***A note before we begin – this dietary approach is designed to optimize for really only one thing: to help you live for a really long time. But it does that by keeping you very healthy, so don’t be surprised if you start to feel a lot of positive downstream effects, like gaining more energy, or even losing quite a bit of body fat – perhaps even more than you’d expect – by following it.***
Alright, let’s get into it:
This post is primarily based primarily on Dan Buettner’s book Blue Zones.
In it, Buettner visits four “blue zones” – areas with percentages of “centenarians” (people aged 100+) and “supercentenarians” (people aged 110+) that are extremely high compared to average. Like WAYYY higher.
People just seemed to live a LOT longer in these places. And we didn’t know why.
So the natural question was: HOW are these people living so long?
The answer – to give away the book – is that as best as we can tell, it’s actually not genetic.
It’s what blue zone inhabitants do and eat – their lifestyles and diet – that make such a huge difference.
Lifestyle-wise, commonalities across ALL blue zones included:
- Frequent daily exercise and walking, simply as part of the way of life, and
- Strong familial ties and multi-generational living, or otherwise strong interpersonal connections
(If you want to live a long, youthful, healthy life, do those things.)
But what were these people eating?
And what were they not eating?
This post will show you what and how to eat so that you can follow a diet that is as close as possible, in my opinion, to the ones found in these blue zones.
First, lets introduce you to the key players, the blue zones in question:
Blue Zone 1: Sardinia.
Financially poor (but perhaps much richer in other ways), the blue zone towns in Sardinia were rural, undeveloped farming villages with not only plenty of centenarians, but inhabitants well into their 70s that retained incredible amounts of youthful vigor – walking five to ten hilly miles a day to tend to their sheep. Sardinians grew their own food and ate extremely lean diets of locally grown vegetables (tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, etc.), fava beans, homemade bread, pecorino cheese, potatoes, sheep & goat’s milk, and occasionally, meat. They drank a cup of flavanoid-rich red wine a day.
Blue Zone 2: Okinawa.
Financially poor as well, but rich in familial ties and close bonds with lifelong village friends, the blue zone village in Okinawa featured year-round gardens that supplied most of the food. Inhabitants ate vegetables, soups, rice, tofu, occasional pork, and drank tea (e.g., Jasmine tea) throughout the day. The herbs mugwort, ginger, garlic, and turmeric were common. Locals prized their moai (or tight group of friends for mutual support, word of mouth job-postings, and more) above all else, and saw them every day. They had a habit of saying hara hachi bu before each meal – which roughly translates to “eat until you are 80% full.”
Blue Zone 3: Loma Linda, CA.
This one American blue zone consisted of devout Seventh-Day Adventists that followed a strict diet rich in nuts, very low in meat, and with a huge focus on drinking lots of water. Many of the locals were vegetarians, or lacto-ovo vegetarians (they ate eggs, and dairy). Walking, and power-walking, were prevalent, as were health stores stocked with organic foods and nuts.
Blue Zone 4: Costa Rica.
The blue zone village of Nicoya in Costa Rica was yet another location that was not financially wealthy but had inhabitants that lived long, healthy lives. Locals farmed and ate their own food, particularly beans, eggs, homemade corn tortillas, fruit, and pork. While it’s true that usually women live longer than men, the men in Nicoya, Costa Rica seemed to live particularly long lives. The men here also tended to have very liberal attitudes toward sex, and multiple sexual partners throughout life. Other cornerstones of the Nicoyan lifestyle included hard work in the fields, plenty of sun, and excellent sleep come nightfall.
So how do you eat like a blue zone local?
To give the shortest answer possible:
Pretend like you’re a farmer in, say, Sardinia or Nicoya, and eat only what that person would eat.
To help with that, I’ve noticed four principles common to the inhabitants of every blue zone:
1) They eat plant-based diets.
While each blue zone has its own local diet, and they all differ somewhat, one common theme is that most of the food comes from home-grown vegetables, and fruit. Therefore, getting as much of your food as possible from veggies is probably the single most important thing you can do to to eat in a blue-zone style. Think of veggies, and fruits, as your go-to foods; as the backbone or cornerstone of your diet.
