7 Tips for a Longer Life, Says Famous Blue Zones Researcher
Who wouldn’t want to live a long, happy life? While there are certainly a number of factors that play into one’s life expectancy (like genetics and environment), a significant amount of research does prove that your lifestyle is a massive contributing factor for adding years to your life — and some of the healthiest regions of the world exist as proof.
Dan Buettner has dedicated his life’s work to identify the key factors behind what makes a Blue Zone so successful. The Blue Zones include five regions of the world with the densest population of centenarians. His research, funded by National Geographic and the National Institutes on Aging, has taken a close look at what lifestyle factors play into the success of these healthy regions in order to develop simple tools one can easily apply to their daily life.
So what exactly makes a Blue Zone so successful? We asked Buettner to share the specific tips for a longer life that he recommends based on his research, including his latest findings for his new cookbook The Blue Zone American Kitchen.
1. Try eating plant-forward or plant-based.
Buettner is 100% behind the plant-based boom, especially when referencing all the research that shows the link between eating a plant-based diet and longevity. One recent 2022 study published in PLOS Medicine by researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway concluded that eating more plant-based foods — like legumes, whole grains, and nuts — while eating less red and processed meat increased life expectancy by 11 years for women and 13 years for men.
Even though meat is known for being a complete protein (a protein that has the perfect balance of all nine essential amino acids), Buettner says it’s easy to make a complete protein by combining certain plant-based foods together.
“If you have put a bean and a grain together, you have a whole protein,” he says. “My favorite Blue Zone lunch is a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain wheat bread or Ezekiel bread. When you put peanut butter on wheat bread, you get a whole protein. It’s high in protein, high in fiber, and it’s got some fat in there so it’ll have lasting.”
If going plant-based feels intimidating to you, eating a plant-forward diet —which puts more of an emphasis on eating plant-based foods versus meat — can still make a difference in longevity. According to the American Heart Association, focusing on a plant-forward diet and eating less meat can help reduce the risk of major health implications like heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, and more.
2. Stock your pantry.
Not a fan of the taste of vegetables? Buettner says how you cook — and what you cook it with — makes all the difference.
“The secret to making vegetables taste good is usually spices, herbs, and fat,” he says. “And most of the time, in the Blue Zone world, when we talk about fat, we mean olive oil.”
His favorite pantry staples to grab for tasty meals include dried savory herbs (like parsley). Buettner also constantly stocks up on whole grains and nuts.
“A handful of nuts a day conveys about two years of extra life expectancy,” he said, referencing a 2013 cohort study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.”
He also says having your favorite fruit and vegetables on hand is key for actually adding plants to your meals. “Notice I don’t pick out any specific one,” he says, specifically pointing out how you should stock up on the plants that you actually enjoy cooking and consuming regularly.
Need meal ideas? Make the most of your pantry staples with these 9 Pantry Dinner Ideas When You Need Something Quick.
3. Aim for the simplest ingredients.
Healthy recipes don’t have to be so complicated. In fact, eating healthy is actually a lot simpler than you think.
“The cheapest ingredients tend to be the healthiest,” Buettner says, whose favorite spot of the grocery store is the dry beans section. People in Blue Zones aren’t [typically] rich, so they are cooking with peasant ingredients like beans and whole grains, greens, and tubers.”
4. Utilize your slow cooker and pressure cooker.
“You can get a lot done with a Crock Pot or even better in an Instant Pot,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the Instant Pot because most longevity recipes can be made without baking for hours. Most recipes in an Instant Pot can be assembled in a matter of minutes. You hit a button, you come back, go do whatever you’re doing, come back 20 minutes later and you have 10 servings of a meal that can be frozen.”
Buettner even says half the recipes in his new cookbook The Blue Zone American Kitchen can easily be made in the Instant Pot, making it easier to eat a Blue Zone diet right in the comfort of your own home.
5. Try a unique savory breakfast.
Unfortunately, most breakfast items are either high in added sugars or saturated fat, making them not-so-great for a longevity-focused diet. Buettner suggests trying something a little different for your first meal of the day — like soup.
“I’m a big fan of starting your day with minestrone soup, such as the ones in my books, or any other sort of bean soup,” he says. “It will satiate your hunger for three to four hours. They provide all the fiber necessary for a well-functioning microbiome. You get a whole spectrum of nutrients and complex carbohydrates.”
6. Go for walks often.
Living a long life isn’t just about what you at, although that is a huge part of it. According to Buettner, movement is also key for longevity — and it can be easy as going for a walk.
“In an ideal world, you’re living in a walkable community,” he says. “You get way more exercise than people would think.”
A 2022 meta-analysis in The Lancet Public Health even confirmed this; reaching a particular step goal each day lowers the risk of all-cause mortality. The study suggests that adults over the age of 60 should get at least 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day, while younger adults should try to hit 8,000 to 10,000 a day.
7. Chat with someone new.
Community and social interaction are also major parts of living a long, happy life.
“Living in a place where you’re gonna bump into people and have spontaneous social interaction [makes a huge difference],” he says. “There’s some research that suggests that just conversations with a random neighbor or your postman or your barista are actually more predictive of longevity than diet or exercise.”
All in all, Buettner says that your surroundings — between the kitchen, a walkable enviornment, and changes for social interaction — are all significant for increasing your life expectancy.
“Longevity is not an individual responsibility,” Buettner says. “It is almost always the result of the right environment. So if you want to live longer, don’t try to change your behavior. Change your surroundings.”