The Blue Zones Diet: What It Is & How It May Promote Longevity
Want to live longer and have better health? Of course, right? Well, there's a diet out there associated with people who have lifespans over 100 years (yes, you read that right), along with better cardiovascular, metabolic, and overall health outcomes. Introducing the Blue Zones Diet.
Founded by National Geographic fellow and longevity expert Dan Buettner, the Blue Zones Diet is based on the eating patterns followed in the Blue Zones, five regions of the world with a high concentration of people who live to be over 100 years old.
What are the Blue Zones?
"The Blue Zone regions are the world's longevity hotspots," Buettner shared on the mindbodygreen podcast. There are five Blue Zones in the world: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. After researching these regions, Buettner discovered the diets and lifestyle practices in these various parts of the world all have some striking similarities.
Elements of the Blue Zones Diet:
- Plant-based (mostly): "For people in the Blue Zones, their diets tend to consist of more fruits/vegetables, more fibrous whole grains, more nuts, more beans, and more seeds," says Marissa Meshulam, M.S., R.D. Buettner suggests that, generally, 95% of the foods in these diets come from a plant or a plant product.
- Healthy fats: Instead of processed oils like vegetable and canola, the focus in the Blue Zones is on healthy fats—think olive oil, nuts, and seeds. In fact, they eat a handful or two of nuts pretty much every day!
- Daily beans: According to Buettner's research, individuals living in Blue Zones all eat at least 1 cup of beans every single day.
- Dark leafy greens: Dark, leafy greens make up one of the cornerstones of the Blue Zones Diet, especially rich options like Swiss chard, spinach, and kale.
- Some fish: While it is a part of their diet, people in Blue Zones tend to have no more than 3 ounces of fish daily. According to research in these regions, on average, fish is on the menu two to three times per week.
- Eggs on occasion: While eggs do appear in the diets of all five Blue Zones, people only eat them an average of two to four times weekly.
- Limit dairy: Cow's milk doesn't make much of an appearance in the Blue Zones—that includes dairy and yogurts. However, goat's and sheep's milk products are prominent in the Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones.
- Almost no meat: Pork, chicken, and other meats are very limited in Blue Zone diets—think less than 2 ounces about five times per month.
- Whole grains: Bread is actually a common staple in Blue Zone regions, and they eat it almost daily. However, rather than processed loaves, they reach for whole grain or sourdough varieties. They also consume other whole grains in most of their meals, such as brown rice, oats, and barley.
- No processed foods: "The major focus with the Blue Zone diet is a focus on whole foods that are minimally processed," says Meshulam. "This is mostly foods found in nature, and nothing made in a factory."
- Nix added sugar: According to Buettner, people in the Blue Zones generally only eat sweets during celebrations, and they otherwise don't consume a lot of added sugar on a daily basis.
- Moderate alcohol intake: People in the Blue Zones stick to one to two glasses of red wine per day, explains Shapiro. These benefits may come from resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine (which you can also find in grapes, peanuts, cocoa, berries, and even some supplements).
Special features of the Blue Zone Diet, by region:
Okinawa is a region on a group of islands called the Ryukyu Islands in the south of Japan. The Okinawa diet has more fish, soy, and vegetables than the diets of the other Blue Zones. The focus is on starches low on the glycemic index, like rice and sweet potato. Okinawans also follow a principle called ikigai or "purpose," which allows them to find reasons to wake up in the morning.
"The typical diet here is rich in whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits," says Meshulam. "They have heart-healthy monounsaturated fats from olive oil, and a very small amount of their diet comes from meat. Dairy is included via goat and sheep milk, which tend to be easier to digest."
This Costa Rican region includes more starches and grains than other Blue Zones—like squash, corn, and beans. "They eat veggies as well (tomatoes, peppers, carrots, etc.) and some fruit that is local to where they live (papaya, oranges, and bananas)," says Meshulam. "They also emphasize an earlier, smaller dinner. It is interesting to note they treat their grains (like corn) with lime, which ups the bioavailability of the nutrients." (More on the Costa Rican Blue Zone diet here.)
The Greeks here follow a more plant-based version of the Mediterranean diet—it's higher in legumes and heart-healthy fats, and alcohol is consumed in moderation.
"The Seventh-day Adventists who live here are extremely religious and follow a mostly vegan diet," says Meshulam. They don't have any dairy or spices and even avoid shellfish and all meats.
Benefits of a Blue Zone Diet.
"It is no secret that more plants are the way to go, and the Blue Zones all emphasize a plant-forward diet," says Meshulam. "They are all focused on more whole, natural foods versus processed items. Also notice that the Blue Zones are healthy for reasons beyond diet: They build strong relationships. They focus on sleep. Movement is built into their days."
Transitioning to a Blue Zone Diet may have the following benefits:
It has been suggested that people in the Blue Zones live long, healthy lives (up to their 90s and even 100s)1.
Improved heart and brain health
Enhanced mental health
Of course what you eat can affect your physical health, but it also has an impact on your mood and mental well-being, too. That means, as the Blue Zones Diet demonstrates, the more high-quality whole foods, the better.
Healthy weight management
As one of the mantras of the Blue Zones diet is to eat until you're only 80% full, you could very easily support a healthy weight for your body through this eating style.
More vitamins and nutrients
"Especially if you eat a lot of processed foods, swapping out to the Blue Zone Diet can give you an excess of vitamins and minerals you hadn't had before," says Meshulam.
Critiques of the Blue Zone Diet.
"The major critique, I would say, of the Blue Zone Diet is that people believe it implies they have to be mostly vegetarian to be healthy," adds Meshulam. "I think the Blue Zones teach us that more plants are the answer—however, a bit of high-quality fish, poultry, and meat works well for many of us and can contain key nutrients that are harder to get from plants. I always recommend we make plants the star of the show on our plates—and the Blue Zones show us just how important that can be for longevity."
Some other critiques of the Blue Zone Diet are as follows:
- It can be hard to follow if you don't cook all your meals: "When you're eating out, the oils aren't ideal, and processed foods are pretty common," says Meshulam. The only way to 100% follow a Blue Zone Diet is if you cook all your meals at home since you don't really know what exactly is in the restaurant meals. While this idea is great in theory, it's probably not possible (or sustainable!) for most people.
- It's not ideal for people with sensitivities to carbs: "Beans and legumes are carbs, as are whole grains and other staples on the Blue Zone diet," adds Meshulam. "If you are glucose-sensitive, too many carbs could actually affect your hormones and blood sugar levels."
- It can be hard to get all your proteins from plants: While it is certainly possible to get all your protein from plants, USDA guidelines suggest 0.8 gram of protein for 1 pound of body weight. So, unless you're being very intentional about your proteins (more beans and legumes, fewer starches, for instance), Shapiro says you might not be getting enough. That said, simply being a bit more intentional when choosing your meals can help with this concern.
The bottom line.
The Blue Zones diet can be a beneficial choice to help promote healthier eating and positive nutrition practices. That said, you don't need to go completely plant-based to reap the benefits. "We eat about 1,000 meals a year," Buettner shared on the mindbodygreen podcast. "If you can make nine out of 10 of those meals be more simple foods—beans, greens, grains, nuts—you're going to live a lot longer." Want to give this eating style a try? Here are some tasty Blue Zone recipes to incorporate into your own diet.
Nikhita Mahtani is an NYC-based freelance journalist covering primarily health and design. She graduated with an M.A in Magazine Journalism from New York University, and loves to debunk popular health myths. Her idea of wellness includes a sweaty spin class, wine with loved ones, and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. She's written for GQ, InStyle, Conde Nast Traveler, Food Network, Bon Appetit, and more.