2) They eat NO refined food.
These people haven’t had a Big Mac or a Coke in their entire lives. They eat simple diets, and could tell you the ingredient of every single thing they put in their body (they’ve mostly grown it all themselves!). On the other hand, even if I tried, I couldn’t tell you all of the ingredients, chemicals, additives, stabilizers, dyes, etc., in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal. I’d have to look it up. But these people eat things where knowing every ingredient is easy (e.g., “A potato.” “An onion.” “Pork.” Simple, healthy, unrefined, whole foods.)
3) Everything they eat is what we could call “Organic.”
By nature of the fact that they’re growing it themselves, their foods are not laden with the pesticides found in American Big-Agriculture mass-farming methods. The best way to recreate this, short of growing your own food, is buying as much of your food as possible “organic” or “pesticide free.” Either one is fine. Keep in mind that EVERYTHING these guys in Sardinia or Okinawa or Nicaragua eat is essentially organic. So to follow this diet as closely as possible, make sure just about everything you put in your body is specifically labeled as organic or pesticide-free. (This is difficult, but I try to tell myself, “If these very financially poor guys in rural farming towns can do it, then so can you!”)
4) They eat in moderation.
These guys don’t glut themselves on food. They don’t keep eating until their stomachs are stuffed full – instead, they eat until they’re not hungry. Some cultures (like in Okinawa) even specifically praise and ritualize moderation as a healthful practice (as in the saying “hara hachi bu” or “eat until you’re 80% full”). To practice this moderation yourself, simply try being mindful of everything that you eat – simply be aware of the taste, feeling, and level of fullness you experience during every single bite. To really understand mindful eating, it helps to explain its opposite – e.g., mindlessly downing a bunch of chips while watching TV, without even realize it, because you’re so distracted. Another example of mindless eating would be just shoving down the remaining food on your plate, even though you’re not hungry, to sort of “get it over with” and “get your money’s worth” (something I’m guilty of). Don’t do that – instead, be mindful and aware of each bite, enjoy your food, and only eat when you’re hungry.
Plant based, unrefined, organic, and mindful (or “in moderation”).
(But I think I have to elaborate a little bit on 2 and 3, and clear up ONE thing really quick.)
Locals in these blue zones do eat bread.
But it is NOTHING like the bread we eat here in the United States.
(If you want to understand why, read the quick aside below. If not, just skip it.)
Blue zone locals grow their own wheat or other grains, and then use it to make bread. Simple.
In America, you can be fairly confident, with just about any bread you eat, that is was created with wheat genetically engineered by American Agro-Chemical company Monsanto (the poster child for unethical farming practices, harmful environmental procedures, genetically modified food, and heavy pesticide use.)
What Monsanto has done is genetically engineer a strain of wheat that is incredibly difficult to kill (I’ve heard it described as “virtually indestructible” by Haylie Pomroy). This allows the crops to withstand being doused with glyphosate, the active chemical found in RoundUp. (Their genetically modified strains are literally called “RoundUp-Ready Crops” – TM). The GMOs, combined with heavy RoundUp use, make it easy to inexpensively grow and desiccate a lot of crops, but the health effects are questionable.
Then, this glyphosate-coated Monsanto-GMO-wheat is refined into flour, a process in which the healthiest two thirds of the grain – the “bran” and “germ” – are removed.
Then, refined sugar is added (because Americans are used to everything tasting so sweet), to make what we in the U.S. know as bread.
SO, if you want to follow the blue zone diet – even though blue-zone locals eat bread – you can’t just go to any supermarket and buy “bread” and think that it is similar in any way.
Instead, you have to specifically find Organic, Whole Wheat bread, with no sugar added.
(The good news is I’ve already done this: just buy Ezekial Bread. It’s a bit more expensive, and due to lack of preservatives doesn’t last too long in a pantry, but is well priced at Trader Joe’s and can be stored in the fridge or freezer.)
