The Blue Zone Diet Explained – How To Live to 100

Would you try to live to 100 years old if you thought you could still have a high-quality life? Well, the Blue Zones have been getting a lot of attention lately since they’re full of 100-year-olds, also called centenarians. But… what are their secrets? What do they eat in the Blue Zones? Is it actually a realistic lifestyle? This is the blue zone diet explained – how to live to 100… let’s dive into the details.

Keep reading to learn more…

Blue Zone

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Table of Contents

What Are Blue Zones?

Simply put, Blue Zones are the five specific places in the world where people have longer lifespans and experience less chronic disease. In each of these places, there are more people who live to be 100 years old – who are called centenarians.

To dive into this topic in depth, I read The Blue Zones book by Dan Buettner and watched the documentary, Live to 100 Secrets of the Blue Zones. In the book, the author interviewed many of the centenarians in each Blue Zone to determine the keys to their longevity. Why were they living so long? What trends could they find?

Well, they compiled everything they learned in the five Blue Zones into nine key lessons to help anyone in the world live a longer and more fulfilled life. Dan explained that the reason why these lessons from the Blue Zones could be keys to our longevity is because about 75% of how long we live is determined by our lifestyle habits (the other 25% is determined by our genes). 

Let’s dive into the five zones…

The Five Blue Zones

According to the Blue Zones research, here are the five areas of the world with the highest number of centenarians.

1 - Okinawa, Japan

  • This is considered the longest-living population and has been called the land of the immortals 
  • People here have lower rates of cardiovascular disease (⅕), breast and prostate cancer (¼), and dementia (⅓) than in the United States [1]

2 - Sardinia, Italy

  • Men are living longer here than in many other places in the world. 
  • In the US, there are 5 female centenarians to 1 male centenarian. In Sardinia, the ratio is 1 to 1. [2]
  • People experience lower rates of diabetes, which could be due to the low-stress lifestyle.

3 - Loma Linda, California

  • Adventists (a large group of people who live in Loma Linda) lead the nation in longest life expectancy.

4 - Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

  • The biological age of people here is about 10 years younger than their chronological age.
  • People spend about 1/15th of the amount on healthcare here than in the US.

5 - Ikaria, Greece

  • People here over the age of 90 are up to three times as healthy as people over the age of 90 in the rest of Greece. 
  • Only 20 percent of people over 80 show signs of dementia 

Blue Zones Criteria - Blue Zones

So… what do you need to be considered a “blue zone”? Well, to be considered a Blue Zone, the location needed to: 

  1. Have proof (using birth and death records) of individual resident’s longevity 
  2. Attain national population longevity that ranks among the highest in the world based on demographic indicators.
  3. Get certified within the country as an area where the population experiences higher longevity compared to the rest of the country.

 

Basically, to be a Blue Zone, there needs to be proof that individual people live longer in that specific area than in other parts of that particular country and the world. 

Commonalities Across Blue Zones

While each Blue Zone has different “staples” in their diets, various rituals, and characteristics that make them unique, it seems like they all have the following in common: 

  1. Eat a Mediterranean-style diet that consists mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes 
  2. Drink plenty of water 
  3. Put your family first 
  4. Spend time with friends who share similar values 
  5. Take time throughout the day and the week to rest 
  6. Stay active and exercise regularly 
  7. Enjoy sunshine to get adequate vitamin D
  8. Have a purpose 
  9. Find ways to decrease your stress 
  10. Partake in activities outside of work like volunteering or learning a new skill 

 

These ten commonalities may seem basic, but sometimes the basics can be challenging – especially when we have demanding jobs or are facing adversity.

The Blue Zone Diet Explained - Foods to Eat

Kathlyn here! As I read the book and watched the documentary, I compiled a list of all of the foods people in the Blue Zones said they ate regularly. A consistent theme across the Blue Zones was a diet high in plant-based foods, with the addition of some dairy and eggs. This way of eating can be referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarian. This way of eating is rich in calcium, vitamins, and iron, which contribute to longevity. 

