what are blue zones and why are the people who live there so healthy?

In the past year, in a survey of 3000 people, about 6 out of 10 reported undesired weight gain. The average gain for US adults in those who gained was 29 lbs.

Now this isn’t just about weight gain. While of course that can be unhealthy and lead to other unhealthy patterns, what if we shifted the nutrition focus from body weight and looked at other measures of health like energy, connection, and longevity?

I bring up the word longevity and there’s there are some interesting data around those who live the longest – what are their daily habits, rituals, their lifestyles and what do they eat?  Interestingly, there are actually several regions around the globe – 5 in particular - where these individuals live to celebrate their 100th birthday – and then some. To put that in perspective, the average person lives to be around 78, so 100+ definitely not the norm.  In these five regions, however, it’s more the rule than the exception. 

These areas are known as the Blue Zones: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California. 

So what makes people in these regions so healthy? Here’s what it’s not – it’s not pills, potions or hocus pocus superfoods.  Well, they share several lifestyle habits that allow them to not just survive, but thrive. 


Here are the 9 daily habits they’ve found to help them find their path to longevity. 

  1. They do move naturally and get regular physical activity – naturally meaning yard work, gardening, walks, etc.

  2. Have a purpose

  3. Belong to a community

  4. Stress reduction

  5. Have a healthy social network

  6. Prioritize and engage with family

  7. Engage in spirituality or religion


And we’ll focus on these last three (with a mention of #1 as well).

  1. Moderate calories

  2. Eat a plant-based diet

  3. Moderate alcohol intake


First, physical activity.  As someone who’s been lifting weights for 30 years now, I understand the benefits of physical activity, but have also added in more lifestyle activity – tennis, swimming, gardening, playing with my kids, my dog and just walking and biking more than driving whenever I can.  For people in the Blue Zones, there's no need to spend hours at the gym for the sake of health. 

Consider ways you too can add daily physical activity to your routine.

Now let’s shift our focus to the food part of the equation.  Of course this isn’t to discount the other important pieces to the Blue Zones puzzle, but as a dietitian, I’ll focus on the food front.


First, don’t eat until you're stuffed.  The Japanese have a saying “hara hachi bu” which instructs people to eat until you’re 80% full.  To this end, people in the Blue Zones have their smallest meals during the day or early evening and avoid grazing at night, rather then the American way of snacking their way to each meal and then again snacking on the couch at night while binge watching Netflix.  These small changes can help you avoid gaining weight, which ultimately can help you live longer.


Eat more plants

People in Blue Zones eat a mostly plant-based diet loaded with fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Interestingly, our two girls (9 & 12) decided about 6 months ago they wanted to follow a pescatarian diet (fish as their only animal protein), so we have naturally been following more of this model.  Now, eating more plants doesn’t have to mean vegetarian, but it does mean complementing meals with mostly plants and enjoying plenty of beans, which offer loads of protein, fiber and other nutrition. Consider adding ½ cup of canned beans to your daily diet as a start because the additional fiber (about 8 grams) from this simple habit alone will decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, according to the research.


Enjoy alcohol in moderation

There's a lot of confusion about whether or not alcohol is actually good for us. It can be.  When you drink it occasionally, but if you don’t, you don’t have to start.  That said, those in the Blue Zones do so moderately – maybe one or two drinks daily – not, say, 6-12 beers on a Friday and Saturday night.  And, as we know with COVID, alcohol sales and intake has significantly increased.

Of course the remaining habits can each be expanded upon, but let’s start with the few nutrition focused ones and go from there.  And, while it’s not a particular “habit” in the Blue Zones, after recently listening to a talk about the topic, I also learned they cook most of their own meals.  They’re simple.  They’re tasty. And usually they’re based off of recipes from the great, great, great grandmothers who, in the case of Blue Zones, might still be making them for their family gatherings.

 

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