The Secrets of the Blue Zones – How to Live to be a Centenarian!

Traumhafte Wolkenstimmung an der NordseeWhat if there was a way to change your diet and lifestyle habits so that you could live to be active into your hundreds? That’s just what Dan Buettner set out to discover by traveling the world and studying the diets and lifestyles of the longest living cultures. Dan discovered what he coined The Blue Zones. The Blue Zones are 5 unique areas around the world where people live to be 100 at rates that are 10 times greater than in the United States.   

The 5 Blue Zones are: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica

So let’s take a look at the diet and lifestyle choices of the inhabitants of these Blue Zones to see what we can learn to extend and improve the quality of our lives and maybe even have the title of centenarian one day.

Ikaria, Greece – a tiny Aegean island where people live eight years longer than Americans do, experience 20% less cancer, have half the rate of heart disease, and almost no dementia.

The Ikarian diet consists of lots of veggies, legumes, olive oil, some dairy (mostly from goat milk), some meat and fish, and moderate amounts of alcohol.  They eat seasonally, consuming potatoes and onions in the fall, cabbage in the winter, lettuce in the spring, and peppers, green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, apricots, and peaches in the summer.

They eat a lot of wild greens such as dandelion, purslane, and arugula, all great sources of vitamin A, C, and K, folate, potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and iron. I have a big yard full of dandelion greens and picked them for salads a few times but usually just buy a bunch of these greens at the grocery store. I love arugula too and have some growing in my planters now and it’s one of my favorite salad greens.

This probably comes as no surprise that the Ikarians enjoy feta cheese. I’m sure theirs is way better than what I can get. They make their feta by fermenting goat’s milk with rennin from the goat’s stomachs creating a protein rich homemade cheese. It is also a high quality probiotic to keep their gut healthy and their immune system strong.

To add flavors to their food the Ikarians eat a lot of herbs like rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage, and mint and they drink a lot of herbal teas made from these herbs. These herbs act as a diuretic, helping to maintain blood pressure and are anti-inflammatory. Grow some of these herbs at home and experiment with adding them to your dishes. I also just read today that rosemary is a great herb for improving memory.

Here’s a picture of one of my rosemary plants on my deck. It’s great for adding to stews, mushrooms, meats, and roasted veggies.rosemary


The Ikarians also use lemon on just about everything and even eat the skin. Lemon is great to stabilize blood glucose, keeping diabetes in check. If you don’t already, try adding lemon to your salads, vegetables, seafood, and water. It’s a great way to add another layer of flavor to your food and get an extra dose of vitamin C.

Fat accounts for more than 50 percent of their daily calories and more than half of that is from olive oil. Try making your own salad dressing at home using extra virgin olive oil and your favorite vinegar and spices. Most store bought dressings use canola or soy oil, neither of which is optimal for health.

For sweets they like raw honey and use it to treat colds, insomnia, and to heal wounds. They also add it to their coffee and tea and some like to have a spoon first thing in the morning and right before dinner.

Ikarian lifestyle habits attributing to their longevity include napping, occasional fasting, gardening, and walking. They are very social and spend a lot of time with family and friends and enjoy a few glasses of wine each evening.

So take some time for yourself and spend plenty of time with family and friends and enjoy a glass of wine or two but not more.

Loma Linda, California – a 7th Day Adventist community in California that outlives the average American by a decade!

There are more than 103,000 Adventists and there is a large epidemiology study by the US government and American Cancer Society showing that life expectancy for women is 9 years longer and for men it is 11 years longer than the US average.

What sets the Adventist apart is that they evangelize around health. They advocate vegetarianism and regular exercise, drink lots of water, abstain from smoking and alcohol, and keep stress low by observing a 24 hour Sabbath each week, where they spend time with family and friends. When they do eat meat they eat it on occasion and in small portions. The Adventists do eat fish, eggs, and dairy, also in small portions.

The longest living Adventists eat up to one serving of fish a day and it is mostly salmon, which is a great source of omega-3s. They snack on nuts, eat oatmeal with unsweetened/unflavored soy milk for breakfast, and have sandwiches made from whole wheat bread.

Positive lifestyle habits attributing to their longevity include spending time with likeminded family and friends, giving back through volunteerism, and daily walks. The Adventists tend to eat a large breakfast, medium lunch, and an early, light dinner. This seems to promote better sleep and a lower BMI.

Sardinia, Italy – a Mediterranean Island with more male centenarians than anyplace else in the world.

Sardinia is very mountainous and a lot of the men are shepherds, requiring them to do a lot of walking, often 5 miles or more, in hilly terrain, which is a major factor in their longevity. I love going for hikes around where I live and I have lots of hilly terrain to add to the challenge.

Longevity foods in their diet are goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, which are easier to digest than cow’s milk, are higher in nutrients, and are anti-inflammatory. They eat a lot of grains including flat bread made from durum wheat, which is high protein and low gluten, bread made from barley, and sourdough bread. The sourdough process converts sugar and gluten to lactic acid, reducing its glycemic index.

The Sardinians eat soups and stews containing fava beans, chickpeas, and barley. They eat a lot of tomatoes, especially in homemade sauces. Another favorite is fennel, a great source of fiber and vitamin A, B, and C. Fennel also acts as a diuretic, helping maintain healthy blood pressure. They do eat meat on occasion and it is usually reserved for Sundays and on special occasions.

Sardinians are a social bunch and they love to get together with friend and family and they are known for their laughter and we all know what great medicine laughter is. They also enjoy a glass or two of red wine daily.