Robert Butler, M.D., the first President and CEO of the International Longevity Center-USA, said that we can obtain most of our daily vitamin requirements by eating 6-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Butler also shared that eating this amount of fruits and vegetables (and whole grains) can protect against a wide variety of cancers. 

Here are the common foods Blue Zone centenarians commonly eat:

Fruit

- Fruit

  • Banana
  • Berries 
  • Kalamata olives 
  • Lemon
  • Mango
  • Oranges 
    • Dan Buettner explained that oranges may help prevent “heart disease, cancer, and stroke” because they contain key nutrients like vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and folate. 
  • Papaya 
  • Pineapple 
  • Plantains 
  • Raisins 
  • Tomatoes 
    • Dan Buettner wrote that “Women who consumed tomatoes at least three or four times a week reduced their chances of getting ovarian cancer by 70 percent over those who ate tomatoes less often.” He also stated that consuming tomatoes regularly may also lower risk of prostate cancer in men. 
  • Watermelon 

- Vegetables

  • Broccoli 
  • Carrots
  • Daikon 
  • Eggplant 
  • Leafy greens (arugula, kale, spinach, etc)
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce 
  • Minestrone soup
  • Onions
  • Peppers 
  • Potatoes 
  • Purple sweet potatoes 
  • Scallions
  • Squash 
  • Zucchini
Beans

- Legumes, Peas, Beans

Beans were mentioned quite a few times in the Blue Zones book. One study that Dan Buettner wrote about in Loma Linda found that “Adventists who ate more legumes like peas and beans had a 30 to 40 percent reduction in colon cancer.”

The author recommended eating two ounces of beans per day to potentially improve your longevity. 

  • Black-eyed peas 
  • Fava beans 
    • *Do not consume if you have a G6PD gene mutation 
  • Garbanzo/Hummus
  • Lentils  
  • Soy/tofu/natto/miso soup 
    • Dan Buettner said that soy products may lower LDL cholesterol and may play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease. 
    • Opt for organic.

- Whole Grains

  • Barley 
  • Bread 
  • Corn/Maize
    • Maize may play a role in promoting healthy cholesterol levels. 
  • Millet 
  • Pasta 
  • Rice
  • Sourdough bread 
    • In fact, when you eat a side of sourdough bread with your meal, you can reduce the rise in blood sugar levels after the meal. Who knew!
Nuts

- Nuts and Seeds

Another interesting study that Dan Buettner included in the book from Loma Linda found that “Adventists who consume nuts at least five times a week have about half the risk of heart disease and live about two years longer than those who don’t.” 

  • Almonds 
  • Cashews 
  • Peanuts 
  • Pecans 
  • Walnuts 

- Herbs

  • Bitter melon/Goya 
    • This plant contains amounts of antioxidants and compounds that help lower blood sugar. 
  • Chamomile 
    • Chamomile may help prevent platelet clumping, help people sleep, reduce gastric inflammation, and help treat skin disorders. 
  • Dandelion 
    • Dandelion is used for digestion support because it promotes bile flow. It also helps the liver. 
  • Fennel 
    • Fennel seeds can support gastrointestinal tract function and relieve intestinal cramps. 
  • Garlic 
    • Garlic is anti-inflammatory and supports microbial balance. It may help lower blood triglycerides, blood cholesterol, and blood pressure. 
  • Hibiscus 
    • Hibiscus may lower blood pressure. 
  • Mallow 
  • Marjoram 
  • Mint 
    • Mint may prevent gingivitis and ulcers. 
  • Mugwort 
    • People in Okinawa believe mugwort sake is a key factor in their longevity. They also commonly use mugwort as a seasoning in rice. 
  • Mulberry leaves 
  • Olive tree leaf 
  • Oregano 
    • Oregano may help lower blood pressure and can lower breast milk flow if a woman is overproducing. 
  • Rosemary 
    • Rosemary may reduce gout symptoms, promotes bile production and flow, can calm nerves, and may help lower blood pressure. 
  • Sage 
    • Sage is antibacterial and may help lower blood pressure. 
  • Turmeric 
    • Turmeric is an antioxidant and may lower inflammation. 

