Dan Buettner on the diets and lifestyles of those in Blue Zones — places on earth where humans live the longest
In 2005, Dan Buettner revealed his findings about the five places in the world where people live the longest, dubbed the Blue Zones, in National Geographic. Today, he’s continuing a mission to help people live longer, healthier lives — inspired by Blue Zone-techniques.
Buettner reveals some staples you should add to your diet from his most recent book, The Blue Zones Kitchen, and other key habits to add to your daily routine for longevity.
Wake-Up Call: You’ve discovered and studied the lives of people who live in Blue Zones, places in the world where people live the longest. How does that research inform your new cookbook, The Blue Zones Kitchen?
Dan Buettner: People in the Blue Zones live a long time because of a mutually supporting web of factors that help keep them doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things — for long enough to not develop a chronic disease.
(They suffer only a fraction of the rate of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and certain cancers than Americans do.) They live in environments where the healthy choice is the easy choice. They eat a healthy diet, get plenty of physical activity every day because their life is underpinned with purpose, and socialize with people who support the right behaviors. At a certain point, I realized that for most people, the runaway from a healthier lifestyle is through their mouths. So, Blue Zones Kitchen introduces new audiences to the concept by introducing them to tasty food.
What are the staples of the Blue Zones diet and how do they fit together?
People in Blue Zones aren’t blessed with more responsibility than we are, but rather the cheapest and most accessible foods happen to be the ones that help them live to 100. The Blue Zones diet, at its foundation, has four main pillars: beans, greens, 100% whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
The Blue Zones diet is not about one or two specific ingredients. Centenarians in Costa Rica, Okinawa, Japan, and Loma Linda, Calif., use and like different seasonings and have access to different ingredients. But the foundation is the same.
There are many diets that exclude gluten, but this diet encourages wheat products. What are some misconceptions people might have about gluten?
I try to avoid discussing micronutrients because I think it’s wrong-minded. For The Blue Zones Kitchen, my team did a meta-analysis of 155 dietary studies in all five Blue Zones that covered the last 80 years or so. People in Sardinia and Ikaria did eat a good deal of bread, but it was sourdough bread, which possesses only a fraction of the gluten that your average white bread does.
Although whole grains are a staple in all Blue Zones regions, there are many grains that naturally don’t have gluten that are eaten and loved in the Blue Zones like brown and white rice, oats, corn, and buckwheat. There’s no reason to add wheat products into your diet if you are sensitive or, of course, allergic to it.
How else is the Blue Zones diet different from other diets out there?
It’s unique because it’s scientifically-based on the eating pattern of the world’s longest-lived, healthiest people.
And it’s flexible — it’s a way of eating rather than a “diet.” Many diets also fit into the Blue Zones eating guidelines: the Mediterranean, whole-food, plant-based diet, vegetarian diet, flexitarian diet, etc.
What’s a Blue Zones meal people can make from ingredients they already have in their pantry?
This is a peasant diet — and it completely debunks the notion that you have to be rich to eat healthily. Everyone should have four main pantry staples: beans, whole grains, greens, and nuts.
With these ingredients, you can make a hearty stew or a hearty bowl like the Asian Influenced Heavenly Grain Bowl from the Blue Zones Kitchen. You can use any combination of those staples to create a hearty grain bowl with flavors from around the world — add lemon and parsley for a Mediterranean twist, or add lime and hot sauce pulling from Costa Rican flavors. The options are endless.
The Blue Zones diet is low in meat. If someone really enjoys meat, how can they enjoy it in moderation? Are different types of meat better for healthy aging than others?
Centenarians in Blue Zones regions ate meat but mostly as a condiment or celebratory food — about five times a month. An easy way to reduce meat consumption is to move away from the American style of making meat the center of your plate. Two things work well for moving away from meat: Try enough plant-based recipes until you find a half dozen you like. (Blue Zones Kitchen has 100 plant-based recipes — let me suggest starting with the Ikarian Longevity Stew.)
Again, we tend to eat what we like. Investing time to find recipes YOU like will set you up for longterm better eating. Also, we tend to eat like our friends. So, adding a vegetarian or vegan to our social network is a sure-fire strategy to explore the textures and tastes of plant-based eating.
What should people do about processed foods?
The Blue Zones diet is almost completely devoid of processed foods. They ate overwhelmingly a whole-food, plant-based diet.
In a typical year, Americans eat 208 pounds of meat and get 130 percent of their daily sugar and 70 percent of their calories from processed foods. The Blue Zones diet isn’t about telling you you can’t ever have these foods again, but instead filling your plate with beans, greens, grains, and nuts so that eventually, the processed foods get pushed out of the pantry and out of your life. If you’re eating more of the good stuff, you’ll just naturally end up eating less of the bad stuff.
But the Blue Zone way is not just about diet, it’s a whole lifestyle change. What are other things people can add to their lifestyle to contribute to their longevity?
On the original explorations almost 20 years ago, we assembled a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists to search for evidence-based common denominators among all of the blue zones. We found nine.
1. Move naturally: The world’s longest-lived people don’t run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.
2. Purpose: The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida.” Both translate to: “Why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy
3. Down shift: Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. 80% Rule: The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or 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.
5. Plant slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy, and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat — mostly pork — is eaten on average only five times per month.
6. Wine at 5: People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1–2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
7. Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter.
8. Loved ones first: Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first.
9. Right tribe: The world’s longest-lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors.
What are things NOT to do if you want to live a long life?
Be isolated, lonely, depressed.
Eat a diet heavy in meat, processed foods, and low in plant foods like greens, whole grains, beans, and vegetables.
Sit all day at work, in the car, and in front of the TV and don’t move or walk throughout the day.
Work too much with high stress.
Sleep too little.
Hang out with people who sit around, smoke, and eat junk food.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This interview originally appeared on Medium.