The Blue Zones SolutionJanuary 2016
By Astrid Derfler Kessler
Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People
With Dan Buettner
Author, journalist, explorer, and health activist Dan Buettner has traveled the world investigating unique areas—known as Blue Zones—where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives. In his new book The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, a follow-up to his bestselling book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Buettner describes the eating habits and lifestyle choices that allow people from these five areas—including locations such as Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California—to live well into their 80s, 90s, and 100s—all the while enjoying vibrant good health and a full and happy life.
Most people living in Blue Zones enjoy physical activity incorporated naturally into their daily lives (like gardening or walking), a sense of purpose (like caring for grandchildren or volunteer work), low stress levels and a slower pace of life, strong family and community connections, and a diet characterized by moderate caloric intake, mostly from plant sources.
While there are certain key characteristics that comprise a Blue Zone, such as eating a plant-based diet and engaging in daily activity, “It’s not a silver bullet,” said Buettner, in an interview with CBS news. “It’s silver buckshot. We found nine common denominators of the world’s longest living. When it comes to diet, there’s a big argument for having a vegan diet, but we find that by looking at data from 100,000 Americans, the Adventist health study, that adding a little bit of fish to your diet, being a pescatarian, is actually better for you.
“If you can articulate your sense of purpose, it’s worth about eight extra years of your life expectancy.”
LE: Longevity—as well as the good health to enjoy those extra years—is vital to Life Extension® readers. You’ve explored the earth finding pockets of healthy longevity and the secrets that make these people some of the longest-lived on the planet.
DB: For more than a decade, I’ve been working with the National Geographic Society to identify hot spots of longevity around the world—areas we called Blue Zones because a team of researchers had once circled a target region on a map with blue ink. Teaming with demographer Michel Poulain, I set out to find the world’s longest-lived people. We wanted to locate places that had not only high concentrations of 100-year-olds but also clusters of people who’d grown old without diseases like heart problems, obesity, cancer, or diabetes. We found five places.
- Ikaria, Greece, an island eight miles off the coast of Turkey that has one of the lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia,
- Okinawa, Japan, home to the world’s longest-lived women,
- Ogliastra Region, Sardinia, Italy, the mountainous highlands of an Italian island that boast the world’s highest concentration of centenarian men,
- Loma Linda, California, a community with the highest concentration of Seventh-Day Adventists in the US, where some residents live 10 more healthy years than the average American,
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, in Central America where residents have the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the second highest concentration of male centenarians.
LE: Despite the fact that these locales are spread around the globe, there must have been one or more common denominators. What longevity factors did these five location have in common?
DB: Remarkably, no matter where I found long-lived populations, I found similar habits and practices at work. When we asked our team of experts to identify these common denominators, they came up with nine lessons, which we call the Power Nine. They include moving naturally, purpose, downshift, the 80% rule, plant slant, wine at 5:00, right tribe, community, and loved ones first.
LE: Please explain each of these nine rules in more detail.
DB: [The first] is move naturally. The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work. Every trip to work, to a friend’s house, or to church occasions a walk.
Purpose —the Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida, which both translate to “why I wake up in the morning.” In all Blue Zones, people had something to live for beyond just work. Research has shown that knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra longevity.
Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress, which leads to chronic inflammation associated with every major age-related disease. These people have routines to shed that stress [or downshift]. The Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.
The 80% rule reminds people to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. Hara hachi bu is a 2,500-year-old Confucian mantra said before meals on Okinawa [to remind themselves of this]. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight and gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average five time a month in a serving of three to four ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. Beans, including fava, black, soy, and lentil—the plant slant—are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets.
Wine at 5:00. People in all Blue Zones (even some Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers. The trick is to drink one or two glasses per day with friends and/or food. And no, you cannot save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday!
The world’s longest-lived choose or were born into social circles, the right tribe, that support healthy behaviors. Okinawans create moais—groups of five friends that commit to each other for life. Research shows that smoking, obesity, and even loneliness are contagious. By contrast, social networks of long-lived people favorably shape their health behavior.
All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to a faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Researchers shows that attending services four time a month will add four to 14 years of life expectancy.
Successful centenarians in Blue Zones put family or loved ones first. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home, which lowers disease and mortality rates of their children. They commit to a life partner (which can add three years of life expectancy) and they invest in their children with time and love, which makes the children more likely to be caretakers when the time comes.
