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Blue Zones – What we can Learn From the World's Healthiest People

Blue Zones – What we can Learn From the World's Healthiest People

Living to the age of 100 may not be as abstract of a concept as we may believe. In Fact, Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and journalist, discovered communities where the concept of centennial living is alive and well – they’re called Blue Zones. A Blue Zone is a region where people live the longest and have the healthiest lives. In particular, there are 5 target locations, including Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

What’s so special about these regions? Are there any patterns in the lifestyle or environmental factors in these areas that have allowed their inhabitants to live long, wholesome lives? Let’s take a look …

Power 9

According to authors Buttener and Skemp from the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, the Blue Zones “... uncovered 9 evidence-based common denominators among the world’s centenarians that are believed to slow this aging process” (1). We will look through the nine similarities between the regions and see what they each entail.

The commonalities between these regions include:

  1. Moving naturally: Instead of working out or lifting weights, these people live in environments that allow them to exercise within their daily routine.
  2. Having purpose: Centenarians tend to know their role in life or know what allows them to wake up every morning.
  3. Downshifting to minimize stressors: These groups of people have activities within their daily lives to minimize stress, whether that is praying, taking a nap, or practicing a hobby.
  4. 80% Rule: A Confucian mantra advises that people stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full because the 20% difference allows them to maintain their weight.
  5. Growing Crops: Beans are a common crop of these Centenarians, while meat is only eaten about 5 times a month.
  6. Occasional Alcohol Consumption: Those who drink moderately tend to outlive those who don’t drink at all.
  7. Faith-Based Community: Over 98% of interviewed centenarians identify with a faith-based community.
  8. Value of Family: These families tend to prioritize family, whether that means looking out for aging parents or committing to care of loved ones.
  9. Healthy Circles: Negative habits tend to be contagious, so having a healthy circle surrounded by people making positive choices allow people to live well balanced social lives.

After looking at the list, you may find that these activities are fairly easy to mimic in our own lives. Nonetheless, if they seem too overwhelming, try to focus on 1-2 of the activities until you feel comfortable trying more. It is completely up to your own discretion! Today, we will be focusing on the dietary portion of the evidence-based similarities. In particular, the Mediterranean Diet!

Mediterranean Diet

Research has found many connections between the lifestyles of those living in the Blue Zones and their resulting healthy lives. For instance, Food Guidelines from the Blue Zone website discuss that those living in the Blue Zones tend to have plant-based diets and consume more nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and beans, while eating less meat, dairy, and sugar than those not living in these areas (2).

Think this diet sounds pretty familiar? You’re absolutely right! It parallels the Mediterranean diet!

The Mediterranean diet is no new discovery, it dates back to the 1960s and originates in Spain, Italy, and Greece. In an article published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2019), authors Lăcătușu et al. convey that the Mediterranean diet is “... based on the regular consumption of olive oil (as the main source of added fat), plant foods (cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, tree nuts, and seeds), the moderate consumption of fish, seafood, and dairy, and low-to-moderate alcohol (mostly red wine) intake, balanced by a comparatively limited use of red meat and other meat products” (3). As we can see, both diets are almost identical, having similarities of olive oil, plant foods, and less meat and fish consumed.

Again, it is no surprise that the Ogliastra Region, Sardinia and Ikaria, Greece were amongst the list of blue zones. Sardinia is an island in the Mediterranean Sea and many popular dishes incorporate the elements of the Mediterranean diet, allowing the population to lead a long and healthy life. In addition, author Dan Buettner, discusses ways to have healthier eating habits and improve overall lifestyle in his book The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People (4). In particular, from 90 dietary surveys gathered, it was found that Ikaria’s diet, “... like that of the rest of the Mediterranean, was rich in olive oil, vegetables, low in dairy and meat products, and also included moderate amounts of alcohol” (4).

The Food Guidelines from the Blue Zones cite that olive oil is the most common plant-based oil used in these regions (2). In addition to this, research among middle-aged people in Ikaria found that “... about six tablespoons of olive oil daily seemed to cut the risk of dying in half” (2). This research takes a deeper look into why a substantial amount of people are able to live longer lives, and it’s partially due to the consumption of olive oil!

So how can you mimic this diet in your everyday life?

One suggestion would be substituting olive oil for butter. A good rule of thumb to follow is the 3:4 ratio, meaning that in place of 1 teaspoon of butter, use ¾ teaspoon of olive oil. Here’s a conversion sheet to help when you are trying out new recipes, baking, or cooking! Results may vary, depending on the dish you are making, so be sure to research if butter can act as a substitute for the recipe you are making!

Conversion table for extra virgin olive oil and butter

Olivaio

If you feel overwhelmed with all this information and research, don’t worry, we get it! Olivaio is the perfect way to begin taking microsteps to begin your Mediterranean or Blue Zone diet. Olivaio is an organic extra virgin olive oil made in Italy that's conveniently delivered to your door at a frequency that meets you and your families needs. When making most dishes you will find yourself baking or frying and Olivaio acts as a healthy supplement to your meals.

Recipes

An incredible, yet time friendly recipe to begin with is Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa. It takes about 10 minutes to prepare and 30 minutes to cook. It is a Puglian dish that includes broccoli rabe. This ingredient may be difficult to find, however, you can either use tender stem broccoli or broccolini!

Resources

  1. Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 10(5), 318–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616637066
  2. Food Guidelines. (2020, September 07). Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.bluezones.com/recipes/food-guidelines/
  3. Lăcătușu, C. M., Grigorescu, E. D., Floria, M., Onofriescu, A., & Mihai, B. M. (2019). The Mediterranean Diet: From an Environment-Driven Food Culture to an Emerging Medical Prescription. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(6), 942. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16060942
  4. Buettner, D. (2015). The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People. United States: National Geographic Society.

Written by Mridini Chandrasekaran 
Reviewed by Kelly Powers, MA, RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog highlighting whole foods, simple recipes, and her life in San Francisco. She’s the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. Kelly is also a co-founder of Olivaio.

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