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Community and Cuisine, the Foundations for Longevity in the World’s Blue Zones

healthy living and longevity in the blue zones

Wiktory / Shutterstock

Learn how communities of people are living to 100 and beyond in blue zones around the world—what lifestyles can you adopt for yourself?

What do Ilkaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica have in common? They are the five areas of the planet where a high portion of the population lives to the amazing age of 100 or more. Dubbed “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner, the National Geographic researcher who uncovered the phenomena, the Blue Zones in the world may hold the secret to longevity for the rest of us.

Dan Buettner discusses longevity in the blue zones

Dan McLain

During a year where health and wellness are front and center in everyone’s minds, it’s a great time to not only take steps to avoid COVID-19 but also to reassess whether we’re living in a way that is aligned with wellness and longevity. The reason people in the Blue Zones of the world live far longer than average is not specific to geography. Rather, it’s rooted in nine common threads, that, when woven together, create the right conditions for longevity. The good thing is that anyone can live the Blue Zone lifestyle, whether they’re in Greece or Grand Rapids.

Buettner, an adventure junkie who holds three Guinness World Records, stumbled upon the Blue Zones of the world concept when he owned a company where the mission was to solve ancient mysteries. Fresh off exploring why the Mayan civilization collapsed, Buettner decided to tackle finding the Fountain of Youth. The trail led to Okinawa, which held the longest life expectancy in the world. Intrigued by what he discovered, Buettner dispatched a team of researchers to parse population data to see if similar areas existed.

Satisfaction and happiness, which influence longevity, had nothing to do with money, status or possessions—it was all about simple things like a conversation with a friend, doing work by hand and enjoying simple food.

longevity in blue zones discussed by Dan Buettner

Dan McLain / Greece

They found four, and Buettner went off to investigate the Blue Zones in the world.

One of his biggest discoveries seems counterintuitive. Satisfaction and happiness, which influence longevity, had nothing to do with money, status or possessions—it was all about simple things like a conversation with a friend, doing work by hand and enjoying simple food.

“The more I learned, the more I became infatuated with what these populations could teach the rest of us,” Buettner said.

By examining the commonalities from these far-flung places, Buettner found nine traits the Blue Zones in the world were doing differently than others. While all are important, the source of true longevity surprises most people.

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relationships are key to longevity in the blue zones

Dan McLain / Okinawa

“Being in a good, happy partnership lowers mortality by 50 percent,’ Buettner said. “By far the most powerful thing you can do to live longer is to find the right partner and then pour your efforts into that relationship instead of fad diets and Crossfit.”

Another key factor to longevity is also rooted in relationships—the ones we have with our community and friends. All of the Blue Zones in the world have populations that have strong ties to a faith-based or spiritual community and a focus on socialization.

“Curating a solid group of friends, or a Moai, as it’s known in Okinawa is critical,” Buettner said.

nutrition in the blue zones for longevity

Dan McLain / Greece

The phrase “you are what you eat” is definitely proven true when examining the Blue Zones. The people enjoy a simple, plant-based diet and don’t overeat. The minute the standard American diet becomes prevalent in a population, longevity decreases.

According to Buettner, our typical way of eating knocks six to eight years off our lives. Instead, the Blue Zones in the world give us a different approach by using nutrition for longevity.

“The COVID-19 crisis is giving us a chance to change a lot of our negative habits,” he said. “It’s given us the opportunity to relearn the art of cooking at home. If you can find a handful of plant-based recipes you love and learn to make them, you can extend your life.”

Greece a blue zone for longevity and healthy living

Dan McLain / Greece

For his latest book, “The Blue Zones Kitchen” Buettner spent two years finding plant-based recipes that put the focus on taste first, while also focusing on nutrition for longevity. He even provided a minestrone soup recipe to try out below.

The good news is that, regardless of what plant-based food floats your fancy, the perfect nutrition pairing for longevity is with one or two glasses of wine. All of the Blue Zone populations, minus the 7th Day Adventists in Loma Linda, consumed a moderate amount of wine daily. The trick is it needs to be wine, and it needs to be in moderation.

The global pandemic is certainly making some of the Blue Zone principles challenging, including the importance of downshifting. We’ve known for years that stress kills, and the Blue Zones in the world confirm it.

Sardina blue zone longevity and wellness

Dan McLain / Sardinia

People in the Blue Zones certainly have stress, but their culture has built-in stress busters in addition to nutrition for longevity. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour. Find what relaxes you, whether it’s yoga, meditation or a bubble bath. Now do more of it.

2020 has also been a challenge to living our purpose, another critical factor of longevity. For people who defined their purpose through jobs they lost during the pandemic, this is a key time to really look at what you want and what makes you happy.

2020 has also been a challenge to living our purpose, another critical factor of longevity. For people who defined their purpose through jobs they lost during the pandemic, this is a key time to really look at what you want and what makes you happy.

Dan McLain / Costa Rica

“According to a Gallup survey, 70 percent of us don’t find our purpose in our jobs,” Buettner explained. “But now, many of us have a chance to reassess what we were doing if we lost a job. The economy will recover. Now is the time to determine what job does speak to your heart and could help you live your purpose.”

Another epiphany Buettner had while studying the Blue Zones in the world was that the people in these areas don’t have a better understanding of aging or more discipline than the rest of us—their culture and lifestyle simply promote wellness.

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Sardinia farming in the blue zones

Dan McLain / Sardinia

“They didn’t decide one day that they wanted to go on a nutrition for longevity diet or buy an elliptical machine. They were just naturally living their lives intuitively aligned with wellness,” he said. “When we try to pursue health, there can be short term success, but research shows it is ultimately a long-term failure. We need to let longevity pursue us by creating a life that encourages it.”

A lifestyle that encourages longevity is one where we aren’t sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day, nor is it one where the only exercise we get is running on a treadmill at a gym. What people in the Blue Zones in the world had in common was that their lives encouraged movement naturally, not with burning calories the primary goal. They walked or biked as a mode of transportation (often up steep hills), gardened and had work that required movement.

The more you can naturally add movement into your day, the better. Walk to your coffee shop, play with your kids, or go on a hike with a friend. While there is no literal Fountain of Youth, it just might exist after all if you embrace the Blue Zone lifestyle.

MINESTRONE WITH FENNEL AND WILD GARLIC

TOTAL COOK TIME: 8 HOURS IF USING DRIED BEANS; 90 MINUTES IF USING CANNED BEANS | MAKES 8 SERVINGS

nutrition in the blue zones in the world

Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

Ingreditents:
1/4 cup red beans, dried or canned

1/ cup chickpeas, dried or canned

1/4 cup dried favabeans

1/4 cup lentils

2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 onion, chopped

1 bunch beet or Swiss chard leaves

2 fennel bulbs and stalks, chopped

1 fresh tomato, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 stalk celery, chopped

2 cups cubed pumpkin or other squash

4 to 5 stalks wild garlic or garlic chives

1/4 cup fregula pasta

3 quarts water
 
Method:
 
If using dried beans:
Soak beans at least 6 hours, or overnight; drain and rinse.

Peel the fava beans by squeezing each one between your thumb and other fingers. The skins should slip of pretty easily.

In a soup pot, simmer beans in water to cover for 45 minutes to 1 hour, adding lentils after 30 minutes.

Drain beans and lentils.
 
If using canned beans:
Rinse and simmer beans and lentils in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drain.
 
For the minestrone:
In large soup pot, combine beans with all vegetables in water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add fregula and simmer for another 15 minutes.

Serve with crusty bread and a drizzle of olive oil.

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