Where and what is a Blue Zone?
Icaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica and Sardinia, Italy — wildly disparate areas spread across the globe — have something in common. They’re the five original Blue Zones, designated as such for the remarkable longevity of their residents.
The term “Blue Zone” was coined by Dan Buettner, who eventually created the Blue Zone diet. Demographic researchers working with Buettner identified regions with the highest concentrations of people living into their 80s, 90s and beyond.
Chances are, you don’t live in a Blue Zone. But some U.S. communities are creating their own Blue Zone-inspired surroundings. Even on your own, you can follow similar lifestyle tenets and choose the kinds of foods on which Blue Zone residents thrive. Start by adding these Blue Zone foods to your diet:
Plant-based foods overall
“Those who live in Blue Zones eat a plant-centered diet,” says Maria Conley, a registered dietitian nutritionist and functional medicine nutrition specialist at Henry Ford Health System in the Detroit area. “Their diets are rich in vegetables, beans, whole grains, fruit and high-quality fats. They also choose whole, minimally processed foods.”
Blue Zones feature a spectrum of healthful, appealing foods. “Fruits and vegetables — within their rainbow of colors we find thousands of phytonutrients which can prevent and treat disease,” she says.
Conley points to another advantage: “Plant-based foods can also be helpful for weight control because they add volume or bulk to the diet without a large amount of calories.”
Certain foods connect these far-apart regions. “Depending on the Blue Zone, food choices varied, but there were definitely patterns which Dan Buettner and his team identified and promote in ‘The Blue Zones Solution,'” says Vahista Ussery, a registered dietitian nutritionist, chef and founder of To Taste, a culinary nutrition consulting and education company. “Must-eat foods include beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables — especially leafy greens and sweet potatoes.”
Local legumes are staples among Blue Zones. “Legumes — beans, peas and lentils — are rich in fiber, which can improve blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduce cancer risk,” Conley points out.
Fiber is important for satiety. “Beans are a plant-based protein that are rich in fiber, leaving you full and satisfied,” Ussery says.
Beans, with their many varieties worldwide, allow versatile, inexpensive dishes. “A white bean stew on top of a piece of hearty bread is a very satisfying meal,” says Erica Mouch, a registered dietitian based in Seattle, where she owns her private practice.
It’s no wonder nuts are a common thread in Blue Zone locations. Nuts provide a rich source of protein, healthy fat and antioxidants — and they’re everywhere. Walnut, chestnut, almond and wild pistachio trees abound in the Icaria area. California-grown tree nuts are plentiful for Loma Linda residents. Gingko nuts are native to Japan, Costa Rica is known for its macadamia nuts and pine nuts are frequent ingredients in recipes on the island of Sardinia and the nearby Italian mainland.
You won’t see that much white flour in Blue Zones. Instead, residents prefer plenty of whole grains. “Whole grain have more protein, fiber and nutrients than their refined counterparts,” Conley notes. “Brown rice, oats and ground corn are common staples in the Blue Zones.”
Healthy, high-quality fats are also Blue Zone hallmarks. “Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, olive oil and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids are the main source of fats in Blue Zones,” Conley says. “We find anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy fats in these foods.”
Carbs — yes, carbs
Don’t expect a Blue Zones version of the keto diet — which slashes dietary carbs — anytime soon.
“We are in a world right now that is very anti-carbohydrate, but with the Blue Zones diet, that isn’t the case,” Mouch says. “Bread, whole grains, quinoa, farro, rice — all of these are included in the Blue Zones in abundance. Research shows up to 50% of their diet is carbohydrates.”
Alcohol (in moderation)
Far from being forbidden, moderate drinking is the norm for most cultures in the Blue Zones, Mouch says. The single exception is the Loma Linda Blue Zone, which centers on members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who have a religious reason for not consuming alcohol.
“One drink a day for most folks seemed to be, in terms of the Blue Zones, something that improved quality of life,” Mouch says. Although that’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, known for including a daily glass of red wine or two, other types of alcohol are also fine, she says, such as sake (a fermented rice beverage) in the Blue Zone of Okinawa.
