- Various communities across the globe have populations that disproportionately live into their hundreds.
- Dietary patterns within these scattered communities have been studied to find out how they might contribute to longevity.
- A healthy diet can have numerous health benefits, but it’s only one factor out of many.
Netflix recently released a four-part docuseries called “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.” It quickly became one of the streaming service’s most popular new shows.
In it, Dan Buettner — author of a number of books on the topic of blue zones — visits with centenarians from across the globe to learn about their lifestyle habits: exercise routines, social support, sense of purpose, and, of course, their diets.
What commonalities were shared between these long-lived people from disparate cultures? Could the food that they consume—or avoid—be the secret to their longevity?
Here’s what experts have to say about it.
A blue zone, for those not already familiar with the term, refers to a geographical area where the average human lifespan is disproportionately greater than the surrounding areas, or even most of the rest of the world.
The idea first came from a 2004 paper published in Experimental Gerontology, wherein colored maps were used to track average lifespans across the island of Sardinia, and the highest concentrations of centenarians happened to be colored blue.
Other blue zones were later proposed, and today the term is generally understood to include five locations:
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Ikaria, Greece
- Sardinia, Italy
- Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, CA, United States of America
This list presents something of a puzzle. The blue zones are separated by continents, and they each have their own cultural, geopolitical, and socioeconomic norms.
Might they all, by chance or by choice, share the same diet?
As it turns out, there is no one definitive “blue zone diet.” There are, however, some important overlaps between blue zone nutritional values.
Jordan Hill, lead registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching, told Healthline, “How people eat in the blue zones is not necessarily a ‘diet’ as it is a dietary pattern, so there aren’t ‘forbidden foods’ or ‘rules’ around what someone can and cannot eat. Rather, there’s a strong emphasis on moderation and balance, and occasional treats can be part of that.”
“Common dietary patterns amongst the blue zones include an emphasis on plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains) and healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, seeds),” said Hill.
Most blue zones are not strictly vegetarian, though meat consumption is markedly different from a typical American diet.
“While folks in these regions do still consume meat, it tends to be less frequently and in smaller portions. Portion control in general and mindful eating are common practices, and meals are typically eaten communally,” said Hill.
Dr. Amanda Velazquez, DABOM, Director of Obesity Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, agreed, telling Healthline that people in blue zones shared similar values around food and eating.
“Vegetables should be the predominant food group in your diet. Choose beans, tofu, and nuts as plant-based proteins, and limit lean protein meats to a small portion of your diet or exclude. Drink alcohol in moderation, and eat mindfully — meaning eat until you are only 80% full, which in Okinawa is a principle of that blue zone known as Hara Hachi Bu,” said Velazquez.
Will adherence to blue zone dietary patterns guarantee you a hundred-year lifespan? Experts say no.
“While these diets can provide valuable insights into promoting well-being, it’s important to approach them with realistic expectations and a balanced perspective. They are not a magic solution for health and longevity and it’s important to consider individual variation,” said Hill.
So then are blue zone eating patterns much ado about nothing? Also no, experts say.
“The overarching principles are backed by science, many of which fall into a traditional Mediterranean diet which is well established in the literature to have a wide range of health benefits including improvement in cardiovascular health, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and more,” said Velazquez.
At the end of the day, the question comes down to presentation and expectations, but experts agree that blue zone dietary patterns do have value.
“Whether blue zone diets are overhyped or not depends on how they are portrayed and interpreted. If someone is looking to increase life longevity and improve overall health, making a long-term commitment to any healthy changes they make is important,” said Hill.
Making any kind of dietary change can be difficult, and often times gaining the most benefits requires maintaining those changes for a long time.
The key to success? Start small.
“I would recommend someone start making healthy changes to their habits gradually over time. It’s important to set realistic goals that one feels can be sustainable long term,” said Hill.
It’s also important to keep in mind that eating healthy is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
“These are meant to be guiding principles, not hard cut rules. Enjoying sweets in moderation and eating out is part of life. One should not think of this as a rulebook they have to follow but rather guiding principles to help them make healthier choices in the fast-paced world we live in today,” said Velazquez.
“Being flexible in one’s approach can help to avoid discouragement or disappointment if their adherence to new habits aren’t ‘perfect,” offered Hill.
Being flexible also means avoiding the trap of “cheat days” that might come to mind with other popular diets.
“It is not advised to have structured ‘cheat days’ — this again reinforces negative diet culture that has plagued our society for decades,” said Velazquez.
While there is no singular blue zone diet, the eating habits of people living in blue zones can still offer valuable insights into the power of making healthy decisions.
“Even following one of the principles of the blue zone diet can be impactful for your health. Choose one principle and focus on this. If your current diet does not include enough vegetables, start thinking about ways to include more, for example,” said Velazquez.
Of course, diet is likely only one factor of many that contributes to the longer lifespans people enjoy in blue zones.
“It’s important to note that while diet can play a big role in longevity and overall health, other areas like physical activity, social connection, and stress reduction also play a role,” said Hill.
“Ultimately, your diet and lifestyle should enhance your overall enjoyment of life and well-being. Make choices that promote physical and mental health while allowing for joy and social connection through food,” Hill added.