Eating for Vitality and Longevity: What You Need to Know with Lessons from the Blue Zones

Jun 10, 2024 | Health and Wellness

By Dr. Alyssa Burnham, ND

Naturopathic Doctor at Wise Woman Wellness

The internet is jam-packed with nutrition information – much of it contradictory, some of it confusing, and a lot of it hard to follow. It can be difficult to know the best approach, but studies show that we may have uncovered a framework for longevity based on studies of populations with unusually long and productive lifespans.

As researchers dove into the lifestyles of these regions, important findings began to emerge. Central to these discoveries is the importance of our daily habits – confirming theories that longevity is about 20% genetic and 80% environmental. The research was summarized in the book, The Blue Zones, and the findings offer realistic, sustainable strategies for eating for longevity.

Where Are The Blue Zones?

The concept of the Blue Zones centers around these five areas, all of which have an unusually high percentage of older residents who continue to thrive into their senior, even centennial, years:

  • Sardinia, Italy. This was the area that first sparked interest when researchers noted a high percentage of people older than 100.
  • Loma Linda, California. This area just east of Los Angeles has a higher life expectancy than other areas of the U.S. – almost 8 years on average for men!
  • Ikaria, Greece. An amazing 30% of Ikaria residents live to be over 90.
  • Okinawa, Japan. This area once had one of the highest longevity rates in the world. However, researchers have noticed the average life expectancy is starting to decline as more residents move away from their traditional diet.
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica. Men in particular enjoy long and healthy lives here.

What Do The Blue Zones Have In Common?

In trying to determine the magic formula that gave these areas such long and healthy lives, researchers discovered some important commonalities:

1 – Lots of movement.

The Blue Zone residents don’t necessarily have formal exercise plans or gym memberships. Instead, their lifestyles incorporate plenty of natural movement like walking to the market or harvesting a garden.

2 – Strong social connections.

Residents of the Blue Zones typically have strong social and familial support. For example, residents of Okinawa often have supportive groups of friends called moais. In all Blue Zone regions, family ties often remain strong throughout the circle of life.

3 – Healthy ways to cope with stress.

People in the Blue Zones aren’t immune from stress – they’re human, after all. However, researchers noted that they often used healthy ways of coping, like reaching out for support within their community, mindfulness, meditation and finding joy in everyday activities.

4 – A sense of purpose.

Interestingly, 98% of the people in the Blue Zone studies followed some kind of religious faith. That may be linked to another commonality: a sense of purpose. Whether it be through religion, family or work, a sense of purpose can help us live longer! In fact, researchers have found that feeling that your life has purpose can add seven years to your life.

5 – A healthy, nutrient-dense diet.

Nutrition is a key component of lifestyle, so it’s not surprising that common nutritional habits are shared by all Blue Zone regions:

  • Plenty of plants. Blue Zone residents include a lot of fruits and vegetables in their diets. While they are not vegetarian, they eat very plant-forward diets!
  • When it comes to animal protein, it’s always quality over quantity. Local, free range and wild caught is key!
  • Very few processed foods. Blue Zone researchers noticed that although residents certainly treat themselves, they rarely eat anything processed. Instead of candy, for example, they might have strawberries with honey. They place importance on eating food that is native to the land they live on and eating in tune with the seasons.
  • Eating to satiety, not fullness. Blue Zone residents know the difference between eating until they’re full and eating until they don’t feel hungry anymore. In fact, the Okinawans have a name for this:  “hara hachi bu,” wherein they cease eating when they sense themselves at 80% fullness.
  • Moderate drinking. With the exception of the people in Loma Linda, the Blue Zone residents drink a moderate amount of alcohol.

Nutrition Tips from the Blue Zones

Here are some easy ways to incorporate the lessons from the Blue Zones into your own life:

1 – Follow a plant-forward diet.

You don’t have to completely give up meat to emulate the Blue Zone residents, but choosing plant-based food more often has proven benefits.

Focusing on plants has numerous health benefits that all add up to contribute to better health. Vegetables, fruits, and legumes often have a high fiber content, which lowers your risk of heart disease. It can also help you achieve a feeling of satiety faster. A plant-based diet can also lower your risk of cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline.

Residents of the Blue Zones don’t think of this kind of diet as restrictive at all, though! In fact, anyone who has traveled to those regions would agree the regional cuisine is delicious. 

2 – Fresh, seasonal produce

Numerous studies confirm the positive impact of eating fresh produce and plenty of legumes on mortality. Look for seasonal selections – your local farmer’s market is a great place to shop!

Brightly colored produce in particular contains plenty of antioxidants, which can fight inflammation and reduce the risk of many diseases. The purple sweet potato has garnered a lot of attention in Blue Zone research because it plays a big role in the Okinawa diet – give some a try!