- Seaweed/Kelp

- Fats

  • Mastic Oil 
    • This oil is used in some parts of Sardinia instead of olive oil. 
  • Olive Oil
    • Because of olive oil’s low burning point, it may be better to use at room temperature than heated. 

- Raw Honey

  • Many people in Ikaria eat a spoonful of honey per day. 

- Cheese

  • Feta cheese 
  • Pecorino cheese from grass-fed sheep 

- Eggs

The Blue Zone Diet Explained - Beverages to Drink

- Mineral Water

  • It is recommended to drink at least half of your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water per day. For example, if a person weighs 200 pounds, it would be recommended for that person to drink at least 100 ounces of water per day.
  • One study mentioned in the Blue Zones book found that “men who drank five or six glasses of water a day had a substantial reduction in the risk of a fatal heart attack-60-70 percent less compared to those who drank considerably less water” [3]
  • If you drink filtered water, like reverse osmosis, check out this article on how to remineralize your water: The Best Mineral Drops For Reverse Osmosis Water 

- Goat's Milk

  • Goats milk may contain 13% more calcium, 25% more vitamin B6, 47% more vitamin A, 134% more potassium, and 3x more niacin than cow’s milk.
  • It may help protect against inflammatory diseases of aging such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

- Red Wine (1-2 Glasses)*

  • Another interesting tip that I learned was that “drinking wine along a plant-based meal increased flavonoid absorption and doubled the healthful effects of drinking wine alone” 
  • There’s a lot of conflicting information online about alcohol. To learn more, check out: What Is The Healthiest Alcoholic Drink? Alcohol On Gut Health

- Herbal Tea

Eating an assortment of fresh, organic mostly plant-based foods can make a major difference in your health!

What About Meat and Fish?

Many people in the Blue Zones ate meat and fish one to two times per week. They eat a wide variety of animal protein, including pork, fish, beef, chicken, and wild game. Animal protein is a part of their diets, it just isn’t the main part. This may be due to cost, availability, and religious beliefs. 

The Blue Zone Diet Explained - Foods to Avoid

People in the Blue Zones consume very little processed meals and snacks, processed meats, foods with refined sugar, or foods with lots of salt. Most of their food is fresh, so they do not need to use preservatives to help it last longer. 

Tips For Meal Time

Here are a few tips during mealtime to improve the quality of your meals and the quantity that you consume: 

  1. Hara hachi bu: Eat until you are 80% full (stop eating when you no longer feel hungry) 
  2. Eat an early, light dinner
  3. Eat at least one meal per day with family, friends, or colleagues 
  4. Serve your food and then store the leftovers
  5. Use smaller plates and bowls 
  6. Eat slowly and chew food well 
  7. Sit down and eat 
  8. Cook your own meals (and put love into your food)
  9. Buy ingredients, not pre-packaged meals 

Ways to Rest and Decrease Stress

Many centenarians in the Blue Zones prioritize rest, have minimal stress, and have positive outlooks on life. They also shared practices like…

  • Getting 7-9 hours of sleep 
  • Going to bed around the same time each night and waking up at the same time each day
  • Taking a nap to rest and recharge 
    • I am commonly asked if taking naps is ok. Dan Buettner shared that “people who took naps had lower coronary mortality!” 
  • Having “sanctuaries in time” when you rest and rejuvenate (without guilt) 
  • Not rushing or being in a hurry
  • Not worrying about your own problems or things that you cannot control 
  • Releasing your worries to a higher power 
  • Having a positive outlook 
  • Expressing gratitude daily 
  • Being kind to others and likable 
  • Being straightforward and decisive, but can be flexible and change course

Prioritize Your Relationships

One of the lines in the book that stood out to me was, “people with two or three significant ties in their lives, to family and friends and community, tended to be healthier, both emotionally and physically.” 

