Take it from the 'Blue Zones': Diet, human connection as important as ever

Author Dan Buettner shares what we can learn from the "Blue Zones" residents about thriving during difficult times.

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By Jake Whitman

Best-selling author Dan Buettner has been all over the world, exploring "The Blue Zones," places where people live long, happy, healthy lives — up to 100 years long. NBC News senior investigative correspondent Cynthia McFadden spoke to Buettner recently about what we all can learn from the healthiest happiest people about thriving during a pandemic.

"Every longevity culture in the world suffered periods of hardships. They went through wars, famines, the same sorts of stresses that we're suffering right now, and that's a lesson for all of us," Buettner said.

One crucial element to living a long life is human connection, which some may be missing right now.

"We know that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking," Buettner said. "So if you're chronically lonely, which is to say you don't have at least two friends you can count on a bad day, it shaves about eight years off of your life expectancy."

Having meaningful conversations over Zoom counts, Buettner stressed. Another crucial element is eating a healthy diet. Buettner's latest book, "The Blue Zones Kitchen" details the diet that might help you reach golden age.

"The Blue Zones Kitchen" by Dan Buettner

"Individuals get lucky, but populations don’t," Buettner told NBC News special anchor Maria Shriver last year. "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, appointing himself the "bean king."

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% 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.

"The Blue Zones of Happiness" by Dan Buettner

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.