Blue Zones Diet, Lifestyle, and Mental Approach

The newfound global attention on Blue Zones could be emerging in light of the fact that an alarming percentage of Americans are suffering some of the worst health crises ever recorded. With heart disease, strokes, and diabetes at an all-time high it’s not surprising how much attention is being placed on research into the pursuit of longevity and well-being. Perhaps people are finally realizing that it’s not just the number of years we live, but the quality of those years and how richly we experience life — even into old age.

Key takeaways:

Join us as we explore the factors that contribute to the making of Blue Zones, including the diet, lifestyle and mental approaches of their remarkable inhabitants. And, for those of you who want to dive right into the Blue Zone lifestyle, there are tips and easy-to-follow recipes that you can try out at home.

What is a Blue Zone?

A Blue Zone is a region in the world where the inhabitants live significantly longer, healthier, and more active lives than most other people in the world. They have higher concentrations of centenarians — people living to 100 years old and over — who not only live longer but are still highly physically mobile, function exceptionally well cognitively, and are engaged in community activities.

How many Blue Zones are there?

Popularized by National Geographic explorer and fortuitous longevity enthusiast Dan Buettner, there are five key Blue Zones across the world. These are:

  • Ikaria, Greece. Well-known for its extremely low rates of chronic disease, inhabitants of Ikaria have a Mediterranean lifestyle that is characterized by fresh, plant-based produce and daily physical activity.
  • Okinawa, Japan. The people who live in Okinawa have a practice called “Hara Hachi Bu” which is a Confucian philosophy of only eating until you are 80% full. They also eat a predominantly plant-based diet with plenty of fresh vegetables.
  • Sardinia, Italy. Sardinia has become renowned for its high concentration of centenarians who live healthy lives on a diet of legumes, vegetables, and whole grains and also have a strong sense of community.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. The longevity of those who inhabit this area can be attributed to a strong sense of purpose, or as they say “plan de vida”. They eat a lot of beans, corn, and brightly coloured tropical fruit.
  • Loma Linda, California, USA. Although this area is not an entire Blue Zone, a large group of Seventh-day Adventists call it home. They prioritize their religion, plant-based diet, exercise, and community engagement.

These five Blue Zone areas of the world provide a diverse range of fascinating insights into what contributes to long, healthy, and happy lives among their inhabitants. From the sun-soaked shores of Okinawa all the way to the mountainous terrain of Sardinia, there are unique characteristics that unite these places and promote well-being and a strong sense of belonging.

What Blue Zones have in common

Even though these Blue Zones are separated by great distances and have completely different cultural values and religious practices, they all contain similar threads that contribute to the weaving of a fulfilling life well into old age.

  • Plant-based diet. Those who live in Blue Zones consume a predominantly plant-based diet with emphasis on vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruit. They all have significantly lower amounts of processed foods and red meat in their diets, preferring freshly prepared meals with a wide variety of ingredients.
  • Strong social connections. A typical Blue Zone community will place heavy emphasis on social bonding to create a sense of belonging and to provide emotional support for its inhabitants. The strength of these relationships lowers stress and improves the quality of life for those who live there.
  • Active lifestyle. An integral part of Blue Zone living is daily physical activity. Sports, walking, gardening, and other low-impact forms of exercise are included in their daily routines to keep their bodies strong and supple. For example, the Okinawans learn to sing and dance together, and those living in the mountainous Sardinian villages walk up long, steep hills each day to attend church.
  • A sense of purpose. Each of the Blue Zone communities has a strong sense of purpose which they call their “reason to live”. Continuing to live a purpose-driven life adds value to their community, makes them feel needed, and contributes to a positive mental outlook and physical health.
  • Moderation. One characteristic that all Blue Zones share is a sense of moderation in all aspects of their lives. For example, they don’t consume huge portions of food and eat until they are completely stuffed, and they significantly limit meat and alcohol consumption.

Blue Zones diet

At the heart of Blue Zones longevity, we find that food plays an integral role. The emphasis on whole, plant-based produce cannot be ignored, nor can the limits on processed and animal-derived products. Food is something that is easy to change in our own lives, even if we don’t live in one of the five Blue Zones. Here are some key dietary principles you can easily begin to adopt, wherever you are in the world:

  • Fruits and vegetables. Make the majority of your diet a full spectrum of fruits and vegetables. Fill your plate with as much color as possible and try out new vegetables from the fresh produce section of the store, or perhaps try a seasonal vegetable box delivery if there is one available in your area.
  • Legumes and whole grains. Find ways to incorporate more beans, lentils, and whole grains into your diet. Brown rice and quinoa are great options and are widely available in most grocery stores.
  • Nuts and seeds. Try to have a handful of different nuts and seeds each day including walnuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflowers seeds.
  • Limit meat consumption. If you do eat meat, try to limit your daily intake, opt for lean cuts, and incorporate different protein options such as tofu and tempeh.
  • Limit dairy. Instead of having dairy milk on your cereal, using it in your coffee, or adding it to sauces, try out alternatives such as oat or soy milk.
  • Try quiting processed foods. Sugary snacks and drinks alongside heavily processed foods are highly detrimental to health. Try limiting or quitting them altogether.
  • Stay hydrated. We all know that water consumption is healthy, so make sure you are getting plenty of it while limiting the amount of sugary and caffeinated beverages. Try herbal teas, adding lemon and cucumber to your water, and if you are feeling adventurous you could try making your own fruit-based cordial.

