The people who live in the five Blue Zone regions have been found to be some of the longest-living people on the planet. In these areas, people not only regularly live into the triple digits, but their minds and bodies are both still working well. There are many lifestyle factors that Blue Zones founder, Dan Buettner, has found are shared by people in these regions—including low levels of stress, moving throughout the day, and having a sense of purpose. However, a significant amount of the research on longevity comes back to healthy dietary habits. The meals most frequently consumed in the Blue Zones aren’t loaded with processed ingredients or added sugars; rather, they consist of whole foods, particularly plants. This includes an array of healthy herbs, spices, and alliums shown to lower risk of disease and promote longevity.
Herbs in particular offer a one-two punch. They pack anti-microbial and antioxidant properties that boost heart health, immunity, and healing, plus they add flavor to food without any nutritional drawbacks (read: using herbs as a flavoring agent lowers your temptation to reach for the salt shaker again or to slather on a sugary sauce). While there is a lot of overlap—and all of these herbs are pretty common across the board within these five regions—some of them are particularly popular in the meals of the people that reside in each distinct zone.
Here are five herbs that are prevalent in the diets of the Blue Zone regions. Incorporating them into your cooking on the reg will give you a heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich boost linked to longevity. And in the shorter term, they're guaranteed to make whatever you’re eating taste better, too.
5 Blue Zones herbs to add to your pantry for longevity (and flavor-boosting) benefits
Fennel can be used three different ways: the bulb is used as a vegetable, the fronds as an herb, and the seeds as a spice. Talk about an overachiever. “Fennel is rich in vitamins A, B, and C, packs plenty of fiber, plus it can act like a diuretic and helps to manage blood pressure,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Both the bulb and seeds of the fennel plant contain the mineral manganese, too, which is important for enzyme activation, cellular protection, bone development, blood sugar regulation, and wound healing. Fennel also offers other minerals that are important for bone health (such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium) and has dozens of plant compounds that act as a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
When it comes to cooking, fennel is incredibly versatile—remember the three distinct and delicious edible parts mentioned above? You can serve fennel as a roasted veggie side dish, slice it raw into salads, or toast the fronts and/or seeds and puree them into dips and spreads. It also tastes delicious in soups and in pasta—just like they do in the Blue Zone of Sardinia. “Fennel is used in a Sardinian minestrone soup that is a lunch staple there. It's made from seasonal vegetables, herbs, and beans,” Harris-Pincus adds. That’ll give you a nice dose of fiber and protein in addition to those immune-boosting properties.
“Oregano is rich in antioxidants and compounds proven to help fight bacteria," says Harris-Pincus. The antioxidants can help prevent cellular damage by neutralizing disease-causing free radicals in the body and reducing inflammation. And on the antibacterial front, one study actually found that oregano was effective against 23 species of bacteria.
In addition to offering its own array of health benefits, oregano will boost the flavor of other nutrient-packed dishes, making plant-based foods like veggies and beans even more inviting. "This herb enhances the flavor of any tomato-based dish, vegetarian chili, fish, or beans." Oregano's rich, herbal flavor pairs perfectly with seafood, Greek salads, or in soups, moussaka, or whole grain pastas.
Sage is another option, which is similar in its properties to that of oregano. “There are properties in sage that may strengthen bones and play a role in lower rates of Alzheimer's and dementia,” Harris-Pincus says. Try sage with turkey, chicken, or roasted mushrooms to enhance flavor. “Sage is a beautiful accompaniment to poultry, any bread dishes like stuffing, sauces, marinades, and even tea,” Harris-Pincus adds. Herbal tea is incredibly popular in the Blue Zone region of Ikaria, Greece, where locals drink it daily.
Rosemary not only tastes delicious in a wide array of dishes, but it is also a great source of iron, calcium, and vitamin B6. The herb has also been shown to boost cognitive health, increase memory retention, and help your immune system function at its best. This is because rosemary contains an ingredient called carnosic acid, which can fight off damage by free radicals in the brain, but it's also due to its delicious (and potent) aroma. According to research outlined in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, the scent of rosemary has the potential to improve your concentration, performance, speed, and accuracy and, to a lesser extent, your mood.
“Rosemary is a rich source of antioxidants, which can also help fight against aging and can help boost your immune system,” says Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN. “Try drinking rosemary tea or sprinkling rosemary on top of grilled vegetables,” says Schapiro. You can also use it in chicken, lamb, and salmon recipes with a squeeze of citrus.
Cilantro is a vibrant herb that’s commonly used in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, one of the five Blue Zone regions. It packs plenty of antioxidants, and has been shown to fight inflammation and lower your risk of certain chronic illnesses, particularly heart disease. A mouse study also found that cilantro leaves improved memory, suggesting that the plant may have applications for Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed.
“In addition, cilantro can aid digestion, help lower blood sugar levels, and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease," says Harris-Pincus. "Plus it is amazing in salsa, bean salads, and even in place of basil in a pesto." It also tastes delicious on tacos, salads, enchiladas, grain bowls, in egg dishes, and so much more.
For centuries, garlic has been known to have medicinal properties, which make sense since it’s a staple in all of the Blue Zones regions, particularly Okinawa, Japan. While it isn't technically an herb—garlic is a plant in the Allium (onion) family—it is used as a similar health-boosting flavoring agent in cooking. “Garlic has been shown time and again to help boost your immune system and fight against the common cold. It also can help reduce blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels,” says Schapiro. In one study, 600 mg to 1,500 mg of aged garlic extract was shown to be as effective as the drug Atenolol at reducing blood pressure over a six month period.
Clearly, this ingredient is linked to longevity. Try adding garlic to some sautéed spinach and brown rice. Infuse it into olive oil and marinades, or use it in stir-fry recipes, as a seasoning for dips, or with roasted fish.
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