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Blue Zones Diet

The Blue Zones project is one of the main reasons that led to my own personal eating and lifestyle changes. The founder of Blue Zones, Dan Buettner, knew that in certain parts of the world, the people from that area tended to live a lot longer than the average person. These places included Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California. Often times the average life expectancy in these areas was over 100 years old.

So Dan asked himself a simple question, what is it about these centenarians, the things they eat, and they area they live in that results in them living so much longer and being so much healthier than the rest of the planet? His research is documented through the Blue Zones project and I encourage everyone to look into this for themselves as it will likely change your life for the better as it has mine.

There were several things in common with people from each of the areas:
  • Diet with a plant slant (more on this below).
  • Move naturally throughout the day.
  • Have and cultivate a strong sense of purpose.
  • Downshift every day to relieve stress.
  • Develop a community and sense of belonging.
  • Have strong family connections and loved ones.
  • Cultivate close friends and strong social networks.
I'll explore all of these at some point (and some I already have) because of how important they are to a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle. Notice how none of them involve money or being wealthy. That's the best part. The fountain of youth can be achieved by anyone.

Now let me dig into the first one, the Blue Zones Diet. This was one of the most enlightening things about the project for me. How the longest living people in the world had a mostly vegetarian diet with an emphasis on local whole foods. Here is a summary excerpt of the 13 components of the diet that these regions all had in common. Refer to this article from Blue Zones for more details.
  1. Plant Slant - 95% of your food should come from a plant or plant product. Animal products should be limited to a handful of times per week. The plants should include at least 1/2 cup of leafy greens per day (like spinach, kale, chard, collards, beet/turnip/fennel tops) as this was common in all areas. I like to be sure to get mine first thing in the morning by adding spinach to my smoothies.
  2. Retreat form Meat - Consume meat no more than twice a week and limit portion size to 2 ounces cooked. Meat in these regions is actually the side dish or added for flavor (think pork in a bean stew). It is not the main course. They also tend to do a monthly communal feast involving a pig or goat and then consume any remaining meat sparingly over the month. When buying meat, go for free range meat where the animal was raised more humanely and the end product is more nutritious. Avoid processed meats as these don't show up in any of the Blue Zone regions.
  3. Fish is Fine - Eat up to 3 ounces of fish daily. The Blue Zones regions are near coastal areas and have incorporated the sea into their diet. But they stick to mid-chain fish like trout, cod, grouper, snapper, sardines, and anchovies. The predator meats like swordfish, shark, or tuna are not part of their diets. And they rotate in other things from the sea like muscles, clams, shrimp, lobster, crab, squid, octopus, even seaweed. When buying fish, avoid farm raised because you want free-range fish just like your land animals.
  4. Diminish Dairy - Minimize consumption of cow's milk and dairy products. Dairy and cow's milk is not that prevalent in the Blue Zones regions. Sheep and goat's milk are more prevalent and the animals are allowed to graze opening in the hills of the region making the milk more nutritious. In addition, goat and cow's milk can be easier to digest because they have an enzyme, lactase, that can help your body break down lactose. Blue Zones also tend to convert the milk into fermented and aged dairy products like yogurt, sour milk, and aged cheeses before consuming. And they use olive oil instead of butter for cooking.
  5. Occasional Egg - Eat no more than 3 eggs per week. Similar to meat, Blue Zones use eggs for flavoring and to eat occasionally. But eggs can be harmful to your health if eaten too much because of the fat and cholesterol content. Go for organic, free range eggs for similar reasons as fish and meat.
  6. Daily Dose of Beans - Eat at least a half cup of cooked beans daily. This really seems to be one of the magic ingredients that all the regions have in common and that the rest of the world isn't doing as much. Beans may be the secret to longevity. They are loaded with nutrients and, when paired with vegetables and whole grains, give the body the complete protein it needs without needing meat. That's why a lot of the recipes in this blog feature beans.
  7. Slash Sugar - Consume no more than seven added teaspoons per day. Sugar just is not part of the pantry in these Blue Zones. There are no pastry treats, candy, or protein bars and for good reason. These are all loaded with added sugar. They instead go for whole fruit to satisfy their sweet tooth cravings. Dark chocolate is also good in moderation. As part of your diet, sugar should really be limited to sweeten healthy drinks like coffee and tea or to help you consume healthy whole foods like oats for breakfast. Try switching to honey or other whole, unrefined sweeteners as these contain more nutrition than pure refined sugar.
  8. Snack on Nuts - Eat two handfuls of nuts per day. This is another one of those amazing vegetarian superfoods that can provide protein your body needs and is very common in Blue Zone regions. I like nuts as snack food in mid-morning and afternoon to give me energy and help me eat less for lunch and dinner.
  9. Sour on Bread - Replace common bread with sourdough and 100% whole wheat bread. Bread has gotten a bad wrap recently and rightfully so. The bread we sell here in the U.S. is "quick food" with highly processed wheat and other ingredients. Sourdough on the other hand takes time and allows for natural fermentation to take place. Instead of bread making you unhealthy, sourdough can actually improve your health especially if it introduces whole grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Some gluten intolerant people may actually find they can handle a proper whole wheat sourdough because of that fermentation process helping make the gluten more digestible. Sprouting the grains first is another technique to improve nutritional value of the bread by converting starches in the grain to protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  10. Go Wholly Whole - Eat foods that are recognizable for what they are. The founder of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, was onto something with the name of his store. You want to eat foods that are recognizable for what they are. Try to minimize the processing, packaging, and distance the food had to travel to get to you. And if you are buying prepared foods, look for ingredients that you recognize and ideally five or fewer ingredients.
  11. Eat Super Blue Foods - Dan discovered commonalities of the diets in the various regions and realized these foods must be a true super food. Try to work in as many of these foods as possible into your diet:
    • Beans
    • Greens
    • Vegetables - particularly sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and squash
    • Nuts and Seeds
    • Olive Oil
    • Grains - Oats and Barley being the most common
    • Fruits
    • Coffee and Green Tea
    • Seasonings and Spices - Garlic, Mediterranean Herbs, Honey, and Turmeric being the most common
  12. Stick to Simple Beverages - Drink coffee or black tea for breakfast, green or herbal tea in the afternoon, wine at 5pm, and water all day. This is the routine that many Blue Zones follow that gives you the perfect balance of hydration with drinks that improve your health. Soda is terrible because of all the added sugars and even toxins. Even fruit juice is bad because you are extracting the fiber and other nutrients from the whole fruit. And definitely limit alcohol consumption. A beer, glass of wine, or sip of hard alcohol is fine but any more is wasted calories and can also be toxic. Of the alcoholic drinks, wine seems to have the most going for it from a health standpoint.
  13. Four "Always" Foods and Four "To Avoid" Foods - Again these are things that each region had in common. These foods were either always available or not available at all:
    • Always - 100% Whole Grain Bread, Nuts, Beans, Fruit
    • Avoid - Sugar-sweetened Beverages, Salty Snacks, Processed Meats, Packages Sweets