What Is the Blue Zone Diet?
It'll help you lose weight and live longer—but this is definitely not your typical fad diet.
At the beginning of December, a group of people in Naples, Florida took on an interesting challenge: to form social groups of four or five people and together, for 10 weeks, create a healthy potluck of sorts. Their meals were all centered on the Blue Zone diet—a way of eating from five regions researchers have identified (and originally circled with a blue pen, thus "Blue Zones") as having the highest concentrations of centenarians (that's 100+-year-olds) in the world.
Behind the challenge was Dan Buettner, an author who studies these five regions—Icaria, Greece; Ogliastra, Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California—and has pinpointed the nine habits that allow these people to live through their 80s and often into their 90s and 100s. (FYI: The average lifespan for Americans, for comparison, is 78, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
After three months of eating Blue Zone diet-approved meals with their groups, almost every participant lost significant amounts of weight—between 12 and 37 pounds to be exact—and improved their health markers like cholesterol.
What's more, if they were to stick with this process (and incorporate a few more Blue Zone hallmarks, such as daily stress relief and living with purpose), it could reduce or even eliminate their risk for metabolic diseases and help them outlive their fellow Americans.
What is a Blue Zone?
In his book, The Blue Zones, Buettner identifies five known Blue Zones:
Icaria, Greece: This Greek Island follows the Mediterranean diet closer than anyone in the world. The people here live roughly seven years longer than most Americans—and with about one-fifth the rate of dementia. And, get this: Among Ikarians over 80 years old, nearly 9 out of 10 men and 7 out of 10 women still moved daily (compared to just 1 of 2 men and 1 of 4 women throughout the rest of Greece), says a study out of Athens, Greece.
Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy): The Italian island is home to the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world. Among 14 villages, they're mostly shepherds, staying active their entire lives and eating a mostly plant-based diet along with some pork and red wine. (More on the benefits of red wine right here.)
Okinawa, Japan: This archipelago is home to the world's oldest women—in fact, some parts of the country house 30 times more female centenarians per capita than in the U.S. Their longevity is rooted in strong social networks and plant-based diets. (More here: What Is The Okinawa Diet?)
Nicoya, Costa Rica: People in this central peninsula town are more than three times as likely as Americans to reach 90 (and do so in healthy shape). Plus, this area of Costa Rica has the lowest rate of middle-aged mortality in the world (think: less heart diseases and diabetes). The Nicoyan diet is based on beans and corn tortillas, and culture on keeping up physical work into old age. What's more, the Nicoyans have a sense of life purpose (another hallmark of Blue Zones) they call "plan de vida."
Loma Linda, California: Surprised to see America on the list? This zone is specific to the Seventh-day Adventists, a religious community concentrated in this San Bernardino suburb, who have shunned sugar, meat, alcohol, tobacco, and often caffeinated drinks and focus on a healthy diet and exercise. (FYI, breaking up with booze can do wonders for your health—just take it from J.Lo.) Adventists, who live on average 8-9 years longer than other Americans, also operate several health facilities across the country, allowing for easy access to health care.
Although these are the only areas discussed in Buettner's book, there may be more areas around the world that have yet to be identified as Blue Zones.
What makes these people in Blue Zones live so long?
There's no denying that genetics come into play when determining how long you'll live—but they only account for about 20 to 30 percent of longevity, according to research. That leaves diet, community, lifestyle, and other environmental factors to control 70 to 80 percent of your lifespan.
And, while many people think about the food they eat as being the biggest influence on weight gain and disease risk, you really can't separate lifestyle factors and nutrition when it comes to longevity, says Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D., a New York-based nutritionist.
Research agrees: Buettner identifies nine commonalities—aka the "Power 9"—among Blue Zones that directly contribute to reducing obesity and metabolic diseases and increasing life expectancy. These are the keys to living a longer, healthier life.
1. Move naturally. The world's longest-lived people live in environments where they're encouraged and required to move without thinking about it: more walking and carrying objects, less weight lifting and marathon running. Any movement is good, but simple forms of physical labor—mowing the grass, gardening, building things—are better.
