What Is the 'Blue Zone' Diet?

A nutritionist explained the eating plan that may help you live longer and healthier.

Want to live the longest, healthiest life possible? There are five areas in the world where people do just that, and a significant factor they have in common is how they eat.

Deemed Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, who studies these locales, the populations in these pockets of the planet have an extremely high percentage of nonagenarians and centenarians—people who live to be over 90 and 100, respectively. They also have low rates of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity.

Here’s a closer look at Blue Zones, how Blue Zone residents eat, and takeaway tips for how to adopt their longevity habits, regardless of where you reside.

Where Are the Blue Zones—And How Do They Differ?

Those who live in Blue Zones reside in one of the following areas:

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Loma Linda, California

Of note, each area has specific characteristics that its residents focus on. Examples include:

  • Okinawa: Being strongly dedicated to social networks, eating plant-based diets, and gardening
  • Sardinia: Putting family and elders first, consuming wine and goat's milk, and walking five miles or more daily
  • Nicoya: Drinking hard water, eating a light dinner, and having a sense of purpose
  • Ikaria: Napping, fasting on occasion, and mimicking mountain living
  • Loma Linda: Giving back through volunteer efforts, snacking on nuts, and spending time with those who have similar values and habits

While these are very different parts of the world, they still mostly share lifestyle commonalities—one being the consumption of a general but similar dietary pattern.

Aspects of Blue Zone Dieting

Adopting aspects how people eat in Blue Zones is possible for everyone. Trying these techniques may help you live a healthier lifestyle.

Eat 95% Plants

People in four of the five Blue Zones consume some meat, but they do so sparingly. Meat is eaten on average five times per month, in portions of about two ounces or less (think half of a deck of cards). Rather than occupying the center of the plate, meat is a small side; it's thought of as a celebratory food or a way to flavor primarily plant-based dishes.

Blue Zone residents eat a wide variety of vegetables, in addition to pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas), fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. At least half a cup of cooked beans and two ounces of nuts are consumed daily throughout the Blue Zones. In addition, the focus is on naturally nutrient-dense whole foods, not processed products.

Takeaway tip: Make some simple swaps. Replace meat with beans in a Mexican bowl, chili, soup, or stew. Trade a processed snack for a small handful of nuts paired with fresh fruit.

Rethink Your Drink

With very few exceptions, people in Blue Zones consume just four beverages: water, coffee, tea, and wine. In all five Blue Zones, tea is sipped daily, and in most, one to three small glasses of red wine are consumed per day.

Takeaway tip: Ditch regular or diet soda in favor of H2O or unsweetened tea. Upgrade from carb-heavy beer or sugary mixed drinks to antioxidant-rich red wine enjoyed as part of a healthy meal.

Reduce Dairy and Eggs

In four Blue Zones, cow's milk products are not included in significant amounts. Folks in Ikaria and Sardinia consume goat and sheep milk products. And people in all of the Blue Zones eat eggs about two to four times per week, usually one at a time and incorporated into a dish rather than as the primary protein source.

Takeaway tip: Consider plant-based dairy-free alternatives, like plant "milk" or "yogurt," and nut-based "cheeses." Think of eggs as an accent to a meal, or consider omitting them.

Limit Fish (If You Eat It)

In most Blue Zones, people eat up to three small servings of fish each week. However, they are typically middle-of-the-food-chain species (like sardines, anchovies, and cod) that are not exposed to high levels of mercury or other harmful chemicals. Blue Zone societies also don’t overfish their waters and focus on food sustainability.

Takeaway tip: If you eat seafood, take advantage of a resource like the Environmental Working Group’s seafood guide. The free chart they provide rates seafood options using a green, yellow, and red system based on mercury content and sustainability. Stick with green choices for the greatest benefits, in three-ounce portions, up to three times a week.

Curb Sugar

People in Blue Zones consume about a fifth of the added sugar intake per day as North Americans do. The amounts are similar to the American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines, which caps added sugar at six daily teaspoons for women and nine for men. Blue Zone citizens also enjoy sugar intentionally as a treat. It’s not hidden in processed foods or consumed out of habit.

Takeaway tip: Eat more whole, unprocessed foods to skirt concealed sugar. Select some favorite can’t-live-without sweet treats, and enjoy them mindfully on occasion.

Try Not To Overeat Often

Okinawans follow the 80% rule, which they call hara hachi bu. This means they stop eating when they feel 80% full. Overall, Blue Zone residents don’t overeat. They also primarily eat home-cooked meals, with breakfast as the largest meal and dinner being the smallest.

Takeaway tip: Eat slower. Put your utensil down between bites, pay attention to your inner fullness meter, and stop when you feel just full enough. Also, “front load” your eating pattern by shifting the bulk of your intake to earlier in the day, when you’re more active. Opt for a larger breakfast, like a scramble made with veggies, beans, and avocado, with a side of fresh fruit, and then a lighter dinner, like a salad dressed with an extra virgin olive oil vinaigrette and a cup of lentil soup.

What Else To Consider About the Blue Zone Diet

Overall, the Blue Zones diet is very similar to other contemporary diets aimed at reducing chronic disease and improving overall health, including the Planetary Diet and The OMD Plan, which Oprah recently featured on her SuperSoul Sunday. It’s also science-backed, and it supports healthy, sustainable weight management in addition to optimal wellness.

If you want to adopt the Blue Zones way of eating without feeling overwhelmed, focus on one goal at a time and gradually work toward the other changes. Even a few simple shifts to your usual eating routine can snowball into significant health rewards over time—allowing you the potential to gain the benefits of Blue Zone diets without being in those areas.

A Quick Review

People who have lived or are living in Blue Zones have been known to have long, healthy lives. There are five different Blue Zones across the globe. Although there are specific lifestyles that people have in the Blue Zones, they all follow similar diets.

These diets include focusing on more plant-based consumption and limiting meat, sugar, dairy, and eggs. Thus, in adopting a Blue Zone eating lifestyle, you may reap some health benefits that individuals living in Blue Zones have been experiencing.

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