People in Blue Zones Eat These 7 Foods — and They’ve Been Shown to Increase Longevity
People who live in Blue Zones around the world reach age 100 an average of ten times more frequently than people in most of the U.S. — where the average life expectancy is decades less. These people tend to be healthier and live considerably longer lives, and their diet is one critically important reason for this longevity.
The concept of Blue Zones was originally researched by Dan Buettner, author of a book on the subject by the same title (The Blue Zones) — and while the Blue Zones of the world are far-flung, there’s so much we can learn from these regions. But whether we study the people of Okinawa, Japan or Icaria, Greece, there are some commonalities among the diets of these cultures: To start with, they tend to eat a lot of anti-inflammatory ingredients, as well as plenty of herbs and spices. Here, we’ve found some foods that anchor some Blue Zone diets — maybe they’ll inspire your next meal.
Legumes are an incredibly important part of many blue zone diets. In the Mediterranean, people tend to enjoy lentils, while Asian diets rely more heavily on soybean — but either way, this is a versatile ingredient that lends itself to longevity. In fact, one medical study found that eating 20g of beans daily reduced a person’s risk of dying in any given year by about 8% and increased their lifespan by up to 4 years. Soy has gotten a bad rap lately, but the Okinawan diet features a lot of soy products, including miso soup and tofu — and they’re clearly doing something very right.
2. Red wine
Enjoying a glass of red wine is one of our favorite ways to relax and unwind after a hard day, but red wine is also high in antioxidants, and has been shown to have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. But the value of red wine is also a lot more simple than that, and something we all are very aware of after two years of COVID lockdowns: Having social connections matter, and is part of what keeps us feeling our best. Wine is a part of many of our social and religious rituals. People in many of the blue zones have wine as a regular part of their lifestyle (and culturally, they typically don’t drink in excess). Sardinians, for example, enjoy a local red wine nightly known as Cannonau (which is the local term for Grenache), and it has two to three times as many antioxidants as many other wines. Even if you can’t get this specific type of wine where you are, it’s a good reason to embrace the habit of a glass of wine with dinner.
3. Dark leafy greens
Ikaria, Greece is known for the longevity and health of the people who live there. In fact, it was referred to as “the island where people forget to die” in Diane Kochilas’ cookbook, Ikaria. Dark leafy greens are plentiful here, are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, and contribute to a healthy diet. A large part of the blue zone diets is the concept of “plant slant,” which is essentially slanting your diet heavily toward plant-based ingredients. In Ikaria, there are over 75 varieties of greens that grow plentifully, and they are all loaded with polyphenols. These fiber-heavy greens can also help keep you feeling full longer. To eat like an Ikarian, focus on filling your plate with vegetables and make meat and starches a smaller part of your diet.
Fresh berries of all kinds are a common ingredient in many of the blue zones, but blueberries have been shown to lower blood pressure and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may fight against mental decline. Eating blueberries can even improve motor skills, including coordination and balance. The beauty of blueberries is also that they are so versatile, whether you like adding them to your morning oatmeal or smoothies, lunchtime salads, or yogurt for an afternoon snack. Even when out of season, they freeze beautifully, so it’s not a bad idea to keep a bag of frozen blueberries in the freezer — for your health and your tastebuds.
5. Olives and olive oil
Sardinia is full of bountiful olive trees, and thus olive oil is a big part of the Mediterranean Diet, and the Sardinian diet specifically. We can learn a lot from this region and how the people there live — this area has 10 times as many centenarians per capita as the U.S. While exercise and community are essential to the health and vitality of this aging community, diet is a huge component, as well. Olives and olive oil help fight inflammation, and there’s even some evidence that olives can protect against conditions like Alzhiemer’s. An easy way to incorporate olive oil into a diet is to use it everywhere you might otherwise use butter, from morning eggs to a drizzle on that sauté for color and brightness.
Corn is a rather popular ingredient in the region of Nicoya. This is often due to locals making their own tortillas. While we’d be thrilled to make our own tortillas as well, there are lots of ways to incorporate more corn in our diets, from soups to roasting. Carbohydrates may have a bad reputation, but whole grains are a valuable part of a healthy diet. Ingredients like corn are a good source of energy, and are important for sustaining us, especially if we spend time moving and exercising. This doesn’t mean that heavily processed corn products are good for you — but corn itself is a great whole grain.
7. Spices: turmeric, ginger, and garlic
Spices are an important aspect of the Blue Zone Diet. They’re usually high in antioxidants and actually help us to burn calories faster. Turmeric, ginger, and garlic are some of the best examples of this.
Ginger is not only delightfully spicy, but can help us live longer, and be healthier thanks to removing and reducing free radical damage at the cellular level. Turmeric makes curry that iconic, bold yellow, but is also anti-inflammatory and can reduce oxidative stress. Garlic is delicious and we use it constantly in our cooking, but it’s also naturally anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and immune supporting. It can help lower cholesterol production and reduce blood pressure.
Using bright and flavorful spices are a great way of adding dimension and taste to food, rather than adding unhealthy salt, sugar, or fat. These spices add layers of flavor but also are very good for us in their own right.
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.