Longevity Lessons From The People of The Blue Zones

Longevity Lessons From The People of The Blue Zones

The impact of lifestyle on longevity is obviously something of great interest for us and for many researchers on a wide scientific spectrum.

One of the most interesting books that came out in recent years on the subject is “The Blue Zones”  by David Buettner.

Buettner is a National Geographic journalist who has been investigating the places in the world where people live the longest and where the highest percentage of centenarians can be found.

These are people who reach the age of 100 and more. Buettner and his team of population researchers found 5 of these places in the world and dubbed them as Blue Zones.

The people in these areas have 3 times the average chance of reaching the age of 100. Needless to say that chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are rare among them.

Interestingly, the places are diverse and located in different spots on the globe: Ikaria, which is an island of Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica (which was an unexpected place, considering the fact that it is a developing-world location), and maybe the most surprising one: Loma Linda in California.

In each area, the team investigated what are the lifestyle components that help explain the area’s longevity.

What the people choose to eat, what kind and how much physical activity they get, what is the social structure and how they communicate inside of it, what kind of traditional medicine they use, and so forth.

At the end of the process, the team looked for common denominators for all 5 populations and came up with the cross-cultural practices that may explain the exceptional longevity and health of these populations.

The book ends with nine main lessons and practices learned from these populations that we can apply to our lifestyle.

The book is fascinating because it confirms some truths about how to achieve good health through direct conversations with people who have obviously achieved that and who are a living proof of that truth.

For example, Don Faustino from Nicoya, Costa Rica, who is 102 and still wakes up every Sunday at 4 am and marches to the local farmers market.

No Exercise, No Calorie Counting

What struck me the most is that the centenarians interviewed in the book don’t seem to make a big deal out of their remarkable health and longevity.

Their physical and mental health is not a product of calculated measures. They’re not monitoring themselves, they’ve never been to the gym, and they’ve definitely never heard about personal training.

These people don’t exercise, but they move organically: they walk to a friend’s house or to the market. They garden in their backyards.

Some of them have been working in farming all their lives. They live in environments that naturally force them to be physically active.

Movement has been incorporated into their day-to-day lives and has been an organic part of their lives, even still today.

Typical Sardinian Meal

Among all of the centenarians in the Blue Zones, there is great respect for food, and the culinary tradition goes centuries back.

Ikaria’s and Sardinia’s cuisine are a beautiful example of Mediterranean rustic cooking. In Okinawa, the preparation and eating of a meal is a meditative ritual.

Meals may be simple but made out of real food with ingredients often grown in the backyard. The fact that these people grew up before World War 2 and the times of industrial food, must play a role in their diet. For them, the concepts of “organic” or “farm to table” are not even concepts or trends—they’re just describing food.

Not Just Food and Movement

No doubt good diet and plenty of natural physical activity are essential as common denominators in the blue zones, but maybe, even more interesting were the less obvious and less tangible common elements in their lifestyles.

All of the centenarians have a strong cultural structure and a community that surrounds them.

Family is very important; many times, you see people who live with their children and grandchildren in the same house, or at least in proximity to their family.

Another common component for all populations is a sense of purpose. In Okinawa and Japan, they call it Ikigai: “the reason of being.”

Most of the centenarians have some religious or spiritual path. They know, and they’re decisive about the reason they get up in the morning. Either being part and serve their community, walk on their spiritual path or being family members; these people are not dealing with existential doubts.

A Great sense of humor is also common among them. At the age of 100, these are not obvious. 

We tend to think about stressful life events as a negative impact on longevity. Not in this case.

Many of the centenarians experienced poverty, hunger, and stress that were a result of political issues. Centenarians in Okinawa, for example, had to live and survive through the hardship and danger of one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War 2.

Similar hardships were part of life in Ikaria, Greece.  Stress in this case definitely made these people stronger.

 

Reading this book raises some serious doubts about the ideas of health and longevity in our modern environment. You cannot escape the fact that health, according to the Blue Zones, is much more than the nutrient ratio in your diet or how much you exercise.

In every population they visited, the team of researchers tried to isolate one or two components in the local diet, hoping to find the “secret” for the local population’s longevity.

Maybe it is the beans and goat milk in the diet of Ikaria and Sardinia? Maybe the sweet potatoes of Okinawa?

I suspect that they knew pretty early in their research that the attempt to reduce the explanation to one or two dietary components is not sufficient. 

The psychological and social elements in our lives are as important as dietary elements, if not even more.

In the world of health and nutrition, you see so many people who follow a strict protocol of diet and exercise, monitoring themselves by spending thousands of dollars a year on cutting-edge testing and doing pretty much everything “right.” Yet, they’re not happy or exceptionally healthy.

Something is obviously missing in our society, and, unfortunately, community, purpose, and spiritual growth are not taken seriously enough as elements of health and longevity.

The Paleo Connection

The Blue Zones is not a Paleo book, and some of the diet conclusions and recommendations in it actually go against what is perceived as a paleo diet. It seems that the book is a little biased towards a plant-based diet with very small amounts of meat. Some of the diet assumptions are based on the old-fashioned approach of anti-fat and anti-animal fat.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that the blue zone populations have followed these diet principles for centuries and have proved to be healthy and long-living. Probably, another clue for us to understand that one diet or another is not a really good predictor for longevity.

 This book is another affirmation that a good diet can’t be easily defined or measured by any criteria but one: eat real food. That is still the most resounding conclusion that can be made on the “perfect” diet.