LE: Let’s delve into some of the unique health habits of each Blue Zone area. The Mediterranean Diet is something Life Extension® has long recommended as a key to good health and an increased life span. It’s a diet that the centenarians on the Greek island of Ikaria have followed for centuries.
DB: Like other Blue Zones, Ikaria is remote and people have stuck to their traditions, which have enabled them to avoid the influence of modern Western eating habits. Their tradition of preparing the right foods, in the right way, has a lot to do with the island’s longevity.
The island’s diet, like much of the Mediterranean, includes lots of vegetables and olive oil, smaller amounts of dairy and meat products, and moderate amounts of alcohol. What sets it apart from other places in the region is an emphasis on goat’s milk, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit, and relatively small amounts of fish.
LE: What is it specifically about eating or not eating these foods that increases longevity?
DB: Low dairy consumption has been associated with reduced heart disease. Olive oil, especially unheated, is believed to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. Goat’s milk contains serotonin-boosting tryptophan. And wine, in moderation, helps the body absorb more of the flavonoids from the food eaten with it. Black-eyed peas, rich in protein and fiber, have been found to contain some of the strongest anticancer, antidiabetes, and heart-protective substances in nature.
LE: Wild greens and lemons are also the list of top longevity foods from Ikaria.
DB: Wild greens, such as purslane, dandelion, and arugula, grow all over the island. These wild mountain greens are a great source of minerals like iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium as well as carotenoids [that] the body converts to vitamin A. Eating a cup daily seemed to be one of the keys to longer life in Ikaria.
Ikarians put lemon juice on everything. They eat the whole fruit, skin and all. The high acidity of lemon peels may have a beneficial impact on blood sugar, helping control or prevent diabetes.
LE: You traveled to Okinawa, Japan, where you interviewed a centenarian you describe as having the flexibility of a yogi and the frenetic energy of a Chihuahua. It took some doing, but you finally convinced her to share her secrets.
DB: It took two days to convince [104-year-old] Gozei Shinzato to show me her arsenal of longevity supplements, but in the end she delivered. She showed me one supercharged supplement with carotenoids, flavonoids, and saponins, and another that fights breast cancer by reducing blood estrogen. [She showed me] a proven antimalarial agent to keep her stomach healthy, another to help regulate metabolism, maintain low blood pressure, and treat gallstones. [Another] lowers blood sugar to help stave off diabetes.
The “supplements” on display were Okinawan sweet potatoes, soybeans, mugwort, turmeric, and goya, a bitter melon. All grew 15 feet from her house.
LE: Another top longevity food of the Okinawans is seaweed. Along with turmeric and sweet potato, these three foods provide additional benefits for delaying aging. Can you please explain?
DB: They mimic calorie restriction, a digestive survival mode with longevity benefits. As food is digested, mitochondria in our cells convert calories to energy. A by-product of this process are free radicals, oxidizing agents that deteriorate the body from the inside out. Free radicals stiffen arteries, shrink the brain, and wrinkle skin. In calorie restriction mode, our cells protect themselves by producing less energy but also throwing off fewer free radicals and thus slowing the aging process.
Recent research…has shown that regular consumption of turmeric, sweet potato, and seaweed can provide some of the benefits of caloric restriction, tripping genetic triggers that minimize production of free radicals without causing hunger.
LE: You mentioned bitter melon as a staple of the Okinawan diet. What is this?
DB: It’s not a fruit—it’s a long, knobby gourd. It’s often served with other vegetables in a stir-fry. Recent studies found it an effective antidiabetic as powerful as pharmaceuticals in helping regulate blood sugar. Like the sweet potato, turmeric, and seaweed, it contains chemicals that may slow the production of corrosive free radicals. It’s becoming more and more available in American gourmet produce markets [and] there is nothing quite like it as a substitute.
LE: I was somewhat surprised that an American community is included in the Blue Zones. Yet the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, live an average of 10 years longer than the typical American life span of 79 years.
DB: These are Americans… They live among us, drive by the same fast-food restaurants, shop in the same grocery stores, breathe the same air, and work the same jobs. But they’re living a decade longer!