Foods to curb
In Blue Zones, “one commonality is that there seems to be smaller amounts of meat or animal protein, or it’s used less frequently,” Mouch says. “So that’s predominantly chicken, beef, pork, lambs, eggs and dairy.”
Sweets are also less routinely consumed. “They tend to be more celebratory, or it’s not having a dessert at the end of every meal,” Mouch adds.
Vending machine-type foods aren’t encouraged. “To eat the Blue Zones way, limit ultra-processed foods — those foods that come in packages with crazy-long ingredient lists you can’t pronounce and are truly developed to be irresistible,” Ussery says. “You also want to limit sugary beverages — these drinks add too many calories with no benefit.”
Limiting processed meats such as sausage, lunch meats and bacon is also healthier — they’re correlated with cancer and increased risk of heart disease, Ussery notes.
Way of life
Nutrition is an important facet of Blue Zones, but there’s much more to the mix. “While food might be at the center of the Blue Zone way of life, it truly is a lifestyle,” Ussery says. “Knowing your purpose — why you get up in the morning, putting family first, moving naturally, taking time to downshift and belonging to a community are all important and contribute to longevity.”
Movement vs. exercise
Movement is just part of daily life in these longevity hotspots, Mouch says. That’s not the same thing as planned exercise sessions, she adds.
“None of the people in the Blue Zones are going on 10-mile runs every single day,” Mouch says. “They’re moving in general. That could be walking more, or working in the garden, for example. That could be walking their sheep up and down the hills of Sardinia, Italy. They just tend to be more active, but not from a beat-yourself-up exercise mindset. In terms of vigorous cardio activity, that’s not something that’s common among the Blue Zones folks.”
When you live in a Blue Zone, you’re not alone. “All of the regions have some sort of religious community or just long-term friendship community,” Mouch says. “They really put a lot of emphasis on people being together.”
It’s no coincidence that centenarians thrive where there’s a strong sense of community. The oldest members often lead vibrant, active lives, she says. Many still live independently and cook for themselves.
There’s another aspect, Mouch says: “When people get to 105 and maybe they can’t do a few things themselves, the community really helps and just sort of steps in to make sure that it works a little bit easier for them.”
Family and community meals are also important in the Mediterranean and Nordic diets, where it’s not just about the food you eat but also with whom you share it.
Resources for inspiration
Ussery was actively involved in the Blue Zones Project in Fort Worth, Texas. Gaining traction nationwide, the well-being initiative provides a roadmap for building healthier surroundings.
Embraced by 56 U.S. communities to date, the project endeavors to boost community health on multiple levels, including making changes in local school cafeterias, restaurants and grocery stores.
Improving street and park designs, public policy and social involvement also makes it easy for people to make healthy choices, according to the Blue Zones website.
If you’re looking for resources or just want to learn more, Ussery recommends reading “The Blue Zones,” Buettner’s first book. For recipe help, “The Blue Zones Kitchen” offers recipes inspired by all the Blue Zone areas that are designed to promote longevity.
Environment for health
“People living in the Blue Zones have the advantage of living in an environment that promotes health, unlike how most of us live,” Ussery says. “They don’t have to think about eating healthy — they simply eat. They don’t have to fit exercise into their schedules — they simply, naturally move more.”
Locally produced foods are central to the Blue Zone way of eating. “They don’t go to the grocery store and eat foods that have been processed in faraway factories or traveled for thousands of miles,” she says. “They are eating from their own farm or one nearby, so they truly have an advantage.”
You can likely adapt how you source your own food. Shopping at farmers markets or joining a CSA farm — community supported agriculture — allows you to enjoy farm-fresh food wherever you live.
“We can do our best to mimic the lifestyles of those Blue Zone areas,” Ussery says. “Every effort we make will make a difference and hopefully add years to our lives.”
Blue Zone foods to add to your diet
Incorporating these foods or food groups in your daily diet may help boost longevity:
— Plant-based foods overall.
— Leafy greens.
— Whole grains.
— High-quality fats.
— Healthy carbs.
— Alcohol (in moderation).
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