These 11 simple guidelines reflect how the world’s longest-lived people ate for most of their lives. We make it easy to eat like the healthiest people in the world with the Blue Zones Meal Planner, where you’ll find thousands of recipes that follow these guidelines while making plant-slant food delicious and accessible. By adopting some of the healthy eating principles into your daily life, you too can Live Longer, Better®.
SEE THAT YOUR DIET IS 95-100 PERCENT PLANT-BASED
People in the blue zones eat an impressive variety of garden vegetables when they are in season, and then they pickle or dry the surplus to enjoy during the off-season. The best-of-the-best longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beet and turnip tops, chard, and collards. Combined with seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans dominate blue zones meals all year long.
Many oils derive from plants, and they are all preferable to animal-based fats. We cannot say that olive oil is the only healthy plant-based oil, but it is the one most often used in the blue zones. Evidence shows that olive oil consumption increases good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol. In Ikaria, we found that for middle-aged people, about six tablespoons of olive oil daily seemed to cut the risk of dying in half.
People in four of the five blue zones consume meat, but they do so sparingly, using it as a celebratory food, a small side, or a way to flavor dishes. Research suggests that 30-year-old vegetarian Adventists will likely outlive their meat-eating counterparts by as many as eight years. At the same time, increasing the amount of plant-based foods in your meals has many salutary effects. Beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds should all be favored. Whole grains are OK too. Try a variety of fruits and vegetables; know which ones you like, and keep your kitchen stocked with them
RETREAT FROM MEAT
Averaging out consumption in blue zones, we found that people ate about two ounces or less about five times per month. And we don’t know if they lived longer despite eating meat.
The Adventist Health Study 2, which has been following 96,000 Americans since 2002, has found that the people who lived the longest were vegans or pesco vegetarians, who ate a plant-based diet that included a small amount of fish.
So, while you may want to celebrate from time to time with chicken, pork or beef, we don’t recommend it as part of a Blue Zones Diet. Okinawans probably offer the best meat substitute: extra firm tofu, high in protein and cancer-fighting phyto-estrogens.
GO EASY ON FISH
If you must eat fish, fewer than three ounces, up to three times weekly. In most blue zones, people ate some fish but less than you might think—up to three small servings a week. There are other ethical and health considerations involved in including fish in your diet. It makes sense, for example, to select fish that are common and abundant, not threatened by overfishing. In the world’s blue zones, in most cases, the fish being eaten are small, relatively inexpensive fish such as sardines, anchovies, and cod—middle-of-the-food- chain species that are not exposed to the high levels of mercury or other chemicals like PCBs that pollute our gourmet fish supply today.
People in the blue zones don’t overfish the waters like corporate fisheries that threaten to deplete entire species. Blue zones fishermen cannot afford to wreak havoc on the ecosystems they depend on. Again, fish is not a necessary part of a longevity diet but if you must eat seafood elect fish that are common and not threatened by overfishing.
Milk from cows doesn’t figure significantly in any blue zones diet except that of some
Adventists. Arguments against milk often focus on its high fat and sugar content. The number of people who (often unknowingly) have some difficulty digesting lactose may be as high as 60 percent. Goat’s and sheep’s milk products figure into the Ikarian and Sardinian blue zones.
We don’t know if it’s the goat’s milk or sheep’s milk that makes people healthier or if it’s the fact that they climb up and down the same hilly terrain as the goats do. Interestingly though, most goat’s milk is consumed not as liquid but fermented as yogurt, sour milk, or cheese. Although goat’s milk contains lactose, it also contains lactase, an enzyme that helps the body digest lactose.
People in all of the blue zones eat eggs about two to four times per week. Usually they eat just one as a side dish with a whole-grain or plant-based dish. Nicoyans fry an egg to fold into a corn tortilla with a side of beans. Okinawans boil an egg in their soup. People in the Mediterranean blue zones fry an egg as a side dish with bread, almonds, and olives for breakfast. Blue zones eggs come from chickens that range freely, eat a wide variety of natural foods, and don’t receive hormones or antibiotics. Slowly matured eggs are naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids.
People with diabetes should be cautious about eating egg yolks. Consumption of eggs has been correlated to higher rates of prostate cancer for men and exacerbated kidney problems for women. Some people with heart or circulatory problems choose to forgo eggs. Again, eggs aren’t necessary for living a long life and we don’t recommend them, but if you must eat them eat no more than three eggs per week.
DAILY DOSE OF BEANS
Eat at least a half cup of cooked beans daily. Beans reign supreme in blue zones. They’re the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa. People in the blue zones eat at least four times as many beans as Americans do on average.
The fact is, beans are the consummate superfood. On average, they are made up of 21 percent protein, 77 percent complex carbohydrates (the kind that deliver a slow and steady energy rather than the spike you get from refined carbohydrates like white flour), and only a few percent fat. They are also an excellent source of fiber. They’re cheap and versatile, come in a variety of textures, and are packed with more nutrients per gram than any other food on Earth. Beans are a meal staple in all five of the blue zones—with a dietary average of at least a half-cup per day, which provides most of the vitamins and minerals you need. And because beans are so hearty and satisfying, they’ll likely push less healthy foods out of your diet.
