social circle, try taking a class, joining a senior center or volunteering.

Know Your Purpose

Do you have a clear sense of what gets you out of bed every morning?

People in Okinawa call this “ikigai,” while those on the Nicoya Peninsula refer to it as “plan de vida.”  In English, it loosely translates to “purpose.” Whatever you call it, it may help you live longer.

One meta-analysis including 10 studies and more than 136,000 participants found significant connections between having a clear sense of purpose in life and a lower risk for death from any cause (32).

Admittedly, some may find it difficult to define their purpose. Think about the people and activities that bring you fulfillment. This may be your children, or your volunteer work—there is no wrong answer! A trained mental health professional, life coach or spiritual adviser can help if you are struggling to know your purpose.

Join a Spiritual Community

One study of more than 18,000 adults ages 50 and older linked regular attendance at religious services with lower risk of death. In this study, those who attended services the most frequently were the least likely to die from any cause during the 10-year study (33).

Another large study had similar findings, and identified four potential ways that religious services could lower the risk of death, including (34):

  • Built-in social support
  • Fewer depressive symptoms
  • Lower rates of smoking
  • More optimism

Indeed, other studies have linked each of these traits with lower risk for mortality (35363738).

The take-home message? If you’re religious, going to services regularly may help you live longer. If you’re not religious, you might see some benefits from connecting with friends, being more positive, seeking treatment for depression symptoms and quitting nicotine.

Summary: A healthy diet promotes longevity in the Blue Zones, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Other lifestyle factors—like community, spirituality, stress management and a sense of purpose—help people in the Blue Zones stay healthy. They also eat mindfully, ending each meal when they are just 80% full and eating smaller meals at night.

Should You Try the Blue Zones Diet?

The Blue Zones Diet isn’t actually a diet—it’s a set of lifestyle practices that are common to the healthiest parts of the world.

Strong evidence suggests that implementing some or all of these practices could help you live longer.

For example, people in the Blue Zones eat less than one pound of meat per month on average.

Their healthy, plant-based diets are low in calories and saturated fat and rich in fiber and antioxidants.

Each of these attributes have been independently linked with lower risk for mortality.

People in 4 of the 5 Blue Zones also enjoy red wine most days of the week.

If you already drink wine, limit your intake to 1-2 glasses per day and only with meals.

However, there’s no good reason to start drinking if you don’t already.

Aside from food choices, you can also live more like those in the Blue Zones by eating smaller meals (especially at night).

Try to stop eating when you’re only 80% full and make dinner your smallest meal of the night.

Finally, seek out ways to be happier and less stressed.

This may include connecting more with family and friends, being more active in your church, meditating or prioritizing activities that bring you a sense of purpose.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll live longer, of course, but you may find that you feel better and healthier overall.


Previously published on dietvsdisease.org

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