Longevity is big business. Everyone from Bulletproof Dave Asprey to Deepak Chopra claims to have the secret to living as long as you like, and that aging is optional. We humans are obsessed with slowing down the clock on aging and adding years to our lives. Serums, potions, supplements, even surgery have promised us that we have some control over the clock. But, “the brutal reality about aging is that it has only an accelerator pedal. The average American, by living a fast and furious lifestyle, pushes that accelerator too hard and too much.” (source)
The fact is, we can’t reverse the aging process. BUT we do have more control over how long we live–and how fast we age–than we think. Did you know that, for example, only five percent (estimate) of cancers are absolutely unpreventable? (source) That means our diet, lifestyle choices, and activity levels strongly influence our disease risk and how long we live.
We are not bound to our genetic risk factors; in fact, no matter what your genome says, the foods you eat, your stress level, and your lifestyle can change genetic expression of disease (epigenetics). Experts say that if we adopted the right lifestyle, we could add at least ten good years and suffer a fraction of the diseases that kill us prematurely.
With that in mind, researchers set out to discover what makes people live to 100. They discovered that the people who live in the Blue Zones — five regions in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the U.S.– have the highest concentrations of centenarians (people who live to be 100 or over) in the world. The Blue Zones are places where people have a 3 times better chance of reaching 100 than Americans do. To qualify as a Blue Zone, these communities also have to be largely free of afflictions like heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.
The Blue Zones include the following regions:
- Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
- Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
- Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
- Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
Blue Zone people share the following characteristics:
- They have social circles that reinforce healthy behaviors.
- They take time to de-stress.
- They’re part of communities, often religious ones.
- They’re committed to their families.
- They have plant-based diets low in sugar and alcohol.
- They exercise, be it intentionally or as part of their livelihood.
Here are the common characteristics of their diets:
- Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full to avoid weight gain.
- Eat the smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or evening.
- Eat mostly plants, especially beans. And eat meat rarely, in small portions of 3 to 4 ounces. Blue Zoners eat portions this size just five times a month, on average.
- Drink alcohol moderately (or not at all), i.e. not more than 1-2 glasses of wine per day
- Each region has a specific superfood(s).
Characteristics of Blue Zoners
Blue Zoners not only live to be 100, but they also are free chronic degenerative diseases. Most curious to me was how much meat people in the Blue Zones are eating. I took a closer look.
The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda are vegetarians. They don’t drink or smoke, and their diet is rich in legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruit, and vegetables. Their only sugar is derived from fruit. They’re also not allowed to watch TV, dance (?!), or use other “media distractions.” On average they’re living about 10 years longer than the rest of us.
BUT Another interesting key insight: Pesco-vegetarians (vegetarians that include seafood) in the community, who ate a plant-based diet with up to one serving of fish a day, lived longer than the vegan Adventists. Their top foods include avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and soy milk. (source)
Okinawans 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.). Okinawans have nurtured the practice of eating something from the land and the sea every day. Among their top longevity superfoods are bitter melons (great for reducing blood sugar levels), tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea, and shiitake mushrooms.
In Italy, the researchers found that pastoralism, or shepherding livestock from the mountains to the plains, was most highly correlated with reaching 100. They’re eating a lot of goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese — some 15 pounds of cheese per year, on average. (source) 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.
That’s an interesting paradox: They’re eating a lot of cheese and bread and drinking quite a bit of wine. But their dairy is likely unpasteurized; their bread non GMO and made without additives, and the wine produced without glyphosate. They’re also getting a lot of exercise into old age. Their main fat source is olive oil which contains a blood pressure lowering, anti-inflammatory compound called oleuropein.
So as you can see, the Blue Zoners are eating little–if any–meat, and when they do, it’s anti-inflammatory wild salmon and seafood over red meat.
Another common denominator among the Blue Zoners is a strong sense of community and social connectedness, whether it be from religion or shepherding. We know that family and community, a sense of being liked, makes people happy. The caveat to this of course is if your family stresses you out or if you have toxic relationships. That can actually be detrimental to health and longevity.
How You Can Adopt Principles of Longevity from the Blue Zones
Do you want to live to be 100? Even if you don’t live in sunny Loma Linda, beautiful Sardinia, or tropical Costa Rica, you can follow some basic dietary longevity guidelines:
- Make your diet plant-based. That means that your plate should be at least 75% plants at every meal. Blue Zoners also include whole grains, but grains may contribute to inflammation in those with GI issues.
- Avoid sugar and packaged, processed foods.
- Eat less meat. This one is controversial. You’re probably aware that there’s a lot of misinformation about red meat causing cancer. The issue is everyone has different dietary needs according to their genome, so one person may require and feel better eating meat than another. Too much meat in one individual may cause inflammation, whereas another may have higher requirements for the zinc, iron, and protein that’s most bioavailable in animal protein. We’re still having 4 hour debates about whether vegans or carnivores are healthier. The answer isn’t clear and depends on your lifestyle and genetics. People in the Blue Zones actually eat about a 95% plant-based diet, saving meat for one meal per day or as a celebratory meal. They favor beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. These foods are nourishing the microbiome, and we do know that a healthy gut bolsters the immune system. One thing is certain, though, if you’re a meat eater: You must source healthy meat (no hormones or antibiotics), and the Blue Zoners seem to include wild, fatty seafood (like salmon and sardines) as their main sources of animal protein, not red meat. Overall, however, their diets are mostly plants and legumes, and yours should be, too.
- Don’t smoke. (duh)
- People in the Blue Zones include different varieties of legumes daily, like soy (also controversial, but Okinawans are eating whole and not processed soy and not much of it), fava beans, and lentils. Legumes are a superfood for your gut if you don’t have IBS or GI issues. Try my lentil chard stew to get more legumes. Did you know lentils have over 15 grams of fiber per cup?!
- Don’t stuff yourself. Eat until you’re 8 parts full (Ayruvedic saying) or 80% full (Blue Zone saying).
- Their main sources of fat come from olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, and avocado.
- Snack on nuts, especially walnuts.
- Include green tea and some red wine (though the research is becoming more clear that there isn’t a safe amount of alcohol). Don’t drink sodas, any type, ever!
- Blue zone superfoods include beans, greens (like spinach, kale chard), sweet potato, nuts, olive oil, salmon, turmeric, whole grains (which may or may not work for everyone).
- Move more.
- Find your people and love them.
- Find spirituality. You don’t have to go to church to find this. It could be meditation or believing in the universe, but we know that having faith in something makes one a happier and longer living person.
- Keep busy; find your purpose.
- Get out in the sun and get plenty of vitamin D.
- Get an afternoon nap! No more than 20 minutes. Nappers have up to 35 percent lower chances of dying from heart disease. (source)
The typical American is eating more processed food, is largely sedentary, is consuming too much (likely non organic) meat, cheese, soda, sugar, fast food, and too few veggies, and is possibly disconnected from family and community due to working too much. All these factors lead to degenerative disease. Our bodies are meant to move frequently, and we need a lot of plant-based foods for antioxidants and to nourish our gut flora.
Certainly there is no one size fits all when it comes to diet, but we can learn a lot about how to prevent disease with the Blue Zone guidelines.
Epilogue: I’ve been reading this book about longevity and fasting: The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science Behind Stem Cell Activation and Regeneration to Slow Aging, Fight Disease, and Optimize Weight, and the research on longevity and diet is quite fascinating. Check it out here.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.