This statement highlights the importance of maintaining positive relationships with family, friends, and members of your community. 

  • Take care of your family as children, as they age, and if they are sick 
    • The majority of centenarians in each place lived with a family member
  • Eat meals with your family and friends 
  • Seek advice from your parents and grandparents
  • Honor your parents and ancestors 
  • Have a sense of humor and laugh with friends (it can reduce stress!) 
  • Spend time with like-minded friends who share similar values 
  • Make time each week to visit your close friends and family 
  • Maoi: a group that meets for a common purpose 
    • Create your own maoi, or social support network, in your community 
  • Be “we” minded instead of “me” minded (and find people who think similarly) 

Move Your Body

Daily movement is a part of most people’s lives in the Blue Zones. This may be due to living in an area with a lot of hills, not having access to a vehicle, or engaging in daily chores like gardening and landscaping. It helps that people in the Blue Zones are used to walking for miles, walking up an incline, using their muscles to do yard work, and getting up and down from the floor 30 times per day. 

Here are a few ways that you can make moving your body a part of your routine: 

  • Get between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise at least five times per week 
  • Take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator 
  • Grow a garden or do your own landscaping 
  • Spend time outside in nature
  • Engage in endurance exercises 
    • Walking 
    • Biking 
    • Swimming 
    • Hiking 
  • Perform strength training exercises
    • Resistance training 
    • Weight lifting 
  • Work on your flexibility and balance 
    • Stretching 
    • Yoga 

Have a Purpose

Most of the centenarians had a purpose – whether that be a job that they woke up to do every morning or a family to take care of. Almost all of the centenarians in the book still worked, whether it be as a shepherd, selling fruit, or teaching their grandchildren. They all had very strong work ethics and were passionate about what they contributed to their community and family. 

In Okinawa, the people call their purpose an ikigai. Their ikigai is their reason to wake up in the morning. Their ikigai guides them as they enter old age, as Okinawans do not have a word for retirement. In Costa Rica, the people call their purpose their plan de vida. Typically, the plan de vida involves taking care of their family or serving others. It is clear that having a specific reason to get up in the morning is important.

Eating the Blue Zone Diet

The Science Behind Blue Zones

There are five key factors that you should consider if you’re trying to live to 100 years old.

1 - Longevity and Lifestyle Factors

According to the WHO’s Decade of Healthy Ageing Baseline Report,  healthy lifestyle factors include: [4]

  • Not smoking (never having smoked or having quit smoking for 30+ years)
  • Consuming alcohol in moderation (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) 
  • Being physically active
    • Interestingly, the Lancet Healthy Longevity study found that “among individual lifestyle factors, ideal physical activity has the greatest effect on reducing mortality.” [5]
  • Following a healthy diet (“fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, legumes, meat, eggs, fish and seafood, salty vegetables, tea, and garlic”) 

 

The Lancet Healthy Longevity study found that people who fell into the intermediate and healthy lifestyles (based on the above criteria), lived longer than people who fell into the unhealthy criteria. This study supports many of the findings from the Blue Zones. Many of the centenarians from the Blue Zones did not smoke, drank red wine in moderation, had a physically active lifestyle, and consumed the foods listed above. 

2 - Diet and Nutrition Patterns

The way of eating described in the Blue Zones book and documentary are most closely related to the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean diet focuses on consuming high-nutrient foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and fish.

One study done on the impact that the Mediterranean diet can have on longevity explained that this could be because the Mediterranean diet “was related to longer leukocyte telomere length and a reduction of oxidative stress.”

This could be because of the high intake of anti-inflammatory foods that people who follow the Mediterranean diet consume, including fruits, vegetables, and herbs. These foods contain high levels of antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin A, and lycopene. [6]

To learn more about eating an anti-inflammatory diet, check out: How To Eat An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Another study found that when older adults living in the US and Israel followed the Mediterranean diet, they had better cognitive function and physical capabilities. Other foods that could play a role in improved cognitive ability are the regular intake of olive oil and nuts that the Mediterranean diet requires.

