You may have heard some buzz about the "Blue Zone Solution," National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner's bestselling book investigating regions of the world that produce the most centenarians (that’s people over 100 years old). Although many of these people follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, the Blue Zone Solution isn’t a diet.
"The Blue Zone Solution is really a lifestyle curated from regions where people live long, healthy lives," explains Maria Conley, RDN, a registered dietitian and functional medicine nutritionist at Henry Ford Health. "While these people live in different parts of the world and have access to different types of foods, 95% of their diet is rooted in plant-based foods."
What Is A "Blue Zone" Diet?
The Blue Zone Solution is a combination of lifestyle choices that Buettner identified during a decade-long research project on centenarians. The key regions where living to 100 is common:
- Icaria, Greece: People who live on this Greek island follow a Mediterranean diet, and they live roughly seven years longer than the average American. Plus, most people over 80 in this community are still mobile.
- Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy): Most residents of this island off the coast of Italy are shepherds who eat a plant-based diet with just a bit of pork and red wine.
- Okinawa, Japan: This region of the world is so well known for its elderly population that there's even a diet dubbed The Okinawa Diet. The key to their longevity? Plant-based eating and strong social networks.
- Nicoya, Costa Rica: This central peninsula town in Costa Rica has the lowest rate of middle-aged death in the world. People here are three times more likely to live to age 90 than Americans. They eat a plant-based diet and continue with physical labor into their golden years. They also have a strong sense of purpose.
- Loma Linda, California: It's a bit surprising to see America make the list, but this region of the country is largely made up of Seventh-Day Adventists, a religious community that shuns sugar, meat, alcohol, tobacco and caffeinated beverages, among other things.
Blue Zone Tenets
Although genetics plays a role in how long you'll live, it’s only one small part of the equation. "Diet, exercise, lifestyle and other factors account for up to 70% of your lifespan," Conley says.
People in the Blue Zones eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans every single day. They don't snack on energy bars and processed foods, choosing instead to munch on nuts and seeds when they're hungry. But they also adopt other healthful lifestyle habits, including what Buettner identified as the "Power 9":
- Move naturally. The people who live the longest don't hit the gym or log 40 minutes during their morning run. "Movement is simply part of the way they live," Conley says. Maybe they're gardening, fishing or transporting water from a well. This type of manual labor requires both cardiovascular and strength training activities — and it keeps you fit and trim.
- Find purpose. There's no doubt that having a sense of purpose in your life helps people get out of bed in the morning. In Okinawa, locals call it "Ikigai," in Nicoya, Costa Ricans call it "plan de vida." Loosely translated, these phrases mean, "why I wake up in the morning." Once you have that, it's easier to get moving!
- Practice stress management. Stress is inevitable, but we all have a choice in how we manage it. In the Blue Zone regions people tend to de-stress throughout the day with specific routines. They might take 15 minutes to pray or meditate or "siesta" following the afternoon meal. No matter which stress-busting tools they choose, they make a point not to let the stress build up and fester.
- Eat less. People in these regions tend to stop eating before they're bellies are overstuffed. In Okinawa, for example, people have a mantra they use to stop eating when they feel about 80% full. They often eat their smallest and last meal of the day in the late afternoon or early evening, a dietary pattern that's mimicked by intermittent fasting.
- Swap meat for plants. Beans, vegetables, nuts, seeds and unprocessed ancient grains are staples in the Blue Zones. Meat, on the other hand, barely makes an appearance. "It's usually 2 ounces or less of meat, just five times per month," Conley says. Blue Zone regions also avoid processed foods and snacks, which are linked to diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer.
- Hit happy hour…in moderation. In every Blue Zone except Loma Linda, alcohol regularly shows up on the menu. Moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers, but if you tip the scales past “moderate” (one drink for women, two for men), you'll shorten your life rather than lengthen it.
- Keep the faith. The vast majority of centenarians have one thing in common: They belong to a faith-based community. Denomination doesn't make a difference but attending some sort of service regularly could tack a few years on to your life.
- Put family first. Family is the cornerstone of healthy living for many people who reach their 100th birthday. They care for aging parents and grandparents. And they tend to marry and have children.
- Find community. Studies consistently show that strong social connections protect against premature death. "The reality is that people who have strong support systems tend to fare better when life gets difficult. Positive support systems also help to reinforce healthy behaviors." Conley says.
Achieving A Blue Zone Benefit
If you're interested in adding years to your life, you don't have to move to a Blue Zone or adopt a vegetarian diet. The idea is to incorporate as many of the Power 9 tenets as possible into your busy life.
"People in Blue Zones eat more plant-based foods, fewer processed foods, they spend less time on devices, they move as part of their daily repertoire, and they value family, faith, and community," says Conley. "They also find time to unwind."
To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Maria Conley, RDN, works with functional medicine patients as part of the Center for Integrative Medicine.