Blue Zones lifestyle

While it’s clear that diet has a huge impact on the health of those living in Blue Zones, there are lifestyle factors that are common among them all too. You don’t have to move to one of the Blue Zones to start living their lifestyle as the themes are easy to incorporate into your own life, right where you are.

Lifestyle choiceEffect
Daily movementPrioritizing activities such as gardening and walking help your body to stay strong and supple.
Stress reductionStress reduction techniques like meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and mindfulness practices help to promote physical and mental well-being.
Purposeful livingFind your “reason to live” by pursuing activities that bring you joy and a sense of connection to yourself and your wider community. It doesn’t have to be work driven or based around making lots of money. Living with purpose adds a deeper meaning to life.
Mealtime ritualsMindful eating will help you enjoy each bite, learning to savor the tastes and sensations of your food. Making sure you and your friends and family sit down together to eat also fosters a greater sense of closeness with your loved ones.

Blues Zones mental approach

The mindset of those living in Blue Zones has clear implications for their emotional and physical well-being. Here are some ways you can adopt a similar approach in your own life:

  • Live with purpose. Take some time to reflect on your values and goals in life and make sure you are living in alignment with what feels meaningful for you.
  • Reduce stress. Interestingly, studies have shown that it is not the lack of stress in a person's life that leads to a healthier mindset, but how the stress is actively dealt with. Developing strategies to cope with stress such as time spent in nature, meditation, or journaling will help improve your responses to stressful situations.
  • A sense of gratitude. They say an attitude of gratitude can help enormously with an overall feeling of well-being. Try keeping a gratitude journal and write at least three things you are grateful for each day.
  • Community engagement. Being an active member of your community will help you feel purpose driven and valued. Being needed is an incredibly important aspect of human life so think about places you could volunteer, clubs you could join, or local events you can attend.
  • Healthy relationships. Create healthy relationships with friends and family that are based around mutual respect and support. Loneliness is a great contributor to illness and degeneration, so find groups of people that are engaged in activities you’d like and start building positive relationships.

Blue Zone recipes

If you are keen to get started on a Blue Zone lifestyle journey, the best place to begin is with your food. Blue Zone diets are easy to follow and the food preparations are usually very simple and don’t involve complicated steps to prepare delicious meals. Here are three easy-to-make recipes with ingredients you’ll be able to find at your local grocery store or food market:

Mediterranean chickpea salad

You will need:

  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • Cherry tomatoes, halved
  • Red onion, thinly sliced
  • Cucumber, diced
  • Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
  • Fresh parsley, chopped
  • Feta cheese (optional)

For the dressing:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Combine the salad ingredients, drizzle with dressing, and toss. Top with feta if desired.

Sardinian minestrone soup

You will need:

  • Cannellini beans
  • Chopped kale or chard
  • Diced tomatoes
  • Chopped carrots
  • Chopped celery
  • Chopped onion
  • Minced garlic
  • Vegetable stock
  • Fresh basil
  • Whole grain pasta

Method:

Combine all ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil, and simmer until vegetables are tender. Serve with fresh basil.

Okinawan sweet potato and tofu stir-fry

You will need:

  • Sweet potatoes, thinly sliced
  • Cubed tofu
  • Mixed vegetables (bell peppers, broccoli)
  • Minced garlic
  • Grated ginger
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Toasted sesame seeds

Method:

Stir-fry all ingredients in sesame oil and soy sauce until tender. Sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.

Final thoughts on Blue Zones

What if, instead of spending millions of dollars on supplements and underused gym memberships we could follow the same common denominators that make up the exceptionally long and fulfilling lives we witness in Blue Zones? What if we could live longer lives that are marked by health and wellness without even trying?

By learning from the wisdom of those in Blue Zones, we can see a clear pattern in what it takes to live a vibrant, active, and happy life — without hemorrhaging money on all the latest health hacks in an attempt to cheat death.

Instead of the sedentary lives that befall a huge percentage of Americans — where we tend to exist on a carousel of moving from the bed to the car, from the car to the office chair, from the office chair to the car again and back home to the couch — let’s embrace the formula used in the Blue Zones. A happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life is just a few lifestyle choices away.

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