What does it take to live to 100? As it turns out, people who live to 100, or centenarians, are concentrated in five different regions of the world, coined the “Blue Zones.”
Blue Zone is a non-scientific term given to these geographic areas, home to some of the world’s oldest people. First coined by author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, these areas are called Blue Zones because when Buettner and his colleagues were researching these areas, they drew blue circles around them on the map.
People living in the Blue Zones tend to have low rates of chronic disease and often live longer than the rest of the world. Although the Blue Zones are spread across the globe in Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California, their inhabitants do share some similar diet and lifestyle habits - which might be able to shed some light on the quest for longevity.
In the four-part Netflix documentary released in August 2023, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, as well as in his book by the same name, Buettner goes on a journey through the Blue Zones, exploring the diet and lifestyle habits of the people in each area attributed to leading longer lives.
Although the lifestyle varies from zone to zone, Blue Zone inhabitants exercise regularly, have strong social networks, know their purpose, feel a sense of spiritual or religious belonging, and drink moderate amounts of alcohol.
In today’s modern world, it may feel daunting to try and adopt a Blue Zone lifestyle, but the good news is that the dietary component can be easily incorporated, no matter your location.
Go for Meatless
The staple foods of the Blue Zones include simple, plant-forward meals and limited consumption of meat. While the Seventh-Day Adventists who live in Loma Linda, California, follow a strictly vegetarian diet, folks hailing from the other zones tend to consume meat only a handful of times each month.
Rather than meat and other animal proteins, inexpensive Plant-based proteins, such as beans (especially black-eyed peas, which are grown in Ikaria, Greece, fava beans, and black beans), lentils, and soy, tend to be mainstays in the Blue Zones. Fish is a regular part of the diet in both Ikaria and Sardinia. Fish, such as salmon, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, essential for heart and brain health. Eating fish is also associated with slower cognitive decline in old age - which is essential if you’re going to live to 100.
Eat Your Greens
It goes without saying that dietary patterns in Blue Zones are also incredibly rich in vegetables. In Ikaria, Greece, the inhabitants tend towards a Mediterranean diet with an abundance of homegrown vegetables and leafy greens. Vegetables are a great source of dietary fiber, in addition to being incredibly rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all of which are associated with improved health outcomes, such as reduced risk of certain types of cancer, reduced cardiovascular risk, and lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
While homegrown vegetables may not be readily accessed worldwide, it’s simple to replicate these eating patterns with bagged salads, leafy greens, and fresh or frozen vegetables. For example, frozen broccoli is inexpensive, nutritious, and easy to incorporate into many different meals.
Opt for Wholesome Whole Grains, Nuts, and Seeds
While Western countries tend to depend heavily on refined foods, such as white bread, inhabitants of the Blue Zones have diets that are rich in whole grains, nuts, and seeds. It is important to note that whole grains are not the same as refined grains. Also referred to as “intact” grains, wholegrain foods such as oats, farro, and wheat berries are rich in dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Eating whole grains can help moderate blood sugar, as the dietary fiber moderates digestion, and is also attributed with lowering blood cholesterol levels.
Nuts and seeds are a great source of dietary fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Inhabitants of Blue Zones, particularly Loma Linda, Nicoya, and Ikaria, tend to include nuts such as almonds in their diets, which provide important nutrients like vitamin E and magnesium.
Choose Water Over Wine
Unsurprisingly, alcohol consumption amongst Blue Zone inhabitants tends to be quite low. In Sardinia and Ikaria, where wine is produced, it can be common to drink one to two glasses of red wine per day. In other regions, such as Loma Linda, Califorina, alcohol consumption is very limited.
Research on the health benefits of drinking wine tends to be mixed. While some studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of red wine is associated with longevity, others have suggested that this is largely due to other lifestyle factors.
No matter which one you choose, one thing is clear - the Blue Zones are home to some of the oldest, and healthiest, people in the world. While a range of factors are attributed to this longevity, including regular daily exercise, a close community, and spirituality, adopting a healthy, plant-forward diet has certainly been shown to be associated with a longer and healthier life.