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Blue Zones Diet: The Pros, Cons and What to Eat

There are places in the world where people tend to live long, healthy lives. These places, called Blue Zones, have the highest per capita populations of people who live to be 100 years old. So, researcher Dan Buettner dug into the lifestyles and environments of the people who live in these places to identify the secrets to their longevity.

The places are called Blue Zones because the original researchers circled their locations in blue ink on maps. They are spread out across the globe: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. 

People living in the Blue Zones eat a lot of plant-based foods, especially beans. But there’s a lot more to the Blue Zones lifestyle than that. Alexandra Lessem, a family nurse practitioner at Banner Health in Greeley, CO, filled us in on some details about this way of life. 

What can you eat (and not eat) on the Blue Zones diet?

“This diet is more about how you eat and live,” Lessem said. Buettner discovered nine common characteristics among people in the Blue Zones, and only three are related to diet. They are:

  • Plant slant. People living in the Blue Zones eat a primarily plant-based diet and choose a lot of beans such as fava beans, black beans, soy and lentils. On average, they eat a small portion of meat about five times a month, usually pork. Animal foods only make up about 5% of their intake, and they eat very few processed foods.
  • Wine at five. In most of the Blue Zones, people enjoy a glass or two of wine at dinnertime. 
  • 80% rule. They tend to stop eating when they feel 80% full. They also eat more of their food earlier in the day. Dinner is often the smallest meal, eaten in the late afternoon or early evening, and they don’t eat after dinner.

If you would like to follow this diet, here are some guidelines:

  • Plants. For 95 to 100% of what you eat, choose plants. That can be vegetables, fruit, legumes and grains.
  • Beans. Aim for at least a half-cup of cooked beans per day.
  • Grains. Choose whole grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa.
  • Meat. You can include meat on special occasions, but it’s not necessary. A vegetarian diet is fine.
  • Fish. You can eat three ounces of fish such as sardines, anchovies or cod up to three times a week.
  • Unsweetened beverages. You should drink water and you can also have tea and coffee. If you drink alcohol, choose moderate amounts of red wine.

It’s a good idea to steer clear of sugary drinks, salty snacks, packaged sweets and processed meat.

“Generally, the idea is to choose natural, plant-based foods most of the time and enjoy eating them — making eating a ritual and pleasant experience rather than just shoving food into your mouth,” Lessem said. “What you eat is important, but how you eat it, and with whom, is even more important.”

What other factors are part of the Blue Zones lifestyle?

Along with the three diet-related factors, people in the Blue Zones have six other commonalities that might contribute to their longevity:

  • Move naturally. People in the Blue Zones get a lot of movement by tending their homes, gardening or walking. 
  • Purpose. They have something to live for beyond work and daily life and have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Downshift. They find ways to manage and reduce stress. That could be praying, napping, or sharing a drink with friends.
  • Right tribe. They have positive social connections and people in their lives who support healthy behaviors.
  • Belong. Most of them are involved in a faith-based community.
  • Loved ones first. They put a high priority on family. They live with or near parents and grandparents, commit to a life partner and spend time with their children.

What are the benefits?

If you follow the principles of the Blue Zones, you’re likely to feel better, live longer, manage your weight and enjoy life and food.

You may also see health benefits. The diet could reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, protect your cognitive function as you get older, improve your sleep and lower your risk of certain types of cancer.

It should be easy for most people to find the foods that are on the Blue Zones Diet. Unlike some diets, you don’t need to buy any special items. You can probably find Blue Zones foods at the supermarket where you usually shop.

And on the Blue Zones diet, you simply eat until you feel 80% full. So, you don’t have to worry about tracking calories, macros or what you eat with a journal or app.

What are the risks? 

Nutritionally, you’re not going to have any problems with this diet. But the foods that make up the Blue Zones diet might not be to your taste. If you’re eating a typical American diet with a lot of meat and processed food, switching to the Blue Zones diet could be a major change. And if you eat a lot of fast food or prepared food, you’ll need to spend more time cooking. 

Try these recipes

If you’d like to try the Blue Zones style of eating, get started with these recipes:

The bottom line

Choosing a diet and lifestyle modeled after the people who live in the Blue Zones could help you live a longer, healthier life. There’s a lot to understand, so Lessem recommends reading The Blue Zones Solution if you’d like to learn more about incorporating more of these practices into your life. If you would like to talk to a health care provider about the Blue Zones diet and other healthy nutritional choices, reach out to Banner Health.

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