You may have heard of the ‘Blue Zones’—the regions in the world which have the highest number of centennials. In these communities there are far fewer incidences of chronic disease and in fact the centennials here are leading active and productive lives. There are five Blue Zones in the world: namely, Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California, Sardinia in Italy and Ikaria in Greece. These blue zones are marked by common characteristics such as the presence of close knit communities where great emphasis is given to nurturing strong social connections. The food they eat is local produce and meal times are sacred and to be enjoyed with family and friends. They exercise daily, have a strong purpose in life and are spiritual.
Now it seems unrealistic to even try to replicate a blue zone lifestyle as these places are remote, people lead slow-paced lives, grow their own produce and breathe in fresh unpolluted air. This is unlike our own hectic city lives where any peace and harmony is interrupted by pervasive technology and the demands of modern day life, making it tough to lead healthy lifestyles. However, as I will show, Blue Zone communities offer much in the way of practicable, easily-adoptable advice (e.g. regular low-impact exercise, mindful eating, incorporating local produce into one’s diet). And yet this does not exhaust what we might learn from the Blue Zone communities.
While the Okinawan diet is very similar to the rest of Japan, the distinct differences are, however, important to note. They eat significantly less white rice than does the rest of Japan, though they do eat a lot of carbohydrates. The white rice is substituted by brown rice, millet and buckwheat soba noodles. Their diet is replete with myriad vegetables sourced from both land and sea. They eat a lot of root vegetables rich in anti-inflammatory properties. Sweet potatoes and Squash are a family of such vegetables, comprising, most prominently, Japanese pumpkin, high in vitamin A and toxin-removing properties. Their staple foods are ‘goya’ or bitter melons (high in antioxidants and regulate blood sugar levels), seaweed like kombu and wakame, Tofu, and shiitake mushrooms.
The Okinawan, like the Japanese, plate consists of many small bowls of food, which help control the portions they eat. These bowls contain fermented vegetables and are rich in phytonutrients. Some of these are lotus roots, burdock root, wasabi mustard greens, cucumber, daikon radish, eggplant, and ginger, all of which enhance digestion and gut health. There are varied sea vegetables such as seaweeds like wakame, kombu and nori which have high levels of health boosting minerals and may aid in reducing blood pressure. As an example of an unfermented vegetable, the ‘Shiso leaf’ (otherwise, ‘Oba’), normally used decoratively or in salads, is an intestine stimulant, high in calcium, iron and abundant in anti-inflammatory properties.
The most foundational ingredient in their cuisine are fermented soybeans, used to make soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh and natto. As an instance of the benefit of fermented soybeans, consider Natto. Eaten at breakfast, Natto can help reduce IBS symptoms and may help blood clotting. More generally, Soybeans, other than being a good source of protein, are known also to aid in enhancing heart health.
Another source of protein in the Okinawan diet is a variety of so-called ‘fatty’ fish—Mackerel, Tuna and Salmon—which are high in omega 3 oils. These are accompanied with small amounts of ground wasabi root which has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Radishes like daikon are also served with fish which are great digestives, boost immunity, fight coughs and colds and regulate blood pressure. Their meals are usually served with potent green teas like Gyokuro, Sencha, Matcha which are high in antioxidant compounds called ‘catechins’, which may help fight cancer, viruses and heart disease. The also have anti-inflammatory tea like Turmeric and Jasmine tea as well.
The Sardinian centenarians eat plenty of sugar-regulating foods like Fava beans, chickpeas and whole grains like barley. They also eat a lot of grass-fed goat’s milk known to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and sheep’s cheese which is high in Omega 3’s and have anti-inflammatory properties. Nuts and olive oil are also a large part of their diet which are also great for heart health. Their diet is predominantly vegetarian.
LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA
The Loma Linda centenarians’ diet includes foods high in omega-3s like avocados, salmon and good fats like nuts, which help lower the risk of heart disease. Their main source of protein is legumes, and their main source of grains are whole grains like oats. Finally, they substitute dairy with soy milk. Their diet is, again, mostly vegetarian, with very little fish.
NICOYA, COSTA RICA
The staples in the Nicoyan centenarians’ diet are the ‘three sisters’ referring to corn, beans and squash which are grown together and eaten in the same meal. The corn provides the carbohydrate, the beans protein and fiber, and squash beta carotene and vitamin A. Yams, papayas, bananas and peached palms (a local orange fruit high in Vitamins A and C) are also eaten in abundance. They too have a predominantly vegetarian diet.
The Ikarians in Greece have a mediterranean diet with legumes (garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas and lentils), olive oil and fish—all high in omega 3s, great for heart health, garlic, grass fed goats milk, feta cheese, honey, seasonal and locally sourced vegetables including Squash, high in beta carotene and Vitamin A, the pumpkin or butternut kind of squash and fruits, lemons and herbs. They seldom eat meat.
COMMON BLUE ZONE CHARACTERISTICS
The blue zone diets all seem to lean towards a vegetarian diet with small amounts of fish and very limited meat. Their meals have substantial amounts of anti-inflammatory foods which are good for heart health, like green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, olive oil, tomatoes, fruits and nuts. They all seem to eat some form of legumes and have whole grains, which help regulate blood sugar levels. Their diets are rich in antioxidant foods that help fight free radicals and slow down the aging process.
The vegetables and fruit are locally sourced, seasonal and rich in nutrients unlike those available in big cities that are harvested before they are ripe and optimally nutritious. Their diets have no processed or refined foods, only fresh whole foods. This is really the bottom line. The Blue Zone diets are not tough to incorporate in your daily meals – just keep to whole foods like locally sourced vegetables and fruit and eat less meat. Let your protein intake be predominantly from legumes and fish.
Sense of Community and Mindful eating
The longevity of Blue Zone communities, however, is not entirely determined by their diets. It is there strong sense of community and emphasis on maintaining close relationships that allow them to remain happy and stress free. Blue Zone communities tend to focus on eating small quantities of food; in fact, there is a common Japanese saying “Hara Huchi Bu” which means eat till you are 80 percent full. Eating with others can be an effective means of eating in this fashion, for when one is eating with others, one’s own eating is, inevitably, slowed down and more opportunity is afforded to eat mindfully.
The Blue Zone centenarians maintain a regimen of low-impact exercise through old age. They tend to exercise all their muscles with very little impact on their joints – as most of their exercise is due to their physically active daily lives. This can be achieved by moving more and trying to do more physically demanding work around the house and not just leaving exercise to the time allotted at the gym.
Strong Sense of Purpose
They also feel that they must wake up every morning with a strong sense of purpose, referred to as ‘Ikigai’ in Okinawa, and ‘Plan de vida’ in Nicoya—to feel needed and to contribute positively to their communities. Everyone is productive and they continue to be so till they are in their 90s. Apart from your daily work routine, getting involved in helping out your local community can be very healing and can give you a great sense of belonging and identity.
The Blue Zone communities are also very spiritual, whether through religious practice, meditative exercise, or through their connection with nature. Spirituality is great for alleviating stress and for mental well being. Yoga practice or any other interest that allows your mind to destress would be great to incorporate in your daily life.
As you have seen, there are ways to make certain adjustments in one’s life to be able to reap the benefits of the Blue Zone lifestyles. These minor changes can help reduce stress and enhance a sense of happiness and well being. These are all factors that enable longevity!