2. Find purpose. The Okinawans call it "Ikigai" and the Nicoyans call it "plan de vida"; but both translate to "why I wake up in the morning." "Across the board, those living the longest had a clear sense of purpose," says Buettner.
3. Nix the stress. Everyone experiences stress—even people in the Blue Zones. But unlike most of us, these centenarians have aspects of their daily routine that help shed the stress. Okinawans take a moment every day to remember their ancestors; Adventists pray; Ikarians take a nap; and Sardinians drink wine. And they all have a community to lean on (more on that in a minute), says Mark Sherwood, N.D., founder of the Functional Medical Institute in Tulsa, OK.
4. Eat a little less. The Okinawans have an ancient mantra that reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. People in Blue Zones also eat their smallest—and last—meal in the late afternoon or early evening, a habit that's mimicked in intermittent fasting, Sherwood points out.
5. Trade meat for plants. People in Blue Zones eat a diet rich in beans, unprocessed grains like oats and barley, greens, potatoes, nuts and seeds, fruits, and herbs. Considering studies show plant-based diets lower your risk for almost every disease, it's not surprising that the oldest people in the world adhere to this. They do still eat some animal protein—just in small quantities, adds Schehr. In Blue Zones, people eat meat—mostly pork—just five times per month. (As for those iron levels? These meat-free foods are packed with the vital mineral.) "Consuming empty calories, excess calories, high amounts of sugar, and animal proteins have all been linked to diseases including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and inflammatory diseases," says Schehr.
6. Hit happy hour. In every Blue Zone except Loma Linda, California, people drink alcohol moderately and regularly. While it's known that moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers, emphasizing "moderate"—one drink per day for women—is essential. In these regions, that cup is typically full of red wine and sipped on with friends and/or food (just be sure to steer clear of these vino mistakes).
7. Belong. All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed by Buettner for his book belonged to some kind of faith-based community. Denomination doesn't much matter, but research does show that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.
8. Put family first. Successful centenarians keep aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home, which lowers health risks like depression for the children around, too. They also commit to a life partner, which studies show can increase one's life expectancy, and invest in their children with time and love, which in turn encourages the kids to care for their aging parents when the time comes.
9. Find community. Loneliness is just as influential (if not more) on health and mortality risk as the major killers in America—smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse, and exercise, according to a 2015 meta-analysis from Brigham Young University. People with strong social bonds are 50 percent less likely to die over a given period of time than those who have fewer social connections, per the same study. Blue Zones inhabitants know this: Okinawans, for example, created moais, which are groups of five friends that commit to each other for life. "Community gives more opportunities for relationships and support. Someone to talk to, share life, and play with can yield hope. This hope is driven by someone having a reason to live (e.g. someone needs you) that makes stress very manageable," says Sherwood. (Learn How to Make Friends As an Adult—and Why It's So Important for Your Health)
How Americans Can Live Longer
It's not about choosing one Blue Zone and mimicking it, but instead incorporating more of these common threads throughout your lifestyle. At the top of the list is the idea of giving up processed foods in favor of natural ones, as well as eating when hungry and stopping when you're full, says Sherwood.
Schehr agrees: "Americans need to refocus their diet on what is available to them locally as well as least processed. Increasing the overall amounts of vegetables and fruits in each person's diet is a crucial first step."
To get started, Buettner offers a ton of Blue Zone recipes online, for free. (Also check out these 50 Easy Mediterranean Diet Recipes and Meal Ideas and Plant-Based Diet Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.)
Additionally, moving more is a crucial aspect of longevity, says Schehr. Try walking instead of driving, carrying groceries instead of using a shopping cart, even playing with grandchildren and pets more.
But the most important influence to take from the longevity of Blue Zones is that they have a healthier approach to live, keyword, comprehensively. They eat less processed foods, they spend less time on screens, move more, and value the importance of connection and community. "I believe the combination of those factors contributes to the longevity in these places," says Schehr.