All of the people interviewed eat real food that grew or lived, in most cases, right next to their living place.

“Local” and “organic” are obvious. They’re not even concepts. 

The Blue Zones 3

Create Your Own Blue Zone

The most important takeaway here is not new. It is another proof that the choices we make in our lives are critical in predicting health and longevity.

According to science, only 25% of how long we live is determined by our genes. We could add at least 10 good years by making the right choices.

These populations, some of whose members were born before World War I, have lived following principles that the most updated science today confirm as healthy.

They have never read or heard about this new science. Again, they remind us that there is no one silver bullet for good health.

It is about the system we’re part of and the environment we live in. Unfortunately, we live in an environment where disease-management is mistaken for health care.

The challenge for us in this environment is, in some ways, much bigger than for the blue zone people. In order to live according to their principles, we have to artificially create the conditions for it. By eating organic and local. By relearning how to naturally move, relax, and connect with each other.

We may have to swim against the stream, but it’s totally worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I’ve been googling “Blue Zones Diet” lately, and came upon this post. The reason I’ve been doing this google search is that I’m very confused! I just came back from a holiday in Sardinia, and what we found there was not at all what Dan Buettner describes. In fact, it seemed to be quite a meat and cheese centered diet- (he does reluctantly mention the goat and sheep’s cheese). Traditional specialties were roast suckling pig, kid stew with wild fennel, goat, lamb, and wild boar. They also eat all parts of the animal; one of the best things we had was lamb intestines with peas- (believe it or not, this was melt in your mouth delicious!)- and we saw sheep’s brains in the refrigerator at the local grocery store. This is not to mention, of course, their various cold cuts; hams, sausages, and other types of cured meat. I interviewed several locals, asking what the traditional diet was, and if they always ate this way. They said yes, all these foods were traditional. Eventually, I told some of them that in my country, we’re told that they eat mainly plant foods, and hardly any meat, and that it’s the plants that supposedly make them healthy. They all said “that’s wrong”. Every single one of them attributed the health benefits of their diet to their local wine, as well as the meat and cheese. So this is why I’m confused…..how did Dan Buettner not *see* what I saw? (I was in the heart of what’s considered the “Blue Zones”, and went to many of the towns in that area). I think he must be totally biased, and must have some sort of agenda! This makes me wonder how accurate his description is of the other so-called “Blue Zones”. I feel the strong need to debunk him! In any case…..if you ever go to Sardinia, it’s very easy to eat Paleo; there are lots of choices; just skip the pasta course- (but the meat is so filling, you don’t need it anyway). For vegans, it’s not so easy. There are a few vegetable side dishes, but not much to make a satisfying meal out of. Oh….and one last thing!- the one element that ALL of these Blue Zones have in common is that they use lard for cooking. I noticed Dan Buettner downplays that fact, at least on his website. Interesting……

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      First, I have to say that you made me feel buying a ticket and fly to Sardinia right away!

      I think that your point is a good one. Buettner has some bias towards a plant-based diet. However, I don’t think his research should be dismissed because of that.
      The Blue Zones research is an extensive and long research that was done in several places in the world and there is a lot we can learn from it.

      At the end of the day, the most important thing is not if the centenarians diet is 30 or 50 or 70 percent animal based.
      The most important thing is that we know that their diets are based on REAL FOOD.
      Their diet is nutrient-dense local and organic. No fake food. They are directly connected to their food, appreciate it and many times grow it themselves.

      Another important thing and that is reflected very well in the book, is that longevity is a complex issue and the recipe for healthy, long life has other elements but diet and even exercise and movement.
      A sense of community and purpose in life are things that are often being overlooked in the heated discussion about health in the society we live in.

      Anyway – I appreciate your comment and the research you’ve done. I’d be happy to hear more from you if you have more interesting observations.

      IN Good Health!

      Ariel
      Active Remedy

      1. Well, I mostly agree with what you said, especially the part about all the other aspects that make people healthy- (and the “eat real food” part). The problem is, these “researchers” are very vocal about the “Plant Based Diet” aspect, to the point that many bloggers and people commenting on blogs are saying that all the hype has influenced them to drastically reduce their meat consumption. I guess I just feel really angry when a group’s diet has been misrepresented, or when someone makes comments that are downright false! (In interviews, and on his website, Dan Buettner says “these people may be healthy because they eat very little meat…..or DESPITE the fact that they eat meat”. He basically makes the claim that other aspects of their lifestyle are probably “counteracting the detrimental effects of eating meat”). On his website, he recommends eating as few animal foods as possible, and advises people to try soy or almond milk instead; use vegetable oils rather than animal fats; try frying tofu instead of eggs. These recommendations do not sound like real Blue Zones Diets!- (well, except possibly for Loma Linda)- which I can assure you are traditional, whole food diets. Out of curiosity, I’ve now been googling the Okinawan diet, and once again I’m finding very conflicting things. Some say, like Dan Buettner, that it’s “mostly plant based”- (maybe they are just quoting him?)- but others claim that they eat far more animal foods than in the rest of Japan, and that they particularly like pork. They eat all parts of the pig- (including the ears and offal), often frying them in lard. Anyway…..in the end, I guess my main gripe is with dietary inaccuracy, because people really do take these things seriously, often changing their own eating habits in response. I see so much American bias and orthodoxy- from many so-called “experts”- when they talk about other culture’s diets. I’m just tired of it, and therefore feel the need to explain what I’ve seen firsthand!

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