People who live the longest follow a ‘Blue Zones’ diet, researcher found. What is it?

Five pockets of the world exhibit outstanding longevity because of their plant-based diets: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

SHARE People who live the longest follow a ‘Blue Zones’ diet, researcher found. What is it?
The cornerstones of the Blue Zone diet are fresh fish, whole grains, greens and beans.

The cornerstones of the Blue Zone diet are fresh fish, whole grains, greens and beans.

A recent study found that eating a single hot dog could take 36 minutes off of a person’s life. But what if there was a diet that aimed to add years?

The Blue Zones diet in a way aims to do that. It’s based on the eating patterns of people living in so-called blue zones — parts of the world where people live the longest.

The diet was pioneered by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and bestselling author. In about eight years, Buettner and his colleagues conducted research and discovered five pockets of the world that exhibited outstanding longevity: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, Calif.

They found that people in these places were eating a mostly whole food and plant-based diet.

Buettner says he has been following the diet for about 10 years.

“I ate basically a standard American diet when I started, but it just became so glaringly clear that this way of eating is is yielding longevity,” he says. “You can do whatever you want, but the longest-lived people are eating this way.”

He’s also gained newfound attention on TikTok. One of his videos, in which he talks about meat consumption in the blue zones, has gotten nearly 200,000 views.

The key elements of the Blue Zones diet are:

  • Whole grains such as corn, wheat and rice.
  • Greens.
  • Tubers like sweet potatoes.
  • And beans, which Buettner calls the “cornerstone of the diet.”

People in the blue zones eat some meat, on average about five times a month and fish once or twice a week. They also have a “little bit of sheep’s milk cheese or goat’s milk cheese but very little sugar — probably a quarter of the sugar that we eat and almost no processed food.”

That means no processed meats — including hot dogs, sausage, corned beef and beef jerky — which the World Health Organization  classifies as carcinogenic.

Though the diet calls for less meat and dairy than most Americans eat, Buettner says it’s more putting a “plant slant” on your diet. Still, for the cookbook he created to go with the diet, he left out meat and dairy altogether.

“The more people can eat a whole food, plant-based diet, the better off they’re going to be,” he says.

While this diet has similarities to the Mediterranean diet, it pulls from communities beyond this region, with less emphasis on seafood.

Getting Started

Diets can be hard to stick to, Buetter says, so he suggests shaping your environment to make it easier.

“If you’re putting that junk food away, and you put in a big, beautiful fruit bowl in the middle of your table, you’re way more likely to eat the fruit,” he says.

Also, surrounding yourself with others who eat the same way will help, Buettner says. 

“One of the best things to do is to build your social network so you have a couple other people eat this way,” he says. 

He suggests learning to make some Blue Zone recipes you love.

“People eat this way for basically three different reasons,” he says. “Number one, it’ll improve my health. Number two, it’s good for the environment. And number three, it reduces animal cruelty.”

But also, he says, “People want to eat what’s delicious right now. So the most important ingredient is taste. So if you can find a couple of handfuls of recipes that you and your family love... you’re gonna want to eat it because it’s pleasurable.”

Ashley Baumohl, assistant clinical nutrition manager at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. agrees that it helps to “get into the groove” by making new recipes that you find appetizing.

She also says switching to a plant-based diet when you’re used to a more meat-filled diet “requires some education. How to make it flavorful without adding in too much sodium. And what can we add in that is going to give us a greater variety of nutrients and make it taste good? It that takes a lot of practice.”

She says it’s important to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need, for instance getting enough protein from plant sources, which “aren’t going to be as protein-dense as a Greek yogurt or three ounces of chicken or fish.”

She also suggests adjusting any diet to your own needs.

“Everyone is so individualized and has different levels of activity and different mental conditions and different things going on with their body, where they might need more or less of something,” she says.


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