Blue Zones residents living longer, healthier lives

Jul 19, 2015

Roughly one in 5,000 people in the United States lives to be 100 years old, yet there are concentrated places in the world where living to 100 is not unusual, and people manage to live this long without contracting any preventable diseases. These areas, called “Blue Zones,” are located in Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

This week on “Take Care,” we talk to National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner, who has traveled the globe to uncover the longevity secrets used in these Blue Zones, how these people are able to live for such a remarkably long time. Buettner recently released his latest book, “The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People.”

Whether you believe it or not, Buettner claims that every diet within these Blue Zones is very high carb, which flies in the face of a lot of prominent diet solutions like paleo or Atkins.

Credit cookbookman17 / Flickr

“The longest lived women on the planet, for most of their life their staple food has been sweet potatoes, whole grains. The cornerstone of every Blue Zone diet in the world is beans. They are eating about a cup of beans a day and I argue that is the best supplement money can buy for a number of reasons,” said Buettner.

Eating a lot of low processed foods is something that Americans probably aren’t used to in their diets. Buettner places this fact as one of the main reasons for obesity in the country, not that Americans may have lost their self-discipline or individual responsibility.

The reality is our environment has changed, we cannot escape cheap, unhealthy calories, and in Blue Zones, the big secret that they teach us is they live in environments where fruits and vegetables are cheaper and more accessible, they set up their kitchen so they’re easy to make,” said Buettner. “They have time-honored recipes that make those healthy foods—bean dishes or dishes that include greens—taste good.”

Naturally the conversation of exercise will come up when talking about diet, and while in American culture exercise is a norm, in other cultures exercise is incorporated into people’s daily lives instead, and this is no different in the Blue Zones.

“Physical activity, for the most part, when they’re going to a friend’s house, or out to eat, or to work, [they] walk,” Buettner explains. “So they keep their metabolisms at a higher level. On average they’re getting about an hour to an hour and ten minutes of gentle physical activity every day, and that’s yielding life expectancies of almost a decade longer than what we’re enjoying here in America.”

Buettner believes that exercise has been a public health failure in America, saying that fewer than 20 percent of Americans get enough daily exercise. This lack of exercise comes about through the convenience in our lives—driving everywhere you go, for example.

“If you look at the lives [in] Blue Zones…they’re moving every 20 minutes or so. Their houses are de-convenience, so a lot of the physical activity we’ve engineered out of our lives with mechanical conveniences they don’t have. They’re still kneading bread by hand, or grinding corn; they have gardens so they’re always out weeding or harvesting or watering, said Buettner”

After conducting a meta-analysis on about 150 studies, Buettner was able to get an idea of what exactly these Blue Zone residents were eating on a daily basis.

“They’re eating meat only about five times a month,” says Buettner “They don’t eat a lot of fish, maybe three servings a week on average. Maybe a total of three eggs a week. They’re snacking on nuts. Nuts [are] the go-to snack in just about every Blue Zone—about a handful a day…They eat greens, eating a cup of greens a day, like spinach, or kale, or collard greens…You never see sweetened sugar beverages, soda-pops, in any of the Blue Zones. Six glasses of water a day, teas of all kinds, some caffeinated some not, coffee is a net positive, as long as you’re drinking it black or with a very little bit of creamer in there.”