Are People in the ‘Blue Zone’ Really Living Longer?

National Geographic’s Blue Zone program researched what people ate in world regions with some of the world’s highest life expectancies. You might be wondering what are the secrets to blue zone aging.

older adults sitting on a bench reading paper

What’s the secret to a high life expectancy? Studies show there are several factors but one of the main ones is diet. This refers to people’s everyday diet instead of specific programs like Keto or Paleo. An interesting National Geographic project was Blue Zones. It researched regions in the world with the highest average life expectancies. You might be wondering about the secret to the blue zone aging.  In particular, what foods do people usually eat and avoid? Do they go vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian (limited meat)? How much dairy, beans, and grains are allowed? These are some important questions.

The oldest people in the world always have secrets in their long life. It often includes some interesting diet tips like coffee, fasting, or even occasional sweets. There’s also usually some advice about staying physically active or even how to reduce stress and enjoy life. However, diet always seems to be the main factor that helps people live over the average lifespan. Fun Fact: The global average lifespan for men and women is about 72. Factors like age and genes can affect your life. However, the Blue Zone shows the importance of adding the “right” foods to your daily diet.

What In The World Are Blue Zones?

The United Nations (UN) reports that Japan has the highest average life expectancy (2015) at 83.7. Other top-ranking countries include Italy, Switzerland, and Singapore. However, there are also smaller world regions that also have sky-high life expectancies. That’s what National Geographic’s Blue Zones program was all about.  

The life expectancies in these regions are sky-high. In fact, it’s common for people in the regions to live to be 90+ years old. It’s also interesting that people in these regions aren’t just living longer but also healthier. Prescription medicines and disability are quite rare in these world regions.

What is the Blue Zones all about? Journalist Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to do 5+ years of research about the Blue Zones. It’s interesting that these regions don’t include various elements that are often considered necessary for good health including public gyms, dietary supplements, modern technologies, or stem cell therapy. There’s also no mythical Fountain of Youth.

The 5 Blue Zones include:

  • Loma Linda (California, USA)
  • Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica)
  • Sardinia (Italian island)
  • Ikaria (Greek island)
  • Okinawa (Japan)

The big difference between these regions and the rest of the world was their lifestyle. This includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, less stress, and a focus on family, religion, and the meaning of life. More on that later.

What’s the big deal? Fortune Magazine reports the US spent $3.6+ trillion on healthcare in 2018. There are various factors like rising health costs, Standard American Diet (SAD), and “sedentary lifestyle” (sitting too much). It’s also interesting that the WHO reports the average US life expectancy is 79. This is somewhat higher than the world average but it (literally) comes at a price.

The main takeaway of the Blue Zones research is you can get probably live longer by getting back to the basics. They include steps like eating right, exercising more, and sleeping enough.  

Blue Zone Aging Secrets

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of what Nat Neo and Buettner found out.  Here are some of the main elements they researched:

DIET

As you might expect these regions consumed mostly minimally-processed and whole foods. Some examples include:

  • Fatty fish
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts/seeds
  • Full-fat milk
  • Herbal teas
  • Red wine

In terms of meat, these regions were basically “flexitarian.” They usually considered more fish and chicken versus red meat. However, most of their diet was plant-based and included a wide range of foods including vegetables, fruits, seeds/grains, and nuts.

There are also lower rates of serious diseases. This included lower rates of diseases like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. For example, Ikaria’s heart disease is 50% lower than in the USA.

EXERCISE

In these Blue Zones, it’s not really common for people to hit the gym to get in a high-intensity workout. It wasn’t really about running on treadmills or bench presses. In fact, while the Blue Zone residents were super-healthy, they didn’t use exercise equipment to stay fit. They did activities like climbing mountains or farming land.

Another big takeaway wasn’t the physical activity often wasn’t high-intensity. It might be like moderate-pace treadmill walking—minus the treadmill. What seemed to be most important was staying active throughout the day and not sitting all day in front of a monitor or behind a steering wheel.

There’s that old saying: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” That certainly applies to the active lifestyle in the world’s Blue Zones.

LOW STRESS

Studies show that over 60% of Americans feel stressed out. Stress can lead to many physical, mental, and emotional issues that cause health conditions.

Another major feature of Blue Zones is they tended to feature low-stress and good moods. This was based on stress reduction, good night’s sleep, family ties, life purpose, and spiritual life.

Blue Zone Aging: Foods for Daily Diet

1. Olive Oil

This is one of the healthiest oils and is high in omega-3 fatty acids. It’s loaded with chemical compounds, antioxidants, and healthy fats. Studies show that olive oil is a heart-friendly food that can help to lower blood pressure and total/bad cholesterol levels.

2. Leafy Greens

This includes options like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard. These are high-nutrient vegetables with lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They include Vitamin A/Bs/C, iron, zinc, calcium, etc. You can add these items to your diet through smoothies, salads, or pair with protein/grains.

3. Nuts

This is another way to live like you’re in a Blue Zone. Tree nuts are sky-high in protein, minerals, and vitamins. They’re also high in unsaturated fats for better heart health. Some studies show that nuts can help to lower total/bad cholesterol levels and thus a lower risk of heart disease.

4. Oatmeal

Go with steel-cut oats for the best option. They’re nutrient-rich and high-fiber for healthy breakfast food. You can add healthy ingredients like chia seeds, fresh fruit, and real milk/cream. Oatmeal is also gluten-free so it won’t be a problem if you have a wheat allergy or celiac disease. You get lots of protein, fiber, and vitamins/minerals form oats.

5. Barley

This whole grain provides many of the same health benefits as oats. You also get essential amino acids (EAAs) and chemical compounds to improve digestion. You can easily eat barley as a hot cereal or add to soups.

6. Beans/Peas

This includes different ones like lentils and chickpeas and was a key part of Blue Zone diets. Legumes are high in protein, fiber, and vitamins/minerals. It’s recommended that you eat ½ cup of beans/peas every day. This is an “incomplete protein” so you could pair it with brown rice, corn, or quinoa to make it a complete protein for blue zone aging.

blue zone aging

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