Published:
December 2, 2022
Last Updated:
December 7, 2022

Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People: Discovering the Blue Zones with Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner is an explorer, National Geographic Fellow, award-winning journalist and producer, three-time Guinness World Record Holder, and New York Times bestselling author. He discovered the five places in the world – dubbed blue zones hotspots – where people live the longest, healthiest lives. His articles about these places in The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic are two of the most popular for both publications.

In his new book Blue Zones American Kitchen, Buettner uncovers the traditional roots of plant-forward cuisine in the United States. Following the acumen of heritage cooks who have passed their recipes from generation to generation, Buettner explores the regions and cultures that have shaped America’s healthiest food landscapes, from Hmong elders living in Minnesota to Quakers in New England. Along the way, he illuminates both traditional and revolutionary ideas in vegetarian food.

With wisdom from more than 50 food experts, chefs, and cooks around the country, Buettner’s road trip across America sheds light on some of its most under-recognized plant-forward communities as Buettner shares the ingredients, recipes, and lifestyle tips that will make living to 100 both delicious and easy. Pre-order yours today!

What are the Blue Zones?

Blue Zones are demographically-confirmed, geographically-defined areas with the highest percentage of centenarians, or people who live to 100 years old. They are Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; and Okinawa, Japan. The term Blue Zones came about as demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain began identifying the regions with the highest concentration of male centenarians. As they zeroed in on the cluster of villages in Sardinia, they drew circles on the map. The only pen they had was blue. Because of this, we began referring to these longevity spots as Blue Zones.

What are the common characteristics of the Blue Zones?

We have identified nine traits shared by inhabitants of the world’s Blue Zones areas. We call them the Power 9, and they include:

 

Move Naturally

The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.

 

Purpose

Having a sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.”

 

Downshift

Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. Even people in Blue Zones areas experience stress, but they have daily routines to shed that stress. Reverse disease by creating a stress-relieving strategy that works for you. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Ikarians take a nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.

 

80% Rule

Eat mindfully and stop when 80% full. The 20 percent gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing or gaining weight. People in Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then don’t eat any more the rest of the day.

 

Plant Slant

Adding more fruits and veggies to your plate can add years to your life. Beans, including fava, black, soy, and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month.  Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.

 

Wine @ 5

If you have a healthy relationship with alcohol, enjoying a glass of wine with good friends each day is part of a Blue Zones lifestyle.

 

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Belong

All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community.  Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add four to 14 years of life expectancy.

 

Loved Ones First

Successful centenarians in Blue Zones areas put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home, which lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home. They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love.

 

Right Tribe

The world’s longest-lived people also choose—or are born into—social circles that support healthy behaviors. Research shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness is contagious. The social networks of long-lived people favorably shape their health behaviors.

What’s an example of a Blue Zone’s “day of eating”?

We like to use the old saying “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” because it applies perfectly to the way we have found centenarians eat. Breakfast consists of protein, complex carbohydrates (beans or veggies), and plant-based fats (nuts, seeds, oils). For instance, a common breakfast in Costa Rica is a corn tortilla with black beans and squash. Lunch and dinner contain lots of fruits and vegetables with meat eaten mostly for celebrations if at all. Tofu Stir-fry in Okinawa and stew in Ikaria are very common staples.

A more general look at their diet is that 95% of their diet comes from plants. They eat high-carb diet with low amount of protein and fats. They snack on nuts (about a handful a day) and the cornerstone of all of their diets is the bean (about a cup a day).

Popular foods for each Blue Zone area

  • Ikaria: Potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes, wild greens, fruit, small amounts of fish, feta cheese, herbs
  • Okinawa: Bitter melons, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea, shitake mushrooms
  • Sardinia: Locally-produced wine, sheep's cheese, fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea
  • Loma Linda: Avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, soy milk
  • Nicoya: Beans, corn, squash, tortillas, papayas, yams, bananas, peach palms

How can someone identify their “happiness” and sense of purpose? How can we live our life with more passion and intention?

