What if we could cook and talk our way to longevity? National Geographic author Dan Buettner believes it's possible.
There are five places on earth he calls the "Blue Zones" — in Okinawa, Sardinia, Ikaria, Costa Rica and Loma Linda, California — that may just have the highest percentage of people who live to a healthy and happy 100 years. What sets them apart is the combination of healthy diet and community.
Can following their traditions translate to longer life in other places like the U.S.? Buettner challenged a group of people in Naples, Florida, to form social groups and, together, follow recipes he collected from these places in his new book "The Blue Zones Kitchen" for 10 weeks to see.
"Diets fail almost all the people all of the time," Buettner told NBC News special anchor Maria Shriver. "What seems to work in Blue Zones, not only knowing that a largely whole plant-filled diet is going to help you live long, and then you need a social network around this way of eating."
For the challenge in Naples, people volunteer to participate and then were sorted into potluck teams, of sorts, called "Moais."
"Moai is an idea of bringing four or five friends together," Buettner explained. "If we could put it in a pill it’d be a pharmaceutical blockbuster because, you know, loneliness in this country shaves about eight years off your life expectancy."
Loneliness has expanded with technology, Buettner said.
"In 1980, the average American had three good friends they can count on; we’re now down to under two," he said. "And we’re spending all of our time sucked into our little devices. We evolved with other humans. We have to resume that connection… and if we resume that connection around healthy food, we kill two birds with one stone."
For three months, the teams ate meals from the Blue Zones — gathered together, when they could.
Lisa said she lost 12 pounds and her cholesterol was down by 22 points. She started doing more physical activity and felt better about her future.
Janette said she used to feed her family fast-food most nights, but after taking on the "Blue Zones" challenge, she lost 17 pounds.
"I feel happy, I feel energized," she told Buettner. "I'm out, I'm adventurous, I do things."
Joanne's transformation included a 37-pound weight loss and a new level of self-confidence.
Those three women saw some of the most dramatic changes in the program, but Buettner said everyone who stuck with the program — eating simple, wholesome foods every day and keeping up their community bonds — reported some weight loss.