By Florencia Tagliavini, Nutritionist
Have you ever heard of Blue Zones?
"Blue Zone" is a non-scientific term given to geographic regions that are home to some of the world's oldest people. It was first used by the author Dan Buettner, who wrote the book "The Blue Zones" and described the characteristic lifestyles and the environments of 5 regions that exhibit statistically high rates of people who live over 90 and 100 years old.
- Icaria (Greece): Icaria is an island in Greece where people eat a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, red wine, and homegrown vegetables.
- Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy): The Ogliastra region of Sardinia is home to some of the oldest men in the world. They live in mountainous regions where they typically work on farms and drink lots of red wine.
- Okinawa (Japan): Okinawa is home to the world's oldest women, who eat a lot of soy-based foods and practice tai chi, a meditative form of exercise.
- Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica): The Nicoyan diet is based around beans and corn tortillas. The people of this area regularly perform physical jobs into old age and have a sense of life purpose known as "plan de vida".
- The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California (USA): The Seventh-day Adventists are a very religious group of people. They're strict vegetarians and live in tight-knit communities.
What do these people have in common?Let's start with the diet: They primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet. Although most groups are not strict vegetarians, they only tend to eat meat around five times per month. Their diet is rich in legumes, whole grains, vegetables and nuts. This type of diet translates in to a fresh and natural diet rich in vitamins & minerals, antioxidants, fiber, heart healthy fats and low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, added sugars, chemicals and preservatives from processed foods. This blue zone diet confirms the abundant amount of research done on these particular foods and the diet as a whole resulting in reduced risk of various chronic diseases, lower mortality and many health benefits that promote longevity.
There are some other dietary factors that define each of the Blue Zones particularly. In most of the Blue Zone communities (except within the Seventh-day Adventist community) the consumption of one to two glasses of red wine per day is common which may help prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of death according to some studies. Some of them follow the the 80% rule. For example, the Okinawans stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don€™t eat any more the rest of the day. There has been some scientific research regarding this which we call ""caloric restriction"" and ""periodic fasting"" and has shown to significantly reduce risk factors for certain diseases and prolong healthy life.
What other factors influence longevity?
Diet is one of the most important factors of lifestyle and one that can greatly influence health but there are many other factors that can prevent disease and maintain health to promote longevity. People in the blue zones incorporate moderate physical exercise that is built into daily life, such as walking, climbing stairs, growing gardens and yard work. They also get sufficient sleep. Seven hours of sleep at night and naps of no more than 30 minutes during the day.
Other factors include having a sense of purpose in life. Okinawans call it "Ikigai" and the Nicoyans call it "plan de vida," for both it translates to "the reason I wake up in the morning." Typically, blue zone residents are religious communities, they have healthy social networks and they prioritize family. All of these healthy behaviors that can prevent stress & depression which in turn can influence happiness and longevity.
In summary, although their lifestyles differ slightly between zones, they mostly eat a natural plant-based diet, exercise regularly, drink moderate amounts of red wine, get enough sleep and have good spiritual, family and social networks. Each of these lifestyle factors have been studied over the years and have shown to be associated with longevity.