The authors of the study explain that olive oil particularly contains polyphenols that protect DNA from oxidative stress and lower inflammation. [7]

3 - Social Cohesion and Community Engagement

In each of the five Blue Zones, social connection and community are at the center of their lives. They work hard to provide for their families, share meals with family and friends, volunteer for local organizations, and provide their close friends with emotional and financial support when needed. And the research about social connection and relationships supports the idea that connection to others can increase longevity.

In one annual review, the researcher found that there was a lot of evidence to show that “social connection has a protective effect on health and longevity and, conversely, that lacking connection is linked to risk.” [8]

Another study supported this finding and discovered that the more social interaction, the lower the risk of physiological dysregulation in various stages of life. These researchers found that social isolation increased the risk of inflammation in the same way that lack of physical activity increased the risk of inflammation. What was even more interesting was that they also found that having more social interaction could have a positive impact on waist circumference and body mass index. Who knew that catching up with a friend or eating meals with your family every night could impact your body’s inflammatory response and weight? [9]

4 - Physical Activity and Daily Routines

Incorporating movement into daily routines is important to avoid being sedentary and maintain good health. One study done on training for longevity found that 2.5 to 5 hours per week of moderate or vigorous exercise will give people maximum health benefits. However, engaging in physical activity for more than 10 hours per week may show negative outcomes, so there is definitely a sweet spot when it comes to physical activity. You don’t want to overdo it! [10]

As mentioned above, it is important to engage in a variety of exercises, including endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance training. A study that explored the impact that exercise has on brain health discovered that endurance exercise can improve cognition, memory, mental health, and brain plasticity. 

A second study that aimed to find the benefits of resistance training on health learned that it can: [11, 12]

    • Lower long-term joint stress
    • Prevent age-related physiological deterioration 
    • Increase muscle strength and mass
    • Increase basal metabolic rate
    • Increase bone density 
    • Reduce body fat
    • Improve cardiac risk factors
    • Enhance endothelial function 
    • Promote cognitive function 

 

In addition, exercises that support flexibility and balance, like yoga, can help prevent falls in older adults and lessen stress. Because each type of exercise offers diverse benefits, it is important to do a mix of exercises throughout the week! 

Stress Management and Mental Well-being

It was amazing to hear how positive many of the centenarians were through their interviews. Most of them believed that everything was going to be ok and had a good sense of humor. I wanted to see if optimism was associated with longevity. I found one fascinating study that was done on a racially diverse group of women.

The researchers found that across all racial groups, higher optimism was correlated with “longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity overall.” The evidence from the centenarians and research encourages us to worry less, trust that everything is going to be ok, and have a positive outlook on life. [13]

Final Thoughts - The Blue Zone Diet Explained

Clearly, we have a lot to learn from centenarian cultures. All in all, focus on the basics: move your body naturally and avoid processed foods. Eat until you are no longer hungry, only drink alcohol in moderation, focus on stress-relief, and living out your purpose. Spend your time in your community, prioritize your family, and surround yourself with those who embody the Blue Zone values. All in all, focus on what goes in, on, and around your body… and don’t overthink it.

Do you want to live to 100 years old?

Let me know your thoughts and key takeaways in the comments below!

xoxo,

In On Around Signature

Want to read more? Check out our other articles here! 

Other references on Blue Zone Diet Explained and How To Live to 100 Years Old from

Blue Zones Criteria – Blue Zones, Washington Post, The Lancet

Copyright In On Around LLC 2024 ©. The statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information provided by this website should not be used as individual medical advice and you should always consult your doctor for individual recommendations and treatment. The information contained in this site is provided on an “as is” basis. Related to this site, there are no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness. In On Around LLC assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site.

About Catherine Power

Catherine Power is the Founder and CEO of In On Around. She is a Harvard-educated Ingredient Safety and Environmental Toxins expert. Catherine has a background in Food Science, Personal Care Quality, and Regulatory Compliance.

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