What do people eat in the Blue Zones?
Cooking at home is highly valued in the Blue Zones (which are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California); preparing and sharing meals connects people to their land, culinary traditions, and loved ones. “Much of their culture in the Blue Zones regions revolves around food and cooking,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.
It's important to note that the daily diets (and regional cuisines) vary greatly across the five Blue Zones due to differences in climate and the rich culinary history of each location. However, Blue Zones founder and National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner has identified a few food principles and common ingredients that are universal across the five locations.
For starters, these meals revolve largely around plant-based foods and rarely use processed ingredients. “About 65 percent of the Blue Zones diet is carbohydrate-based, with an emphasis on whole grains, greens, nuts, and beans,” says Harris-Pincus. Bread is nourishing and made from scratch, typically with whole grain flour and/or sourdough starter—two highly beneficial ingredients. Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, adds that most residents of the Blue Zones regions consume roughly five to 10 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables daily. "All of these foods actually have a good amount of plant-based protein, too, which is why it’s easy to minimize animal meat and still reach your protein requirements," Best says.
Indeed, while meat and seafood are often consumed in the Blue Zones, a good amount of the protein in the meals of these centenarian-rich regions is plant-based. “While the diet in the Blue Zones is predominantly plant-based, meat is consumed in two-ounce portions roughly five times per month,” says Harris-Pincus. "Fish is also common, too, but the varieties eaten are usually the smaller kinds such as sardines, anchovies, and cod, which are not exposed to a lot of mercury and come naturally packed with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids."
To learn more about the most commonly-consumed sources of plant-based protein in the five Blue Zones regions, read on.
The top types of plant-based protein for longevity that people in the Blue Zones eat every day
1. Sardinia, Italy: Chickpeas, Fava Beans, and White Beans
“Beans are the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world, and people in the Blue Zones eat at least four times as many beans as we do on average in the United States,” says Harris-Pincus. “Beans are packed with more nutrients per gram than any other food, so it makes sense as to why they live in great health and happiness and have such a long lifespan."
While beans are enjoyed in all areas of the Blue Zones, they are a staple particularly in Sardinia, Italy. “Beans are the predominant plant-based protein consumed in Sardinia. It's not uncommon to have a bean-based soup every day for lunch, consisting of mostly chickpeas, favas, and white beans, for example,” says Harris-Pincus. “Sardinians also often use pecorino cheese as a flavoring agent for their many delicious, nutrient-dense dishes, like bean soup or risotto." To up your own intake of the delicious legume, try one of these white bean recipes, or go straight for this 'longevity stew' straight from the Blue Zones kitchen.
2. Okinawa, Japan: Tofu and Edamame
According to Harris-Pincus, Okinawans eat tofu every day, which is twice as much as the rest of Japan. “Tofu is high in plant-based protein, iron, and calcium, and it can help to lower cholesterol as well as reduce your risk of breast and prostate cancer,” says Harris-Pincus. According to Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN, tofu contains a whopping 20 grams of protein per cup—and it pairs perfectly with stir-fried veggies, which further ups the nutritional density of your tofu-based meal. For a deliciously easy way to cook tofu, try this three-ingredient somen noodle recipe: It's a traditional dish served in Okinawa.
Soy appears elsewhere outside of tofu, too. It’s common to swap cow’s milk for a plant-based alternative, like soy milk, throughout the Blue Zones. Soy milk is highest in protein content compared to other alternative milks and is most similar to cow’s milk in terms of their nutrition labels.
Edamame is one more nutrient-dense source of soy on the Okinawan diet. “Edamame are soybeans that make a great snack or stir-fry ingredient. One cup of edamame has 17 grams of protein and can help lower LDL cholesterol,” says Best.
Edamame shines in this heart-healthy green goddess breakfast bowl:
3. Nicoya, Costa Rica: Pumpkin Seeds, Black Beans, and Quinoa
Did you know that pepitas (aka pumpkin seeds) contain almost as much protein as an egg per ounce? Indeed: They aren't just rich in healthy fat, magnesium, and gut-friendly fiber, but pepitas they contain a hefty amount of plant-based protein (approximately 12 grams per cup).
Seeds aren't the only favorited source of plant protein in this peninsula of Costa Rica, though. "In Nicoya, black beans, rice, corn, and squash also make an appearance at most meals, breakfast included,” says Harris-Pincus. “Black beans are high in anthocyanins, which are the antioxidant compounds that make blueberries blue,” Harris-Pincus says. "This antioxidant helps fight inflammation, reduce risk of chronic disease, improve heart health, and protect against free radical damage and oxidative stress, which become more prevalent with age."
And don't forget about quinoa, which is a complete plant protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids required through food and diet. “A one-cup serving of quinoa contains eight grams of protein and is an excellent source of whole grains and fiber. Quinoa is super versatile, too: It can be eaten as a base for stew, added to grain bowls, served with fish or chicken and veggies, or even consumed at breakfast in place of oatmeal,” says Best.
4. Ikaria, Greece: Chickpeas, Lentils, and Almonds
“In Ikaria, the most predominant legumes are chickpeas and lentils. Ikarians also love to eat nuts as a snack, favoring almonds in particular, and consume a moderate amount of dairy in the form of goat's milk and cheese, as well as fresh fish,” says Harris-Pincus. A common staple dish is chickpea soup with lemon and herbs, which is protein-packed and aromatic with delicious tang from lemon zest. For a simple, nutrient-rich snack, try this three-ingredient roasted chickpea recipe from Dan Buettner.
Learn more about the longevity-boosting benefits of chickpeas according to an RD by watching this video:
5. Loma Linda, California: Flax and Chia Seeds
Seeds contain plenty of healthy fats, fiber, and protein. Chia seeds are especially heart-healthy and a longevity-booster, as they offer omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation, protect against disease, and help keep your brain sharp as you age. “Aside from more beans and nuts, protein sources in Loma Linda include flax and chia seeds,” says Harris-Pincus. “The combination of unsaturated fat, protein, and fiber in these seeds makes them both super satisfying and beneficial for your cardiovascular system."
Sprinkle chia or flax on a salad or blend into a smoothie to up the rich in antioxidants, or use them as a topping on a slice of fresh sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat toast spread with hummus or avocado.
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