We probably don’t need to remind you that what you eat can certainly have an impact on aging—or that nutrition is an important foundation for our wellbeing in general, for that matter. But just to put a finer point on it, residents of Blue Zones (aka the regions of the world where people reportedly live particularly long, healthful lives) might serve as Exhibit A: While there are several habits that make up their longevity-driven lifestyles, the most consistent is the way they eat.
The five Blue Zones are located in Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan. And though these regions obviously span different corners of the world, their diets are actually fairly similar in a few key ways.
Rule #1: Fill your plate with plant-based foods.
Interestingly, Dan Buettner (one of the leading researchers on Blue Zones, who popularized the term) has noted that beans are a pretty consistent cornerstone of Blue Zone diets—residents eat, on average, four times the amount of legumes than the average American. They’re definitely onto something since beans are good sources of fiber, protein, and nutrients like iron, folate, and potassium. (1,2)
Those who live in longevity hotspots also get their daily fill of (seasonal) fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Meat isn’t completely off the table, but it’s eaten with much less frequency—only a handful of times per month. (1)
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Rule #2: Follow the “80% rule.”
Residents of Okinawa abide by the Confucian mantra Hara hachi bu—an instruction to stop eating when you’re roughly 80% full. While it’s basically an ancient approach to “everything in moderation,” modern scientists would argue that it’s a rule best paired with a nutritious diet. (Okinawans follow a plant-based, antioxidant-rich diet of legumes, vegetables, and rice.) (3,4)
Rule #3: A glass of wine a day…
Speaking of moderation, many Blue Zone residents enjoy alcohol fairly regularly. For Ikarians and Sardinians, that might mean having a glass of locally-produced wine in the evening. For Okinawans, it’s sake.
Aside from the social benefits of sharing a drink among friends, both sake and wine can boast some nutritional clout. The wine enjoyed among the Mediterranean coast is particularly rich in flavonoids, which provide antioxidant properties, and sake (fermented rice wine) is linked with some health benefits to boot. (1,5,6)
Rule #4: Unprocessed is best.
An emphasis on local ingredients and cuisine means that Blue Zone residents tend to avoid processed foods by default—things like soda, fast foods, and saturated fats. Instead, they indulge their sweet tooths with natural sources like fruit, and enjoy animal products in moderation. (7)
The bottom line
If these “rules” don’t seem particularly groundbreaking, it’s because they’re not—to the contrary, they’re principles that have been observed for centuries. And that kind of says a lot, right?
- Buettner, Dan, and Sam Skemp. “Blue Zones.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 10, no. 5, July 2016, pp. 318–321., doi:10.1177/1559827616637066.
- “FoodData Central Search Results.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173796/nutrients.
- Mishra, Badrin. “Secret of Eternal Youth; Teaching from the Centenarian Hot Spots (‘Blue Zones’).” Indian Journal of Community Medicine, vol. 34, no. 4, 2009, p. 273., doi:10.4103/0970-0218.58380.
- “Don’t Just Eat in Moderation, Make Better Food Choices, HSPH Researcher Says.” News, 9 Jan. 2014, Retrieved from Harvard School of Public Health
- Vauzour, David, et al. “Plant Polyphenols as Dietary Modulators…” Polyphenols in Human Health…, 2014, pp. 357–370., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-398456-2.00027-x.
- Wada, Sayori, et al. “Japanese Rice Wine (Sake)-Derived Pyroglutamyl Peptides…on Dextran Sulfate Sodium (DSS)…in Mice.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine, vol. 120, 2018, doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2018.04.465.
- Buettner, D. “Food Guidelines.” Blue Zones.