Nutrition and Longevity: Clues from The Blue Zones
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN
Since the dawn of the so-called fountain of youth, humans have been searching for ways to live longer and healthier lives. While there isn’t a magic potion that will make us live forever, specific characteristics and habits do seem to extend the lifespan.
In his book and research on “The Blue Zones,” author Dan Buettner discusses the top five areas of centenarians (someone who lives to the age of 100 or older) worldwide. These people have been documented to live longer, healthier lives than their peers in other parts of the world.
There’s no single answer to longevity, but people in these areas seem to embrace the right lifestyle habits. Not only do they live long lives, but they live them well.
So what are the habits, and why do they help so much? This blog will focus on the diet patterns associated with longevity, so you can implement some of these practices into your own life.
What are the Blue Zones?
The blue zones include five regions where people live exceptionally long lives (over 100 years). These regions are:
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
Loma Linda, California.
Each location has more than ten times the number of people over the age of 100 compared to the United States. But as mentioned, these residents don’t just live longer. They enjoy health throughout life with lower rates of dementia while working and being physically active well into older age.
Dan Buettner, the author of the Blue Zones, partnered with scientists to dig deep into the secrets of the people from these areas. The team who worked on Blue Zone research cites the Danish Twin Study that indicates that genetics influence lifespan by only about 20 percent, while the remaining 80 percent is determined by lifestyle.
9 factors have been listed as contributors to healthy aging:
Movement is a normal part of life (not just going into gyms for 30 minutes a day).
A sense of purpose in their lives.
Stress management and resilience.
Recognizing feelings of fullness and stopping when 80% full to prevent overeating (also known as hara hachi bu in Japan).
High fiber, plant-focused diets.
Moderate daily wine intake.
A feeling of community and belonging.
Families and loved ones are a priority.
Social networks that share similar healthy behaviors.
What are the nutrition habits for people in the Blue Zones?
As indicated above, the Blue Zone diets are primarily plant-forward. Some include meat, but unlike the plate of many Americans, it is not the feature of the meal. In almost every blue zone region, whole and ancient grains are also a large part of their meals.
These and many other traditional diets include very little processed food with few commercially prepared products like soda, sugary beverages, or fast foods. Instead, food is freshly prepared, with a focus on seasonal patterns and what is available locally.
Studies on the Seventh-day Adventists in the Loma Linda region associate the vegetarian diet with lower obesity and cardiovascular disease rates. Both of these conditions are related to accelerated aging and loss of quality of life.
But you don’t necessarily need to be completely vegetarian. Some regions include small amounts of meat, poultry, and fish as part of their diets. For example, eating fish can contribute to longevity and reduce the risk of overall mortality, according to a study in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
The key is that meat, while part of some Blue Zone diets, is not a staple like it typically is in American meal plans.
What foods support healthy aging?
Based on the habits of people in the Blue Zones, the following foods are highlighted:
High-fiber vegetables. The wide array of vegetables in the Blue Zone diets provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. These nutrients are all linked to lowered levels of inflammation, antioxidant activity, and healthy weight maintenance. Aim for five to seven servings of brightly colored veggies each day.
Healthy oils. Olive oil, avocados, and nuts are helpful for healthy aging. They contain monounsaturated fats linked to healthy cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and a reduced risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds are also associated with healthy aging and cognitive health, as highlighted by a study in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
Legumes. Beans, peas, chickpeas, or lentils are staples of Blue Zone dietary patterns. Not only are they sources of plant-based proteins, but they are also high in fiber which could help balance glycemic control. Blood sugar dysregulation with high insulin levels is associated with mitochondrial dysfunction, negatively impacting the aging process.
The traditional diet of Costa Ricans, rich in rice and beans, is associated with increased telomere length. Telomeres are found on the ends of your chromosomes and help protect your cells against the aging process.
Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are packed with protein, fiber, minerals, and healthy fats that help you feel full until your next meal. They also contain antioxidants that help fight aging-related diseases by protecting cells against damage.
Whole grains. Whole grains like bread, brown rice, or quinoa are all associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Whole grains are also packed with health-promoting fiber that contributes to optimal blood sugar control.
Fermented foods. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, cheese, miso, natto, and kefir—found in most blue zone dietary patterns—support gut health. They contain probiotics, live bacteria that help replenish your gut flora.
Studies are now pointing to a connection between a healthy population of different types of gut bacteria and healthy aging. One study published in Nature found that older adults living in long-term care facilities had significantly less diverse gut bacteria. Further, less diversity was associated with increased frailty and poor health status.
What other eating habits may support healthy aging?
Aside from the specific foods eaten, people in the Blue Zones participate in eating behaviors that may help explain their longevity and health.
First, food is often grown or raised in the community, supporting fresh, unprocessed foods. While this isn’t always possible, you can consider shopping at a local farmer’s market.
Eating is also social, a daily ritual that signals the change of pace. Enjoying food with friends and family is a regular event in the day versus eating at a desk or in front of the television. Research from BMC Public Health indicates that people who use screens the most report unhealthy dietary patterns and rate their health lower than moderate or light users.
How are fasting and calorie restriction connected to longevity?
People in the Blue Zones may also eat fewer calories overall, which can influence longevity. A study on older Okinawans found that low-caloric intake was often part of a typical eating pattern.
Additionally, many of the people in the Blue Zones participate in regular fasting for religious reasons.
Calorie restriction (long-term, not for crash diets) and fasting are both associated with longevity. Both may induce autophagy, the body’s natural process to clean out cellular debris and repair damaged cells.
Autophagy can act as a DNA repair mechanism important to longevity. According to a review in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, autophagy is a potential weapon against age-related deterioration.
Bring the Blue Zone to your kitchen.
You can use the above dietary patterns and habits to bring some of the Blue Zone practices into your everyday life. Simple changes like adding more vegetables, swapping processed meats for legumes, and focusing on fiber can all make an incredible difference in your health.
Sharing your healthy diet with friends and family or practicing intermittent fasting could take your habits even further. If it feels like you have many changes to make, choose one to start with and continue to add more once it becomes a habit. Small changes really do add up over time.