So what else can you eat on a general blue zone diet? Well, keeping in mind that it should all (or as much as possible) be organic, and that basically everything should be eaten mindfully:
- Any type of vegetables (carrots, zucchini, squash, lettuce, kale, onions, etc.)
- Beans (black beans, pinto beans, fava beans, etc.)
- Fruits (ORGANIC strawberries, blueberries, apples, etc. Bananas, or any fruits with a peel, don’t need to be organic due to the thick peel protecting the inner edible portion from pesticides.)
- Nuts, seeds
- Organic peanut butter
- Oats (again, get organic so they’re not covered with glyphosate)
- Fruit Juice (in moderation)
- Lean meats like pork and chicken
- Ezekial bread
- Organic whole wheat or organic corn tortillas
- Organic honey or agave nectar (in moderation; it’s basically sugar)
- Organic hummus
- Red wine
- Dark chocolate, cacao
- Organic potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Healthy cheeses (e.g., goat cheese, feta)
- Lots and lots of water
It’s worth noting that a few things that many diets disallow are actually totally fine – or fine in moderation – as part of a blue zone diet.
For example, on a blue zone diet:
- Drinking a glass or two of red wine a day is totally okay. Many diets strictly forbid alcohol, but the flavanoids in red wine have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects. (Note, though, that moderation is required; because beyond 1-2 glasses, wine can quickly become much more harmful than it is beneficial.)
- Drinking coffee is also totally fine. Locals throughout Nicaragua and Sardinia seemed to drink tons of coffee, and it didn’t seem to stop them from living past 100. In fact, coffee may have some health benefits itself: studies show coffee consumption seems to be correlated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, lower risk of certain cancers, and much lower risk of Alzheimer’s & dementia. (To be clear, I’m talking about black coffee. A highly sweetened pumpkin spice latte doesn’t count.)
- Legumes/beans (which are not allowed on a Paleo diet, or Whole30) are totally acceptable. Beans have a ton of fiber and nutrients; they’re a super healthy.
- Fruit, which isn’t allowed in a Slow-Carb diet, is a staple. Fruits have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and tend to protect against cancer.
- Organic whole wheat/grains/rice (which aren’t allowed in either Slow-Carb, Paleo, Keto, OR Whole 30) are all totally fine. (Just, of course, everything has to be eaten mindfully and in moderation.)
On the other hand, a blue zone diet is more restrictive in other regards:
- Meat, which is a critical and encouraged part of Paleo, Whole 30, Slow Carb, and Keto, is allowed, but cautioned to be eaten in moderation, and high-saturated-fat meats – e.g., red meats like steaks and hamburger patties, or salami or pepperoni, etc. – are totally avoided. (To follow the general blue zone approach, stick to pork, turkey, or chicken – or, I suppose elk, deer, or bison. These lean meats tend to be very filling, good for maintaining muscle, and excellent for general fat loss.)
- Artificial-chemical-laden drinks and foods, even if they have no calories or sugar (like my beloved Diet Coke!) are totally forbidden. Dang it.
- And finally, ORGANIC status is very important for everything you eat, whereas in many other pure fat-loss approaches – such as my own “Incredibly Rapid Fat Loss” Diet – it’s not even mentioned.)
Wow, that just about sums it up.
I know we covered a lot, but just think: organic, unrefined, simple whole foods. And remember, eating like a true blue zone local is way more restrictive in some ways, but much more forgiving in others. If you want to follow this diet, but have trouble keeping to it, try just getting one or two habits to stick at first. For example, just switch out all the bread you eat for Ezekial bread. Or have rice, potatoes, and veggies instead. Or, decide to at least just buy a few affordable options – such as carrots and sweet potatoes – organic from now on. That’s an excellent start.
All in all, I suggest these blue zone locals can give us somewhat of a “north star” to follow in terms of health. Whatever they’re eating and doing, it seems to be helping them be healthy, enough to live a long time. And even if we can’t follow their example perfectly, we can strive to eat like they do as much as possible.
So good luck, be healthy, and stay youthful.