Consume only 28 grams (7 teaspoons) of added sugar daily. People in the blue zones eat sugar intentionally, not by habit or accident. They consume about the same amount of naturally occurring sugars as North Americans do, but only about a fifth as much added sugar—no more than seven teaspoons of sugar a day. It’s hard to avoid sugar. It occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, and even milk. But that’s not the problem.
Between 1970 and 2000, the amount of added sugar in the American food supply rose by 25 percent. This adds up to about 22 teaspoons of added sugar each of us consumes daily—insidious, hidden sugars mixed into soda, yogurt, and sauces. Too much sugar in our diet has been shown to suppress the immune system. It also spikes insulin levels, which can lead to diabetes and lower fertility, make you fat, and even shorten your life.
Our advice: If you must eat sweets, save cookies, candy, and bakery items for special occasions, ideally as part of a meal. Limit sugar added to coffee, tea, or other foods to no more than four teaspoons per day. Skip any product that lists sugar among its first five ingredients.
SNACK ON NUTS
Eat two handfuls of nuts per day. A handful of nuts weighs about two ounces, the average amount that blue zones centenarians consume—almonds in Ikaria and Sardinia, pistachios in Nicoya, and all nuts with the Adventists. The Adventist Health Study 2 found that nut eaters outlive non–nut eaters by an average of two to three years.
The optimal mix of nuts: almonds (high in vitamin E and magnesium), peanuts (high in protein and folate, a B vitamin), Brazil nuts (high in selenium, a mineral found effective in protecting against prostate cancer), cashews (high in magnesium), and walnuts (high in alpha-linoleic acid, the only omega-3 fat found in a plant-based food). Walnuts, peanuts, and almonds are the nuts most likely to lower your cholesterol.
SOUR ON BREAD
Eat only sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat. Blue zones bread is unlike the bread most Americans buy. Most commercially available breads start with bleached white flour, which metabolizes quickly into sugar and spikes insulin levels. But bread from the blue zones is either whole grain or sourdough, each with its own healthful characteristics. In Ikaria and Sardinia, breads are made from a variety of whole grains such as wheat, rye, or barley, each of which offers a wide spectrum of nutrients, such as tryptophan, an amino acid, and the minerals selenium and magnesium.
Whole grains also have higher levels of fiber than most commonly used wheat flours. Some traditional blue zones breads are made with naturally occurring bacteria called lactobacilli, which “digest” the starches and glutens while making the bread rise. The process also creates an acid—the “sour” in sourdough. The result is bread with less gluten even than breads labeled “gluten free,” with a longer shelf life and a pleasantly sour taste that most people like. Traditional sourdough breads actually lower the glycemic load of meals, making your entire meal healthier, slower burning, easier on your pancreas, and more likely to make calories available as energy than stored as fat.
GO WHOLLY WHOLE
Choose foods that are recognizable. People in blue zones traditionally eat the whole food. They don’t throw the yolk away to make an egg-white omelet, or spin the fat out of their yogurt, or juice the fiber-rich pulp out of their fruits. They also don’t enrich or add extra ingredients to change the nutritional profile of their foods. Instead of taking vitamins or other supplements, they get everything they need from nutrient-dense, fiber-rich whole foods.
A good definition of a “whole food” would be one that is made of a single ingredient,
raw, cooked, ground, or fermented, and not highly processed. Tofu is minimally processed, for example, while cheese-flavored corn puffs are highly processed. Blue zones dishes typically contain a half dozen or so ingredients, simply blended together. Almost all of the foods consumed by centenarians in the blue zones grow within a 10- mile radius of their homes. They eat raw fruits and vegetables; they grind whole grains themselves and then cook them slowly. They use fermentation—an ancient way to make nutrients bio-available—in the tofu, sourdough bread, wine, and pickled vegetables they eat. And they rarely ingest artificial preservatives.
DRINK MOSTLY WATER
Never drink soft drinks (including diet soda). With very few exceptions, people in blue zones drank coffee, tea, water, and wine. Period. (Soft drinks, which account for about half of Americans’ sugar intake, were unknown to most blue zones centenarians.) There is a strong rationale for each.
WATER Adventists recommend seven glasses of water daily. They point to studies that
show that being hydrated facilitates blood flow and lessens the chance of a blood clot.
COFFEE Sardinians, Ikarians, and Nicoyans all drink copious amounts of coffee.
Research associates coffee drinking with lower rates of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
TEA People in all the blue zones drink tea. Okinawans nurse green tea all day. Green tea has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and several cancers. Ikarians drink brews of rosemary, wild sage, and dandelion—all herbs known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
RED WINE People who drink—in moderation—tend to outlive those who don’t. (This
doesn’t mean you should start drinking if you don’t drink now.) People in most blue zones drink one to three small glasses of red wine per day, often with a meal and with friends.
Ready to eat? Try our Blue Zones recipes.