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What is the Blue Zones diet? An eating plan for a longer, healthier life

People who live into their 90s and 100s — and who live well — follow this plant-centered eating plan.

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In parts of Italy, Greece, Japan, Costa Rica and the United States, there are pockets of people living longer than most of us, and they’re staying healthy well into their later years.

Researchers call these areas Blue Zones, and they’ve studied the people who live there to tease out their secrets to longevity. “Only about 20% of how long you live is dictated by your genes. The other 80% is something else, Dan Buettner, Blue Zones founder, told TODAY. “People in the Blue Zones are eating the right food, getting the right amount of physical exercise and socializing without even thinking about it. They aren’t pursuing health and longevity — it ensues.”

A new Netflix limited series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, gives a first-hand look at the Blue Zones communities and the health-boosting lifestyles of those who call them home.

Buettner points out that most people in the U.S. today could live to about age 95, but we’re only living to age 78, on average. “The average American could easily live another decade if they optimized their lifestyle,” he said. 

What are Blue Zones?

When Buettner discovered the places where people stayed healthy and lived the longest back in 2004, five locations topped the list:

  • Ikaria, Greece, where fasting is part of their religious beliefs and people typically follow the Mediterranean diet.
  • Loma Linda, California, home to Seventh-Day Adventists, who mainly eat a vegetarian or pescatarian diet that’s low in refined grains, sugar and salt.
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica, where they eat corn, beans, squash and other staples of the Mesoamerican diet. They also tend to eat a light dinner on the early side.
  • Okinawa, Japan, where gardening and the fresh vegetables and fruits it produces are a cornerstone of the diet.  
  • Sardinia, Italy, where they eat a plant-based diet and generally only have meat a few times a month, on special occasions. They also have some red wine most days.

Since then, Singapore has become a Blue Zone, thanks to strategies like subsidizing nutritious foods, adding sidewalks and improving public transportation that improve public health. And 72 communities are making changes to make Blue Zones practices easier for people to adopt.

What’s different about the Blue Zones?

When you think of the Blue Zones, diet might be what comes to mind. But it turns out, researchers found several lifestyle traits that are common among people in these areas.

Along with what and how they eat, people in these areas get a lot of movement during their days, manage their stress, have a sense of purpose, and connect with family, friends and community.

“Managing health and managing weight isn’t just about what we put in our mouths. It’s all the other things that are interconnected,” Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian based in New York City and the coauthor of “Sugar Shock,” told TODAY. “These are all things that make you feel better emotionally and physically.”

What foods are in the Blue Zone diet?

What the people in the Blue Zones eat undoubtedly plays a role in their longevity. Researchers analyzed 155 dietary surveys done in all five Blue Zones over the last 100 years.

Foods from plants are central to the diets in all the Blue Zones — their diets are 90 to 98% whole-food, plant-based. “Plant-based eating is hands-down going to be the healthiest way to eat, even if you’re an omnivore,” Cassetty said. 

People who live in the Blue Zones don’t have to create a healthy diet plan. They live in environments where it’s easy to make healthier choices. And those choices are centered around plants — about 95% of what people in the Blue Zones eat is plant-based.

But when you hear “plant,” don’t think you’re restricted to vegetables. Many things are plant-based. Whole-grain bread and pasta, brown rice, chickpeas and beans are all on the list.

Locations worldwide are home to Blue Zones, and the foods people eat in each reflect what’s abundant in their region. Most people eat foods grown within 10 miles of where they live. There are some differences in what people eat in these areas, based on what’s available and what they prefer — for example, some are vegetarians, and some don’t drink alcohol.

Still, there are common threads:

  • Whole foods. Nutrient-dense, fiber-rich, plant-based whole foods make up just about everything people in the Blue Zones eat. They don’t eat processed or enriched foods, and they prepare just about everything with six ingredients or less.
  • Beans. Whether it’s black beans in Costa Rica, soybeans in Japan or garbanzo beans in the Mediterranean, people in the Blue Zones make beans a cornerstone of their diet. “Beans, in my opinion, are one of the most underrated, undervalued and underused foods in the supermarket,” Bonnie Taub-Dix, a New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table,” told TODAY.
  • Nuts. The Adventists in California eat all types of nuts, while almonds are popular in Greece and Italy and pistachios are part of the diet in Costa Rica.
  • Natural sugars. People in the Blue Zones eat about the same amount of natural sugars —sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk — as North Americans do, but they eat much less added sugar.
  • Bread. People in the Blue Zones eat 100% whole-grain or sourdough bread.
  • Fish. Three small servings of fish a week are part of many diets in the Blue Zones. They choose smaller types like sardines, anchovies and cod.
  • Eggs. Eating one egg, two to four times a week, is common in the Blue Zones. Eggs are a side dish—fried and folded into a corn tortilla or boiled in soup.
  • Small amounts of dairy. Other than some Adventists, most people in the Blue Zones don’t use cow’s milk. People in the Mediterranean have some goat and sheep milk products such as yogurt and cheese.
  • Minimal meat. Meat is for special occasions, and people eat just two ounces or less about five times a month.
  • Mostly water. In the Blue Zones, you’ll find that people drink water, coffee, tea and wine.

In a typical day, eating the way they do in the Blue Zones, you might have:

Another thing people do in the Blue Zones is to eat until they are 80% full. “When you eat until you’re somewhat full, you’re being mindful and present, understanding your hunger and fullness cues, and recognizing when it’s enough,” Cassetty said. “It can help you stay healthy even when you go out to eat and have more indulgent foods.”

Do people in the Blue Zones eat breakfast?

Intermittent fasting has become popular lately, and many people find the easiest way to fast is to skip breakfast. So you may wonder if people who live the longest eat breakfast. They do.

People in Okinawa might start their day with miso soup and rice, while in Loma Linda, they might have oatmeal or a tofu scramble. In the Blue Zones, they often make breakfast the biggest meal of the day, and it generally includes protein, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and oils.

Is the Blue Zone diet good for weight loss?

People in the Blue Zones eat foods they enjoy that are abundant in their area. Weight loss isn’t the goal for them. Yet, they have low levels of obesity. And eating the way they do could promote weight loss. That’s because if you swap out processed carbs, proteins and fats for healthier, fiber-rich whole foods and follow the Blue Zone’s 80 percent rule, you’re likely to take in fewer calories.

What does the research say about the Blue Zones diet?

A diet rich in whole, plant-based foods like the Blue Zones diet can help lower your risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood sugar levels and prevent cancer.

study of more than 130,000 people found that eating more plant protein instead of animal protein reduced the risk of heart disease. And a meta-analysis of 16 studies discovered that eating more fruits and vegetables lowered the risk of death from heart disease. In addition, research has found that adding nuts to a healthy diet can reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome — a condition marked by high blood pressure and blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol levels and excess weight in the abdomen.

Is the Blue Zones diet a good choice for you?

“There are just so many things about this diet and this lifestyle that I love,” Taub-Dix said. A diet centered mainly around plants is a healthy choice for just about anyone. 

There aren’t many downsides to the Blue Zones diet. It could feel overwhelming if it’s a big jump from what you’re eating. In that case, you can ease into it more gradually. For example, you can make sure each meal includes a serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains or beans. Or you can try meatless Mondays to find meals you enjoy that aren’t centered around meat.

And the Blue Zone diet could include more cooking than you’re used to. People in the Blue Zones tend to eat at home, with family and friends. Buettner recommends getting an Instant Pot or similar pressure cooker and a good cookbook to help build your kitchen skills.

The Blue Zones diet is similar to:

  • Mediterranean diet, which also emphasizes whole, plant-based foods.
  • DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which is designed to reduce or control high blood pressure.
  • MIND diet, which combines the Mediterranean and DASH diets to help promote brain health.
  • Flexitarian diet, a mostly vegetarian diet that includes some meat.

Is the Blue Zones diet effective long term?

The Blue Zones diet — and the other healthy lifestyle habits people in the Blue Zones follow — are designed to be part of your life long-term. The people in the Blue Zones who are living into their 90s and 100s in good health are proof that the lifestyle works.

“The wisdom the Blue Zones offer us is how to keep doing the right things and avoid doing the wrong things so we’re not developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia or certain types of cancer,” Buettner said.

Talk with your doctor before starting the Blue Zones diet or any other diet — your doctor can recommend the best eating plan for you, based on your health needs.