The secret to living longer could be eating like you live in a blue zone. Here’s how to start

Many of us have heard of the notorious blue zones, or the communities across the globe including Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan and Ikaria, Greece where people seem to be doing it right—living longer, healthier, happier lives. Researchers first introduced the blue zones in 2000, and a 2004 academic paper used it to describe an “an area of extraordinary longevity in Sardinia.” Striving for longevity is something founder of Blue Zones, a registered trademark owned by Blue Zones LLC, a company using longevity research to apply social and environmental changes to American cities, and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner became fascinated with when studying what makes a community thrive over two decades ago. 

Buettner found that, on average, people residing in blue zones live up to a decade longer than Americans, have fewer chronic health conditions and spend less on health-related costs. People who reside in the blue zones primarily rely on walking to get around, and their lives are rooted in community and socialization, “underpinned with purpose,” according to Buettner’s new book The Blue Zones American Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100 from National Geographic, which was released this month. While a myriad of factors define what it means to now be an official certified blue zone, a community’s diet is an undeniably influential factor in longevity—and may help you live “an extra 10 good years,” according to the book. So what is the blue zone way? 

“It’s not a hard [and] fast diet,” Buettner tells Fortune. “It’s not something where you weigh how many grams of protein and fat you eat. It’s more looking at the general foodstuffs,” adding that the blue zone way is rooted in plant-based foods. 

What is a blue zone diet?

The blue zone communities’ diets consist of majority whole, plant-based foods that are minimally processed and lack the added sugars and processed foods that have become integral and unavoidable in the modern American diet. Living in a blue zone means enjoying water, tea, coffee and even a glass of wine, especially in the company of others. It also means generally straying away from meat, limiting eggs and dairy and putting the beans up front. 

In the book, Buettner recommends a daily dose of beans, noting they “reign supreme in the blue zones and are the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world.” 

Easy recipes to cook at home 

It’s not our fault that we consume more meat and processed foods in the U.S., but it is indeed something we can alter, Buettner says. 

“What we’re eating as a country is killing us,” he says. 

In Buettner’s new book, the best-selling author and researcher compiled 100 recipes to live up to 100—broken up by food traditions from Indigenous, Native, and Early American, African American, Latin American, Asian American, and Regional and Contemporary American communities, gathered from traveling across the nation into 65 kitchens citing expertise from home cooks.  

“If you can afford a crock pot, or a pressure cooker, or an instant pot, or even a pot to put on your stove, most of [the recipes] you can assemble in under a half hour for under $2 a serving,” he says. Instead of overhauling your diet, which tends to not work effectively, Buettner recommends starting small, noticing the general tips of the blue zone way and even finding a handful of plant-based recipes you are excited about. Cook them for your family or loved ones this month, he says. 

Still, Buettner emphasizes he doesn’t see his new book as a list of recipes so much as a guidebook built on research for eating toward longevity. 

Food traditions from history 

Using historical documents, research and experts in the food industry, Buettner found that the core tenets of the diet of those in the blue zones resembles the diets of ancestors of our own nation. For example, research from an agricultural chemist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Experimental Stations found that in the late 1800s, Black Americans in the south shared a diet low in meat and high in grains and vegetables—in tune with the blue zone way of eating, the book notes. Similarly, Indigenous communities before WWII in Mexico and Texas had a low percentage of animal protein in their diet.  

“Ultimately, this book is a celebration of a uniquely American but largely overlooked American diet,” the book reads. The recipes outline “the ingenuity of our Indigenous people and our immigrants who brought their time-honored cooking techniques from the Old World and blended New World ingredients to produce ingenious food that just may help you live to 100.”

From grilled plantains to sautéed Japanese eggplant with thai basil, the recipes contain ingredients that are generally easily sourced and available. Buettner’s own father taste-tested the recipes—who he describes as growing up on a “meat-and-potatoes farm in the Midwest” and ultimately, the quintessential average American to decipher whether or not the recipe is easy and accessible. 

The bottom line: eating food you can cook and enjoy can also extend your life. Even for older adults, changing your diet habits to follow the principles of those in the blue zone can make a difference, Buettner says. 

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