The first Adventist Health Study, the AHS-1, funded by the National Institutes of Health, followed 34,000 Adventists in California for 14 years. In that study, [it was found] that Adventists who most strictly followed the religion’s teachings lived longer than people who didn’t. The practices most likely to yield that longevity, each adding about two years to life expectancy, are eating a plant-based diet with only small amounts of dairy or fish, not smoking, maintaining medium body weight, eating a handful of nuts four to five times a week, and doing regular physical exercise.
LE: Adventists support their diet by citing Genesis 1:29: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”
DB: The Adventist encourage a well-balanced diet including nuts, fruits, and legumes, low in sugar, salt, and refined grains. Their diet prohibits foods deemed unclean by the Bible, such as pork or shellfish. The only beverage endorsed is water—at least six glasses a day.
LE: What are some more or the Adventists’ top-longevity foods?
DB: Avocados, which may help reduce blood pressure and the risk of stroke. Salmon—people who eat one to two three-ounce servings weekly of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids reduced their chance of dying from a heart attack by a third. A [1990’s] study found that Adventists who ate a handful of nuts at least five times a week lived two to three years longer than people who didn’t eat nuts. More research since then found links between nut eaters and lower rates of cholesterol, blood pressure, chronic inflammation, diabetes, and a myriad of other troubles that add up to cardiovascular disease. Beans and other legumes represent [their] daily protein source, and a staple is slow-cooked oatmeal, [which] provides a balanced portion of fats, complex carbohydrates, and plant protein, along with good doses of iron and B vitamins. Its high fiber makes it filling, and nuts and dried fruits add fiber, flavor, and variety. Whole-wheat bread and soy milk are also included.
LE: Research has found that Costa Ricans living on the Nicoyan peninsula have the longest life expectancy of anyone in the world.
DB: Today, [Nicoyan] middle-aged people—especially men—reach a healthy, vital age of 90 at rates of up to 2.5 times greater than those in the US. In other words, residents here elude heart disease, many types of cancer, and diabetes better than Americans by an order of magnitude. And they spend one-fifth of what the US spends of health care.
My colleagues and I concluded that the secret lies partly in their strong faith community, in their deep social networks, and their habit of doing regular, low-intensity physical activity. They also benefited from a healthy daily dose of vitamin D from sunlight and extra calcium in the water. Diet also plays a bits role.
LE: Like residents of other Blue Zones, people here eat a low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet. What foods are unique to the Nicoyan peninsula that Life Extension® readers can incorporate into their own diets?
DB: The big secret of the Nicoyan diet was the “three sisters” of Mesoamerican culture: beans, corn, and squash. A combination of beans and squash, eaten with corn tortillas, is rich in complex carbs, protein, calcium, and niacin. It naturally helps reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. Nutritionist Leonardo Mata told me he thought the most significant component of the diet was how they prepared their corn [tortillas]. To prepare the dough, they soak whole corn kernels in calcium hydroxide—lime and water—which infuses the grain with 7.5 times more calcium and unlocks certain amino acids otherwise unavailable in corn.
LE: What are some other foods eaten on the peninsula that contribute to a long life span?
DB: Squash—available in several varieties—provides high levels of useful carotenoids. Papayas grow like weeds in Nicoya, so people eat it, both green and ripe, almost every day. Its rich orange flesh contains vitamins A, C, and E, plus an enzyme called papain that counters inflammation. Yams have been a staple for the past century. Although these yams are similar in appearance, they are unrelated botanically to North American sweet potatoes. They are true yams, available in the US in produce markets serving Latin American communities. Their flesh is firm and white, even cooked, and they are a rich source of vitamin B6. Black beans, bananas, and pejivalles, or peach palms, round out their top longevity foods.
LE: What are peach palms and are they available in the US?
DB: A staple for Costa Rica, they are rarely seen for sale in the United States. One prominent Costa Rican researcher believes they may interact with a bacterium—Helicobacter pylori—that is closely associated with stomach cancer. Peach palms may explain why Nicoyans have the lowest rates of stomach cancer in Costa Rica.
LE: Thank you for sharing this important and useful information with our readers. I’m sure they’ve learned even more ways to increase the longevity and vitality of their own lives.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.
To order a copy of The Blue Zones Solution, call 1-800-544-4444.
Dan Buettner is an internationally recognized researcher, explorer, bestselling author, and National Geographic Fellow. His books include
The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest and Thrive:
Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. He founded Blue Zones®, a company that puts the world’s best practices in longevity and well-being into practice.