Some of the longest-lived people on the planet follow a predominantly plant-based diet. I find it fascinating to learn about people that are living well into their 90s and beyond. What do they eat or not eat? Do they have kids, a spiritual practice, or certain hobbies? There is so much we can learn from people who just keep living including what to eat! You can find all of these answers in the book The Blue Zones written by Dan Buettner.
I believe in finding a groove with healthy eating that is sustainable, simple, and delicious. Most fad diets are restrictive and require a lot of macronutrient or calorie counting. Many of my clients have tried these diets before but haven’t been able to stick with them. And, it’s not because they didn’t try. It’s generally because these diets aren’t realistic in the long term. A whole food, plant-based diet is a way of eating that can be done for life. This is proven by people living to be 100 and up in what are called the Blue Zones. If we follow some guidelines from these people, we may be living just as long ourselves.
If you haven’t yet read The Blue Zones book, here is a quick rundown. The Blue Zones are 5 particular areas of the world where people are living much longer (while still remaining healthy and active) than any other place on earth. These places include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
It’s a fascinating book that talks about a lot more than just the food these centenarians are eating. It covers their active social and spiritual lives, too. But since this is a post about food, let’s stick with that for now. Here are some commonalities between all the Blue Zones according to the research done in the book.
1. They eat 95-100 percent plant-based.
These people are eating an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables with an emphasis on in-season produce. Many of them have their own vegetable gardens which keep them active and eating healthy. Some of the best longevity foods include dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, spinach, chard, turnip and beet greens. Along with beans and whole grains, plants make up most of the meals for those in the Blue Zones.
2. Meatless meals abound
It’s been determined that the average intake of meat (beef, chicken, or pork) in the Blue Zones is 2 ounces or less of meat 5 times or less/week. Compare that 10 ounces (or less) per week to an average of 3.7 pounds per week for Americans. That’s a huge difference! Meat consumption in these areas tends to be more of a condiment, flavor enhancer or used for special occasions. Eating less meat can lead to better digestion, lower blood pressure, and lower risk of heart disease. A great meat replacement that is often consumed in Okinawa is extra-firm tofu. It’s versatile, high in protein, and cancer-fighting phytoestrogens.
3. Beans are consumed daily
Beans receive top honors in the Blue Zones. On average, those living long in the Blue Zones consume at least 4 times as many beans as Americans. Black beans are popular in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans are loved in the Mediterranean areas; and soybeans are used very often in Okinawa. Beans are a nutritional powerhouse. They are rich in fiber and protein (an excellent mix for everyone, especially those with diabetes). They are a complex carbohydrate which means they offer steady energy unlike processed carbs and sugary foods. They are packed full of vitamins, polyphenols, and minerals including iron. For those looking to save some cash, beans should be on your list. They are so cheap and there are countless ways to cook with them.
4. Eggs and dairy consumption are low to non-existent
Cow’s milk doesn’t make up a huge part of any Blue Zone diet except for some vegetarians in Loma Linda, California. Those in the Mediterranean opted for goat or sheep’s milk. Did you know goat milk is generally easier to digest than other milk since it contains the lactase enzyme that many people don’t have? While dairy made up only a small part of these diets, they weren’t usually consuming straight milk but rather milk products that had been fermented or cultured. Things like yogurt, sour milk, and cheese tend to be easier on the digestive system than non-fermented dairy thanks to the help of probiotics.
Eggs are consumed very differently in the Blue Zones than they are in America. It’s common to find a 2-4 egg omelet on a restaurant menu in America but those in these areas consumed closer to 2-4 eggs per week if at all. An egg would instead be added as a side dish to a vegetable or whole grain dish instead of acting as the main dish. For example, Okinawans boil an egg into their miso vegetable soup. It’s important to note that neither eggs or dairy are necessary to live a healthy life. On the contrary, they can lead to health issues when over-consumed.
5. A focus on whole foods
People living long, healthy lives in the Blue Zones are not consuming processed foods or drinks with lots of preservatives, sugar, or artificial ingredients. You won’t see them sipping on soda or eating artificially flavored cheese puffs. They stick to a handful of whole foods to make up their meals. Nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and for some a little dairy, fish, or meat is what makes up their diet. They don’t consume much sugar and when they do, it’s deliberate instead of out of habit or by mistake. It could be a special occasion that they enjoy some cake or another treat.
6. They stay hydrated
Something I found interesting when reading the book was that soft drinks were virtually an unknown beverage to most centenarians in the Blue Zones. I think this is so great since I gave up drinking soda more than 10 years ago. With little exception, these long-lived people drink plenty of water daily. Those in Ikaria, Nicoya, and Sardinia also consume coffee daily (but not the overly sweetened variety you’ll find at Starbucks). People in all of the Blue Zones consume tea in one form or another made from herbs that are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. Red wine is consumed by some in the Blue Zones very moderately. And it is generally enjoyed with a meal and friends in a social setting.
Have you read The Blue Zones?
Did you learn something from this post?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments.