About ten years ago, Dan Buettner, a journalist working for National Geographic, published a book called “The Blue Zones” that is now almost a classic in the genre.
“The Blue Zones” researched areas of the world that have an unusual concentration of centenarians (people reaching the age of 100).
I first became aware of this research when I was living in Costa Rica, and a group of researchers came to the Nicoya Peninsula to discover that this area of the world was one of those coveted “Blue Zones” where there’s a very high percentage of centenarians compared to the United States.
What I liked about the book was the fact that it was based on actual, verifiable research. In the past, many people have claimed that certain cultures have lived a very long time, such as the Hunzas in Pakistan or the Vilcabamba residents in Ecuador.
The problem is that the record keeping in those areas was very poor and there was no way to verify the ages of the alleged centenarians. Someone could claim to be 110 years old and in fact be only 90. In fact, this kind of exaggeration was widespread.
With The Blue Zones, the researchers had new scientific techniques that could verify someone’s age and use DNA data they could also trace back the ancestry of the people they met.
Combined with valid birth certificates, they have located five areas of the world where people have managed to outlive Americans by often a decade or more.
I must say that the author received some criticism for his research methods and for not including some longevity secrets of some of the regions he studied, focusing too much on diet and nutrition.
Criticism also came from low-carb proponents, such as those endorsing a paleo diet, attacking the Blue Zone guidelines because it supported a plant-based diet.
To respond to the controversy, the author wrote:
“I’m not trying to take a scientific stance on whether fat or protein or carbs are better. I will tell you though, that the longest-lived people ate a high complex-carb diet with medium levels of fat and medium-to-low levels of protein. My stance is simply: ‘Here’s what the longest-lived people ate over the last century on average, and if you’re interested in health outcomes similar to theirs, you might pay attention to this.’”
A lot of people who are proponents of specific diets, such as the paleo diet, like to refer to some unproven, anecdotal advice on the “good health” of particular tribes, such as the Inuits.
When in fact many other people lived far longer and healthier than this example. The Blue Zones is the first set of data that looks at populations that have an unusually high number of centenarians. Often these areas have been overtaken by fast food, and the health of new generations is poor.
But those people that managed to live 100 years or more are from a different era and have kept the same lifestyle practices that they had in their youth.
These five Blue Zones are:
- The island of Sardinia, in Italy
- The tropical islands of Okinawa, in Japan
- The Nicoya peninsula, in Costa Rica
- The religious group of the 7th Day Adventists, living in Loma Linda, California
Those four groups are covered in the book.
But last year the group of researchers also uncovered another Blue Zone, on the island of Ikaria in Greece, where nearly 1 out of every three people make it to their 90s (Which is very unusual).
What did these people eat?
==> In Sardinia, Italy, the traditional diet is based on whole wheat bread, vegetables, a little goat cheese and wine. They don’t consume meat daily.
From the book: “Shepherds and peasants in Sardinia have a straightforward diet, which is extraordinarily lean even by Mediterranean standards,” a 1941 survey reported. “Bread is by far the main food. Peasants leave early in the morning to the fields with a kilogram of bread in their saddlebag… At noon their meal consists only of bread, with some cheese among wealthier families, while the majority of the workers are satisfied with an onion, a little fennel, or a bunch of radishes. At dinner, the reunited family eats a single meal consisting of vegetable soup (minestrone) to which the richest add some pasta. In most areas, families ate meat only once a week, on Sunday (…). Interestingly for Mediterranean culture, fish did not figure prominently into the diet.”
===> On Okinawa, the diet is based on sweet potatoes, traditional soy products, rice, and vegetables.
When a 102-year old woman (who looks like she’s in her 70’s) describes her routine, she says:
“I wake up at about 6 a.m. and make a pot of jasmine tea and eat my breakfast, usually miso soup with vegetables. (…) At noon, Kamada said, she wanders into the kitchen garden behind her house to harvest some herbs and vegetables for her lunch. “I’ll use mugwork to give my rice flavor or tumeric to spice my soup, she said. “I don’t eat much anymore. Usually just stir-fried vegetables and maybe some tofu.” And meat, I asked. “Oh yes, I like meat, but not always. When I was a girl, I ate it only during the New Year festivals. I’m not in the habit of eating it every day.”
She eats a very light dinner before 6 p.m. that might include some fish soup, whatever vegetables are in season, some spring onions, salad, and rice.
The typical diet of these Okinawan centenarians is again very simple: vegetables from the garden, green tea, and maybe a little fish, with some rice and tofu.
===> The 7th Day Adventists’s diet is more aligned with your typical health-food store enthusiast rather than a traditional diet forced by circumstances.