Okinawa, Japan – home to the world’s longest-lived women!

The Okinawans are mostly vegetarian, stop eating when 80% full, stay active well into old age, and are known to have a strong sense of their purpose providing them a sense of being needing well into their 100s.

One of the Okinawan longevity secrets is bitter melon, also known as goya. As the name implies, this is very bitter however it is actually a vegetable and not a melon and kind of looks like a bumpy cucumber. I’ve seen these in the store but have never tried them. After reading of the benefits I’m going to give them a try. The Okinawans use bitter melon in stir fries with other vegetables. Bitter melon helps regulate blood sugar and slows the production of free radicals.

The Okinawans are big consumers of soy, including tofu and other fermented soy products. They eat brown rice daily and some white rice, and they also sprout their brown rice to increase nutrients and make it easier to digest.

Their staple herbs are mugwort, ginger, and turmeric, all of which are anti-inflammatory and have several medicinal properties. Turmeric is used in cooking and as a tea. Curcumin, one of the active components of turmeric is great for brain health and has been shown to slow the progression of dementia. This is a staple in my spice drawer and when I can find the root in the store I’ll add some to my juices. Just watch out you don’t get it on your clothes because it stains.

The Okinawans eat a lot of shiitake mushrooms and these are great for immunity. I’ve been lucky to find them fresh at my farmer’s market lately. I also buy them dried and reconstitute for soups when I can’t get the fresh ones. Sea vegetables are another staple and they are extremely high in minerals and are great antioxidants. Kombu and wakame are the sea vegetables of choice in Okinawa and these can be found in most stores today. Try adding them to your soups. I also add to homemade bone broth and to my beans when I make them in my pressure cooker.

Another favorite staple is a purple sweet potatoes call imo. Imo is very high in anti-oxidants and has anti-aging properties. They also add the imo greens to their miso soup. I have bought imo in the past from Asian grocery stores and it tastes great. I can’t wait to try it again after reading about it.

The Okinawan drink of choice is green tea and they also like to add jasmine flowers and some turmeric for added health benefits.

The Okinawans are avid gardeners providing them a lot of vegetables, daily exercise, and stress reduction. They spend a lot of time in the sun and sport optimal levels of vitamin D.

Sadly, Okinawa is adopting western eating practices and some parents are outliving their children, who have given up the old ways for the new.

Nicoya, Costa Rica – people in this Central American region are more than twice as likely as Americans to reach a healthy age 90.

Costa Rica has a higher life expectancy than most developed countries and yet it spends 15% of what the US does on health care. One of the reasons is they hardly eat any processed foods and they have plentiful tropical fruit high in anti-oxidants. They also have water that is high in calcium and magnesium promoting strong bones and lower rates of heart disease.

Like many of the other Blue Zones, the Nicoyans have a strong sense of purpose and have a desire to contribute to the greater good. They are hard workers and take joy in physical labor. They have tight knit families with many generations living together.

The Nicoyans top foods for longevity are Maize Nixtamal, which are homemade corn tortillas. The process they use increases the body’s absorption of calcium, iron, and minerals, and reduces the occurrence of mold toxins. Another staple is ayote and calabaza squash, high in carotenoids, a great source of vitamin A and antioxidants.  Other Nicoyans staples are yams, black beans, and rice.

Nicoyans have access to many tropical fruits and eat a lot of papayas, bananas, plantains, and peach palms. Research has shown that peach palms reduce H. Pylori, explaining why the Nicoyans have the lowest rates of stomach cancer in Costa Rica.

So there you have it. What can you do to mimic some of the diet and lifestyle choices of the Blue Zones?

The common denominators shared by the Blue Zones are:

Move Naturally: you can do this by walking more, doing chores such as gardening, mowing your lawn, chopping wood, or shoveling snow, and gardening just to name a few.

Know your life Purpose: If you can articulate your life purpose in one sentence your life expectancy is 8 years longer!

Reduce Stress: create a daily routine to help you reduce stress. Experiment with mediation, prayer, yoga, naps, walks, and spending time with family and friends.

80 Percent Rule: stop eating when you are 80 percent full. The Okinawans say “Hara hachi bu” before each meal, which is a 2,500 year old Confucian mantra to remind them to follow this rule. Pre-plating food is another simple practice to eat less.

Eat Mostly Plants & Whole Foods: Most centenarians eat diets high in vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Meat is consumed on average 5 times a month and servings are around 4 ounces. Most of the dairy they consume is from goats or sheep so try these as an alternative to cow’s milk. They also eat local, seasonal, whole foods. Processes and packaged foods and refined carbohydrates are not a part of their diet and there is very little added sugar.

Wine: All of the Blue Zones (even some Adventists) drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis. Most of them have one to two glass of red wine each day with friends and/or food

The Right Tribe: Hang out with the right people. Habits are contagious so if you hang out with people who smoke and consume a lot of fast food then you will most likely do the same so spend time with people with healthy habits.

Community: Almost all of the centenarians interviewed from the blue zones belonged to a faith based community. Denomination is not important and research has shown that attending faith-based services four times a month can add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.

Loved Ones First: People of the blue zones put their families first. They keep their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents close to or in their home. They also commit to a life partner and invest in their children with time and love.

One other point. America spends $110B on diets, supplements, and exercise and yet 66% are overweight or obese. For most of us these are a series of short term successes and long term failures. It seems without even trying the people of the Blue Zones know something we don’t.

Leave a comment and let me know which of these habits you will adopt to add to your health, well being, and longevity.

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