In the process of researching healthy habits that promote longevity, I came across areas around the world known as the Blue Zones. Heavily studied by founder Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and multiple New York Times bestselling author, the Blue Zones are five regions that contain the highest concentration of the longest-living people on earth. Buettner and his team have found that these circles share common characteristics in their lifestyle, such as maintaining a strong sense of purpose, moving throughout the day, and following a nutrient-rich meal regime.
Feeling inspired by the citizens of the Blue Zones, I decided to adopt some of the practices of these communities to better understand their lifestyle; specifically, the Blue Zones eating habits. Over the course of 30 days, I made healthier eating choices that involved a predominantly plant-based diet filled with ingredients like beans, nuts, and grains. I also focused on managing my stress and maintaining an inner sense of calm.
As soon as I started the trial, I found that the simple changes I made had an immediate positive influence on my mind and body. Though I don’t have the fortune of living in a Blue Zone per se, living as if I were in one was easier to adopt (and even sustain) than I could have imagined. Read on for my tell-all, and be sure to check out Buettner's new book, The Blue Zones Challenge: A 4-Week Plan for a Longer, Better Life, launching on December 7th if you're inspired try it for yourself.
What are the eating habits practiced in the Blue Zones regions?
First things first. According to Buettner’s research, there are five Blue Zones around the world: Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. These communities have the highest number of centenarians and vastly lower amounts of chronic diseases than anywhere else on earth. According to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the life expectancy of the average American is about 78.7 years old and has decreased in recent years due to the pandemic. "By contrast, those living in the Blue Zone, Loma Linda, live approximately nine years longer than their North American counterparts,” Buettner says.
When asking Buettner to outline the Blue Zones eating habits, he explains that restricting oneself isn't practiced; rather, consuming nutrient-dense foods happens naturally (read: by choice) in these regions. "The most important thing to remember is that people in Blue Zones never try to modify their behavior to live longer," Buettner says. "Rather, they tend to live a long time because in their optimized environment, the healthy choice is the easy choice. All day long, they’re mindlessly—meaning naturally—nudged into practicing longevity-boosting behaviors.”
For starters, Buettner says that people in Blue Zones eat a primarily plant-based diet with very little meat and dairy. Additionally, he says that they consume whole grains, tubers, nuts, and beans. To make these simple ingredients delicious, people in the Blue Zones have incorporated healthy fats like olive oil, spices like turmeric (many of which have anti-inflammatory properties), herbs like rosemary, oregano, and sage. They’ve also practiced and perfected the culinary skills required to prepare these foods as healthfully and deliciously as possible.
As Buettner emphasized, the healthy Blue Zones eating habits are prompted by an overall healthy lifestyle rather than any form of regulated diet. People in these zones eat the way they do because it’s what’s available in their surroundings and what they generally love to eat. This includes what crops and ingredients grow best in each region, seasonality, and each culture's unique culinary history.
What I learned when I tried adopting Blue Zones eating habits and routines
1. Eating plant-based foods boosted my digestive system and energy levels.
In most areas, plant-based meat alternatives have become more easily accessible in recent years; many national chains are even incorporating vegan-friendly options in their menus. When learning more about the Blue Zone areas, it was evident that every one of them ate a predominantly plant-based diet. After just a few days of eating seasonal, fiber-filled produce including cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, my digestive system became more regular. I also stayed satiated for longer, and I felt far less sluggish after eating a meal.
2. I found myself wishing that I had discovered the delicious, protein-packed potential of beans sooner.
Not only are beans and legumes—like black beans, garbanzo beans, soybeans, and lentils—economical, they provide a bounty of health benefits. Pulses are high in protein, loaded with vitamins and minerals, low in saturated fat, and rich in fiber. In the past, I’ve admittedly cruised right by the dried beans section in the grocery store; however, I quickly found that properly cooked and seasoned beans make for an incredibly delicious meal. When incorporating about a half cup to a cup of beans into my daily meals, I found that I spent less money on groceries than when purchasing animal-based protein and ultimately felt more energized. Not going to lie: The beans boosted by digestive system, too.
3. Soon as I started snacking on nuts regularly, I didn't miss my gummy bears one bit.
When I realized I had to find a less processed afternoon snack to replace my bag-of-Doritos-plus-gummy-bears routine, I'll admit that I wasn't thrilled. However, I quickly found that a handful of heart-healthy nuts like pistachios, walnuts, or almonds was the most satisfying, satiating snack; I didn't feel like I needed a nap. (A big change compared to the inevitable blood sugar crash I used to experience after my former sugar-filled treat.) I also discovered alternative ways of incorporating nuts into a dish for added protein. My favorite? Making a hearty vegan pesto sauce using basil, almonds, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a dash of nutritional yeast for added flavor.
4. Cutting out soda helped me drink more water (finally).
It may come as little surprise to hear that the citizens of the Blue Zones aren't exactly Big Gulp devotees. Opting for mostly water means, of course, giving up soft drinks entirely. Cutting back on sugar and caffeine from soda—as well as the extra hydration from all the water I was guzzling—made me feel much more energized and relaxed, and these effects were practically immediate. This is likely because giving up soda helped reduce the jitters and blood sugar spike I often experienced after a sweet beverage. Though I mainly drank plain water, I did incorporate some antioxidant-rich teas such as matcha, which have health benefits like reducing one's risk of heart disease and cancer.
Additionally, I found that drinking a glass of red wine now and then with a meal, much like the people in the Blue Zones region of Sardinia, didn’t bog me down. As long as I consumed the red wine in moderation and alongside food, I felt that I could benefit from the antioxidant properties of the fermented beverage.
5. Walking and sleeping more significantly lowered my stress levels.
Another commonality among the different Blue Zones is a more calm lifestyle with reduced stress. Most of the regions are highly walkable, which is conducive to connecting with nature and the environment. For me, I made it a point to go out for at least one daily 30-minute walk around the neighborhood to breathe in fresh air and disconnect from any type of media. I consistently felt much more relaxed afterwards, and enjoyed getting my circulation going.
Additionally, many Blue Zones communities take short daily naps and sleep a full eight hours nightly as part of their regular routines. Instead of watching TV late at night, I would go to sleep earlier, practice some mindful meditation or breathing exercises, and try and get a good night's rest. This simple modification in my daily practice helped decrease my stress levels, and though it was not related to my dietary consumption, it helped boost my energy and mood significantly.
6. I focused on curating my “moai,” or social circle of friends.
“The best first step you can take socially is to curate your social circle of four or five friends, referred to as a ‘moai’ in Okinawa," Buettner says. "Surrounding yourself with people that practice the same healthy behaviors you’d like to adopt makes it easier also to make healthier choices. To help live a more peaceful and healthful life, I gravitated toward friends that enjoy connecting with the outdoors and exercising together.
Though my month-long trial has ended, my efforts to eat more plant-based foods, move consistently throughout the day, manage my stress, and maintain meaningful connections to my community and environment—just as they do in the Blue Zones—will not. Living a long and healthy lifestyle into my 100s certainly sounds great, but for now, I'm focusing on the incredibly positive effects that these changes are already having on my life.
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