Things like fresh fruit, oatmeal, salads and vegetarian foods are part of the menu. Interestingly enough, not all 7th Day Adventists are vegetarians or vegan. But the vegetarians lived longer than the meat eaters (on average two years longer), and the vegans lived even longer than the vegetarians.
“(…) Adventists who are what we call lacto-ovo vegetarians, meaning they eat eggs and other dairy products, still are an average of 16 pounds lighter than Adventists of the same height who are non-vegetarian. And Adventists who are strictly vegan, which is only 4 percent, are 30 to 32 pounds lighter than non-vegetarian Adventists of the same height. That has a huge impact on cardiovascular disease, on blood pressure, on blood cholesterol, on inflammation related to hormones and the way it stimulates cells in the body.”
===> The Nicoyans in Costa Rica ate mostly corn tortillas, beans, some animal protein such as eggs and some amount of pork or chicken. They eat more animal foods than other long-lived populations, but also ate the most fruit out of all long-lived people.
From the book: “They asked centenarians what they ate and heard “beans, rice, tortillas and fruit” over and over. (…) A few characteristics of the Nicoya’s diet stood out. Like the people in most other Blue Zones, Nicoyans ate the typical low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet, rich in legumes. But unlike other Blue Zones, the Nicoyan diet featured portions of corn tortillas at almost every meal and huge quantities of tropical fruit. Sweet lemon, orange, and a banana variety are the most common fruits throughout most of the year in Nicoya.”
An interesting fact of the Nicoyan diet is that Nicoyans have the lowest stomach cancer rate out of the country of Costa Rica. For some reason, Costa Ricans have one of the highest stomach cancer rates in the world. The conclusion by the researchers was that the high amount of fruit consumed in Nicoya helped prevent stomach cancer.
If you want the full story, you can read the book, but let me outline a few important points about the diet that stood out for me.
- All long-lived people eat what we could call a “plant-based diet.” That means a lot of carbohydrates, probably a minimum of 50-60% of total calories. Some eat a low-fat diet, but most eat around 20-25%.
- When they consume animal products, it’s occasionally and in small amounts only.
- All long-lived people had periods in their life when a lot less food was available, and they had to survive on a very sparse, limited diet. For example, the centenarians in the book in Okinawa describe a time during World War II when they lived on sweet potatoes for three meals a day. They ate what they produced on their land — mostly bread, cheese and vegetables (zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and most significantly, fava beans). Meat was at best a weekly affair, boiled on Sunday with pasta and roasted during the festivals.” This reinforces my concept of periodic fasting. Because we live in a society of such abundance, we have to force ourselves to go through periods of restrictions with periodic cleanses and fasting.
- All long-lived people consume beans in some form or another.
- The typical centenarian diet is humble. If you analyze all these diets from long-lived people around the world, they mostly eat the same simple foods every day. It appears that you do not need a wide variety of foods in your diet to be healthy. Quality food over variety. Also, fatty foods like meat and cheese are reserved for special occasions and eaten at the most a few times a month if at all.
Of course, diet is only part of the answer. Other important points outlined in the Blue Zones include:
- Exercise. The most significant insight in the book besides the diet points I have described is how much long-lived people exercise. It shocked me to realize that I’m not getting nearly as much exercise as I should. It seems that in the prime of their lives, these centenarians were probably getting something like 5 or 6 hours of moderate exercise per day (such as walking and working outdoors). As they get older, they keep on walking and being active. Thus, the concept of exercising a few times a week to stay in shape seems seriously flawed. None of these centenarians “worked out.” They simply had an active lifestyle and walked a lot. An hour a day of walking or running, combined with weight training exercises and other outdoor activities you enjoy (golfing, swimming, etc.) should be the goal for anyone wanting to live a long and healthy life.
- A sense of purpose — All long-lived people had a strong sense of purpose. They had a reason to get up in the morning and do something. The Nicoyans called it “A plan de vida” which means a “life plan.” They were also engaged socially in their communities.
- Family — This is a tough one for many of us, but it seems pretty obvious that to live a long life you can’t go it alone. All centenarians had big families that they supported and who supported them until the end.
- Obvious things — Of course, the obvious factors are there as well. None of them smoked or ate a lot. One lady in Okinawa said, “I don’t eat much anymore.”
The use of the present tense
When I write that those people “eat” such and such food in the present tense, I’m conscious that those societies are changing and it’s likely that the diet of younger generations has nothing to do with that of their elders.
Pretty soon, we won’t have any Blue Zones to visit, except the ones we can create ourselves.
How many of you are ready to live 100 years or more?