More and more people are interested in longevity and vitality. It is no longer about just getting old, but aging well and being functional.
Many of my patients ask me what they can do to stay healthy and active for as long as possible, and The Blue Zone Diet and lifestyle are definitely things to consider. Functional medicine doctors, who were part of helping understand the Blue Zones, have addressed the balance between food and lifestyle for years with their patients. Let’s jump into this unique lifestyle.
1. What Is The Blue Zone Diet?
The Blue Zone Diet was pulled from an investigation by National Geographic writer Dan Buettner and functional medicine doctors. They wanted to understand why some centenarians not only reached 100 but were also healthy and active. After mapping out where most of these people live, the researchers began drawing a circle around the areas using a blue-inked pen, creating the concept of Blue Zones. Each zone had the highest number of folks over the age of 100. Then they started digging into why they were living so long. They discovered it was their diet and lifestyle.
Editor’s Note: You can read more about practices common to Blue Zones in Louisa Rogers’s story Living To 100 Isn’t As Daunting To Me As It Used To Be — Here’s Why. And if you want to look into a specific Blue Zone, look no further than Rebecca Hall’s piece on Ikaria, Greece.
2. What Are The Main Types Of Foods?
Foods that are part of the Blue Zone Diet are mostly vegetables, fruit, and very few processed foods or animal products. Whole plant-based foods top the list with lots of greens and other colorful veggies, root veggies, and fruit. Nuts, beans, whole grains, and some fish are also part of the foods. I call this way of eating “semi-vegetarianism.”
In studies, meat was consumed an average of 5–6 times per month. This way of eating also correlates well with larger scientific studies that show a reduction of heart disease and cancer seen in populations that eat fewer meat products and more vegetables. The Blue Zone centenarians also know that sweets and sugars are eaten but only when celebrating a special occasion. Of course, we all want to eat sweets but limiting them is intuitive and correlated well with functional survival in this group.
3. What Else Is Factored Into The Blue Zone?
Equally as important as the food is the lifestyle the centenarians live. They have hobbies that give them something to look forward to each day. It’s an activity that gets them out and moving which leads to another big part, walking. Most of the blue zone communities are built around communities designed for walking to work and shopping. They don’t solely rely on cars to get to where they are going.
One of the most important parts of the Blue Zone areas is the connection with family and friends. These meaningful relationships provide a sense of purpose and responsibility for the community, family, and the next generations. This is very important and often a reason why many people feel like something is missing from their life. While these centenarians have been celebrating family, friends, and community their entire life, we outside of these zones and cultural routines have to be more intentional about this.
4. Do You Recommend This For Your Patients?
I cannot recommend this diet enough. It includes so many good whole foods. This colorful diet includes 4–5 cups of veggies each day, including at least one root vegetable. You should also incorporate two fruits as well as beans, whole grains, nuts, and healthy food oils like olive or avocado. I recommend limiting anything that comes out of a box, bag, or has been processed in a factory. People are always asking about the best type of fish. I typically recommend 1-2 servings of SMASH fish weekly. S.M.A.S.H. stands for sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring.
5. Anyone Who Should Avoid This Diet?
Always consult your doctor before trying a new diet, though I do not consider this a diet but a lifestyle change. I haven’t found any pressing reason for people to not try the Blue Zone diet. Since this is more than a diet, I also encourage patients to work on their relationships and resolve any hurt from their past so they can move forward emotionally and physically.
6. Is This Really A Sustainable Way To Eat In The U.S.?
With our hurried, fast-paced lifestyle, it would be easy to say this is not possible in the U.S., but I disagree. Just because fast food is easy and convenient, doesn’t mean it should be consumed multiple times a week. One of the Blue Zones is located in Loma Linda, California. With a changing perspective, prioritizing health, and becoming organized, you can eat clean and cook more efficiently.
7. How Do I Start Cooking?
Cooking this way is much easier than you think. I love my Blue Zone Kitchens cookbook. In addition, one of my favorite recipes that I came up with years ago and cook weekly as part of my organization of meals is my “insta beans.” It’s a great way to incorporate beans into your diet, have a good source of protein, and save time.
- 2 cups of any dried beans (my favorites are black, pinto and kidney — rinsed)
- 4.5 cups of water
- 3 Tablespoons Oregano
- 2 Tablespoons chili powder
- 1 Tablespoon chili lime seasoning (Optional)
- 1 teaspoon crushed chili peppers
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon “Better than Bouillon” vegetable broth paste
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 cup chopped peppers
Cook on bean setting for instant pot for 65-75 minutes depending on how soft you like your beans. Enjoy in burritos, salads, tacos — great fiber, filling, and great for protein for the vegans out there.
Pro Tip: I use an InstaPot because it cooks beans well which makes it easier for you to tolerate them.
8. Based On This Diet, How Is Food Used For More Than Nutrition?
In the Blue Zone areas, there is a celebration around the daily foods. They are made at home, with food grown in gardens, made with love (which makes a difference), and old family recipes.
In the U.S., we have focused on the purchase of convenience. Many families no longer take the time to cook with their families. Recipes are not passed down and we are missing out on relationship building while in the kitchen. As a child, I grew up in a kitchen cooking with my mom. I learned centuries-old Mediterranean recipes. We didn’t follow a cookbook, nothing was written down, just “done with a pinch of this and a pinch of that.” I tried to pass down the love of cooking to my children and I cannot tell you the joy I get when I see them in the kitchen.
One Word Of Caution
So this diet and lifestyle sound great, but is there a catch? One possible concern with this diet is not getting enough protein. However, with the amount of veggies you have to eat and the whole grains, lentils, beans, and some fish, you should be fine.
What we are learning from the Blue Zones is we need to slow down, eat whole foods, sleep, move, and enjoy your friends and family. It’s achievable, but you do have to put in the work to make it successful.
For more retirement and lifestyle information, check out these articles: