The 'Blue Zones' diet: Foods that help people live to 100

The five places author Dan Buettner found people living past 100 have these foods in common.

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By Jake Whitman

There are five places on earth that may just have the highest percentage of people who live to a healthy and happy 100 years. National Geographic author Dan Buettner explored their secrets to health and longevity in his book, "The Blue Zones."

The author believes the answer to reaching such a golden age and being healthy right up to the end is diet.

"Individuals get lucky, but populations don’t," Buettner told NBC special anchor Maria Shriver. "There’s too many people to chalk it up to collective luck, or even genes."

Buettner has been on a mission to write down the meals of the world's healthiest and longest living people, before they are lost forever.

No matter where people lived, Buettner found that each one had four main foods in their longevity diets:

1. beans

2. greens

3. whole grains

4. nuts

"That's 80 to 90% of their calories they're putting in their mouths every day," Beuttner told TODAY.

In his book, "The Blue Zones Kitchen," he compiled 100 recipes from the locations.

"They know how to make them taste good and they know how to optimize them for their health," Buettner said.

Beuttner talked about his visits to three of the Blue Zones:

Ikaria, Greece

On the remote Greek island of Ikaria, he said people outlive the average American by more than a decade. On Ikaria, 97% of the people are over age 70 and Buettner found only three cases of dementia. By comparison, there's a 50 percent chance of dementia for Americans who reach 85.

A common side dish is wild dandelion, boiled like spinach. These greens have 10 times more antioxidants than red wine, according to Buettner. Chickpeas, also a favorite on Ikaria, are the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world, he said.

Chickpeas with Potatoes and Carrots

Costa Rica

The Nicoya Pennisula is famous for beautiful sandy beaches, exotic wildlife and people who seem to defy the limits of age. In Nicoya, about 1 in 250 people live to 100, Beuttner said, compared to 1 in 4,000 who make it to 100 in the U.S. Their diet of rice, beans and tortillas might be viewed as unhealthy by American standards. But they can be great for health.

"If the average American could add a cup of beans a day, it would extend their life by four years," Buettner said.

In Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, about 1 in 250 people live to 100, compared to 1 in 4,000 who make it to 100 in America.

Loma Linda, California

An hour west of Los Angeles is Loma Linda, California, where nearly half of the city belongs to the Seventh -Day Adventist Church. It's home to one of the highest concentrations of Seventh-Day Adventists in the United States. Most of the church members don't eat meat or fish and they never touch alcohol or cigarettes. And they live about seven to 10 years longer than the rest of Americans, according to their survey.

In Loma Linda, eating healthfully is part of the religion. The diet is inspired by the Bible and the Garden of Eden and the typical meals rely on beans, nuts, slow-cooked oatmeal, whole wheat bread and real soy milk. They also drink six to eight glasses of water a day, as prescribed by the church's founder, Ellen G. White, who established the faith over 150 years ago. The citizens of Loma Linda are often on the move, as well, taking afternoon walks and adhering to a strict lifestyle.

Location isn't the main factor, it's more about habits; Buettner believes it's never too late to start living like the people of the "Blue Zones."

"You can be 90 years old and go plant based and you'll add to your life," he told TODAY. "It's not as hard as some might believe — once you've tasted it."

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Bianca Seidman contributed.