Happiness is hard to measure as it is really a combination of health, emotions, how you evaluate your life, and if you are living out your values. So, I would reframe it to: if you have life satisfaction and feel that you are living out your goals while laughing and smiling then you are happy.

People can become happier by setting up their environments for life satisfaction to ensue. Be in a place you feel safe, have a sense of purpose, enjoy lives that minimize stress and maximize joy, get enough sleep, set goals, exercise, practice likability, engage in a hobby, and have at least three close friends who have similar goals/aspirations. It’s also difficult to be happy if you are unhealthy so keeping yourself healthy will help keep you happy.

For finding your sense of purpose, I like to ask people what gets them up in the morning. This can be very telling. If people are having a hard time finding their purpose, I also encourage them to volunteer for a few different local nonprofits. This can help you find a cause you’re passionate about as well as meet friends who have similar passions as you.

IIN embraces the “Circle of Life” - all the components of our being - career, relationships, food, our home environment - they all impact our overall health and happiness. How can we maximize our happiness or make positive changes to these areas of our life?

This “Circle of Life” idea is spot on, we call it the “Life Radius.” Environment plays a major role in one’s health. There is no pill for longevity or a fountain of youth but only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by our genes (internal), whereas the other 80% is dictated by external factors, like our lifestyle and environment.

Making the choice to set up your environment for health is the best step. This can be done by making small changes across your personal life, home, and office. Find a group of health-conscious friends, de-convenience your home so you are gardening and doing housework by hand, get a standing desk or do your meetings while walking, and put fruits and vegetables on the counter in sight so the healthy choice becomes not only easy but unavoidable. Eventually, these small adjustments add up to a big change in your health and happiness.

If it feels impossible to make the changes to your current environment for health and happiness, I encourage you to move to a community that you feel will nurture these endeavors. Many people think that is a big shift, but on average Americans move about 10 times in their adult lives.

The holidays are coming. Do you have tips on how to stay happy and healthy throughout the season? Stress, change in food, environment, and routine can often trigger poor habits, our mood, etc.

The holidays can be very stressful for people but there are a few lessons we can take from the blue zones to make it a more enjoyable time of year. Make the holidays about connecting with and celebrating friends and family. Share toasts and express gratitude to those you love. Remember that it’s not about gift-giving. Focus on friends and family; if you do give gifts have them be modest but thoughtful or an experience that they can share with you goes a long way.

Be mindful of your nutritional intake and include an array of nutrient-rich plant-based foods on your table. Finally, if you do eat a big meal, don’t plop down on the couch, and watch hours of tv, instead gather the group together and take a walk, being out in nature is a huge stress reliever.

Can you talk about your new book coming out on December 6?

Yes! This year alone, nearly 750,000 people in the United States will die from eating the standard American diet. Meanwhile, in the same year, Americans will have spent approximately $3.7 trillion on health care—85% of it on treating preventable diseases largely driven by what we eat.

For this book, I’ve reconstructed a largely-forgotten American diet that closely resembles the dietary pattern I found in Blue Zones. I explored more than 60 oral histories from food experts, chefs and cooks, scientific reports, and academic papers to reconstruct four traditional American diets from the early 20th century.

The motherlode, however, came from the work of an agricultural chemist named W.O. Atwater. In 1887, he and his colleagues at the USDA’s Office of Experimental Stations launched the first “dietaries” in various communities. His field researchers went directly into households and recorded every bit of food the families ate over a several-week period.

The resulting reports provide a remarkably data-driven representation of exactly what people were eating a century ago. The scope of his work was ethnically and racially diverse, precisely capturing the diets of Mexicans, Asians, and African Americans. His data, dating from the late 1890s to the early 1930s, shows that Mexican American and Asian Hawaiian diets were 84% and 88% plant-based, respectively, and largely free of added sugars.

To find the roots of these culinary traditions, National Geographic photographer David McLain and I embarked on a road trip across America to meet with the folks behind some of the country’s most under-recognized plant-forward communities. Along with the flavors they share, we found fascinating stories of community building, chef artistry, and hidden health benefits. We share the ingredients, recipes, and tips that will make living to 100 both delicious and easy.

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