3 – Eat plenty of healthy fats

The people in the Blue Zones don’t necessarily shy away from fat, but they are more likely to choose “good” fats. Many use extra virgin olive oil, which is high in monosaturated fats, which can reduce inflammation.

Those living in places like Greece and Italy consume a lot of fatty fish, like mackerel, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have numerous health benefits, including reducing inflammation. If you’re not a fan of fish, good sources also include nuts and avocados.

4 – Whole foods as much as possible.

Whenever possible, choose whole foods over processed. Shopping in the outer aisles of the grocery store is one way to limit overly processed foods. After all, if it comes in a box, it’s unlikely to be a centerpiece of the Blue Zone diet.

That includes avoiding overprocessed grains. Blue Zone residents tend not to eat a lot of wheat, even whole wheat, choosing instead grains like barley and oats. One exception is sourdough bread, which is a staple in Ikaria. Sourdough contains more nutrients than most breads and also is a source of lactic acid bacteria, which helps your gut biome. It’s important to find a good bakery for sourdough bread, as many supermarket loaves aren’t “true” sourdough.

5 – Choose proteins carefully.

Avoiding processed foods also extends to protein sources. When people in the Blue Zones eat meat, it’s rarely processed meat like hot dogs or luncheon meat. Instead, they turn to local, free-range chicken, beef, lamb or pork and wild-caught fish.

While many of us aren’t lucky enough to have access to a local farm or fishery, there are now many options for sourcing organic, farm-raised meats when possible.

Blue Zone diets often contain a lot of beans as well – which isn’t surprising given their many health benefits. One study found that beans are actually the food group with the highest positive impact on longevity! There are many creative ways to cook beans so they’re easy to incorporate into your diet, and they’re super budget friendly too!

6 – Fermented foods are a staple

Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi are common in Blue Zone diets. These probiotic-rich foods support gut health by providing beneficial bacteria that aid digestion, strengthen the immune system, and may even improve mood and mental health. In Okinawa, fermented foods like miso, tofu, and natto are commonly consumed as part of the traditional Okinawan diet. In Ikaria, yogurt is consumed daily and plays a role in promoting gut health and longevity.

Longevity Lifestyle Tips From The Blue Zones

1 – Incorporate natural movement.

Simply moving your body more is an important lifestyle factor that Blue Zones all have in common. People well into their elder years walk to the market, garden, and maintain their households – and this helps keep them young!

If your local grocery store isn’t close enough to walk to or you live in an apartment this can be more challenging, so it’s important to consciously add more movement in daily.

Simple steps like taking the stairs more often, parking further away from an entrance, and standing more often instead of sitting all adds up! If you work from home, set a time to get up and stretch every 20 minutes. Take a long walk on your lunch break and incorporate an after-dinner walk at the end of the day.

2 – Rest and relax.

They love to rest in the Blue Zones. Sleep and napping (siestas) are of high importance! Getting adequate sleep is an often overlooked component of wellness in North America, but you should aim for about 7 or 8 hours a night for optimal rest. It’s also important to maintain a regular schedule by going to bed and waking up around the same time – yes, even on the weekends!

It’s impossible to completely avoid stress, but finding healthy ways to cope can extend your life. Studies show a regular yoga and meditation practice can actually slow aging on a cellular level. Making time for yourself, engaging in activities that bring you joy, and putting the work emails away for the weekend can lower stress and ultimately extend your life!

3 – Eat with intention

To achieve the Blue Zone practice of eating to satiety, not fullness, start by slowing down. Taking your time to finish a meal by pausing often and chewing slowly can help you realize when you’ve had enough. The gut-brain connection can take up to 20 minutes!

Those who live in the Blue Zones honor the traditions involved in meal preparation, including traditional methods of meal preparation and communal meals. In fact, some research shows that the act of cooking, including socializing over meal preparation, can also contribute to longevity.

Experiment with new cuisines as you explore new foods to include. We all tend to rush a lot to get the cooking, eating, and cleaning up out of the way. Try to set aside a bit of time each day to focus on the pleasure of a good meal.

4 – Build social connections.

Blue Zone residents confirm the importance of strong social connections. If you don’t have a lot of family living nearby or have drifted apart from friends, it’s worth looking into pursuing activities you enjoy, volunteering, or finding a faith-based group that aligns with your beliefs.

It’s also worth noting that we tend to follow the healthy habits of those we spend the most time with. Researchers have found that unhealthy habits can “spread” through social networks, so finding social connections that encourage healthy behaviors can ultimately help your health.

The common habits discovered in the five vibrant Blue Zones offer us a blueprint towards a healthier, longer life – you just have to take the steps to implement them. If you’d like some help, reach out! It’s easier than you think to incorporate these healthy habits.

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