In a few, unique communities around the globe, people live long and heathy lives, up to and past 100. Dubbed “blue zones,” residents of these areas share a common environment and lifestyle that scientists believe contribute to their longevity.
The Italian island of Sardinia was where one of the first groups of centenarians were studied — soon, similar long-lived people were discovered in Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
People in blue zones walk, garden and bike as part of their daily lives. They are close to friends and family, have a purpose in life, handle stress well, and are often members of a social or religious group. They eat a plant-based diet and stop eating before they are full.
Dan Buettner, who first brought blue zones into the public consciousness with his National Geographic articles and later books, doesn’t like to call the blue zone eating pattern a “diet.” Instead, it’s part of a healthy lifestyle, Buettner said, one that he believes anyone can copy, no matter where they live and eat — even in highly processed, food-obsessed cultures such as the United States.
“The blue zone eating pattern is 98% plant-based foods — whole food-based and high carbohydrate. But only complex carbs, not the simple carbs like salty snacks and candy bars and soda pop,” Buettner told CNN. “You say carbohydrates and people are horrified, but the healthiest foods in our food system are complex carbohydrates.”
How healthy eating can lengthen your life
Complex carbohydrates, such as beans, peas, vegetables and whole grains provide vitamins, minerals and fiber that can go missing in processed and refined foods. In addition, they are digested more slowly, and the fiber helps you feel full longer, according to the American Heart Association.
With the help of researchers, Buettner spent dozens of hours searching for a glimmer of blue in traditional foods brought to the United States. He found it, but not in his own lineage.
“As it turns out, my European ancestors did not bring over a longevity diet,” Buettner said. Instead, it was the African, Asian, Latino and Native Americans “who ate a diet that is nearly a dead ringer for the blue zone style.”
Buettner has turned his findings into a cookbook, “The Blue Zones American Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100.”
“I tried to be very precise, looking at the data, to find exactly what people in the blue zones ate,” Buettner said. “The five pillars of every longevity diet, including the blue zone, are whole grains, vegetables in season, tubers, nuts and beans. In fact, I argue the cornerstone of a longevity diet is beans.”
Blue zone eating is similar to that of the Mediterranean style, winner of yearly gold medals as best overall diet for health. But there are also differences between a blue zone eating pattern and that of the Mediterranean, Buettner said.
“People in blue zones don’t eat nearly as much fish as the Mediterranean diet prescribes, only three times a week and only 3 ounces,” he said. “Meat is eaten only five times a month. There’s no cow’s milk in any blue zone.”
Instead, people eat goat and sheep’s milk cheeses such as feta and pecorino.
One of the most visually striking recipes in the book is made from purple sweet potatoes, which Buettner considers a key longevity staple for people in the blue zone of Okinawa.
“The dietary intake of Okinawans until 1975 came from purple sweet potatoes,” he said. “I would argue it produced the longest-lived population in the history of humankind.”
Blue zone recipes were also found in Gullah Geechee cuisine, a method of cooking developed by descendants of enslaved Africans who settled in the Sea Islands of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Stews and soups may be thickened with benne seeds, an heirloom version of sesame seeds brought over on slave ships.
There is no meat in any recipe in the cookbook, including a “brisket” made from seitan, a plant-based meat substitute that mimics the flavor and texture of chicken. Seitan and all the other recipes were taste-tested by Buettner’s meat- and potato-loving father, Roger, who traveled with him across the country.
In addition to including recipes with little-known ingredients, Buettner filled his cookbook with stories from chefs who make and promote ancestral cooking.
Senegalese chef Serigne Mbaye, who adds a Creole twist to dishes from his home country at his New Orleans restaurant, told Buettner the story of how slave traders forced his enslaved ancestors to eat black-eyed peas and palm oil.
Why? They needed to be at least 125 pounds before they could be shipped to the Americas. If the slaves didn’t eat and gain weight, Mbaye said, they were shot. In their honor, Mbaye created a tastier version of a “last meal,” using additional fresh vegetables and spices.
For anyone who may feel these 100 recipes are too much trouble to make in today’s fast-paced world, Buettner pointed out that many can be assembled within 20 minutes or in any programmable pressure cooker.
“Most of the one-pot meals I have in the book also freeze very well,” he said. “And when you want another quick meal, you pull it out and throw it in the microwave, and you have a meal that’s full of complex carbohydrates, micronutrients and a whole variety of fiber.
“And it’ll cost you under $2 a serving, leave you feeling better and, according to my father, taste a lot better than a small hamburger,” Buettner added. “What’s to lose?”