According to the people whose job it is to work toward preventing chronic disease in the United States — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — most of the conditions that cause us to age rapidly and die early are preventable. These conditions, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity and arthritis, also are among the most expensive health problems. Not only can we prevent much of this, but it may be possible to reverse illness — at any age.
All over the planet, we find groups of people who tend to suffer these debilitating afflictions far less than others, and who enjoy much longer-than-average life spans. Celebrated National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner and his team of researchers have spent more than 10 years documenting the world’s longest-living and healthiest people. The five spots they’ve found with the highest concentration of people who live to be 100 years old — and do so free of chronic disease — are dubbed “Blue Zones.” Collectively, they represent a diversity of cuisines.
Perhaps we can learn from these groups, who enjoy happy, healthy, extraordinarily long lives filled with energy, people and purpose. What are they doing right?
Around the World in 6 Amazing Diets
When it comes to longevity, the specific foods these people eat do play a role, according to Buettner’s investigations, but that may matter less than the state in which foods are consumed — fresh, organic, close to the source, unprocessed, additive-free. Some of the longest-living people on Earth have coffee, bread and cheese every day, and hardly ever eat fish. But then, some eat fish every week. Others never, ever skip happy hour. These centenarian populations do share some common threads, however. We’ll look at these first through the lens of food choices, then eating habits, and finally, additional lifestyle factors that contribute to longevity.
In places where many people live to be 100 years old and do so without contracting heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, food choices are not driven by “diet.” They’re just part of life — what seems, to these centenarians, to be the natural way of eating. Mountains of nutrition research support their apparently effortless wisdom. Let’s check them out.
The active, long-living people of the mountainous highlands of Sardinia eat lots of bread to fuel all their strenuous walking. The steeper the terrain from their homes to their work, the longer Sardinians live. The beloved Sardinian flatbread is made from whole-grain, high-protein durum wheat, and other sourdough breads are made from wheat, rye and barley. Barley is also popular here as a cooked grain in soups and salads. In Buettner’s research, barley was found to be the food most associated with living to be 100 years old. Or maybe it’s the red wine we should credit for Sardinian longevity? Sardinians have the enviable habit of drinking a few ounces of red wine three or four times a day, starting in the morning. They also get together in the village by late afternoon for a social happy hour.
• Whole-grain sourdough breads (barley, rye, wheat)
• Vegetables, especially fennel and tomatoes
• Legumes, particularly fava beans and chickpeas
• Nuts, mostly almonds, which appear in everything
• Goat milk and cheese, and revered sheep’s milk Pecorino
• Lots of herbs and herbal teas, especially milk thistle tea
• Red wine enjoyed in small quantities throughout the day
Long-living citizens of this remote community have largely stuck to ancient traditions, which is likely the reason for this population’s strikingly low rates of middle-aged mortality and dementia. Ikarians delight in strong coffee and dunk sourdough bread in their morning bowl of beans. They are blessed with fresh produce of some kind year-round, and they squeeze fresh lemon on nearly everything. Their rich, full-fat, probiotic cheese comes from goats and sheep, and they also love chickpeas — even as a snack food.
• Plenty of vegetables, especially potatoes
• Legumes, especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas and lentils
• Wild-foraged greens and mushrooms
• Goat milk and cheese, and revered sheep’s milk Pecorino
• Diverse Mediterranean herbs, such as marjoram and sage, especially in teas
• Some fruit and small amount of fish
• Honey as sweetener
• More than half of daily calories from olive oil (fresh, cloudy, unfiltered)
• Meats and sweets a couple times a week, in small portions
Okinawan Islands, Japan
The Pacific islands of Okinawa boast some of the same health benefits of Japanese food generally — lots of fish and seaweed; reliance on fermented delicacies such as miso; more steaming and less sautéing in the kitchen; a focus on simple ingredients and preparations; and plenty of rice, of course. Yet, Okinawans have a fifth of the heart disease and breast and prostate cancers as the Western world, in addition to half the dementia. Okinawan women are the longest-living women on Earth. Perhaps the secret is in their age-old advice: Eat something from the land and something from the sea every day.
• Purple sweet potato
• Bitter melon
• Brown rice
• Green tea
• Shiitake mushrooms
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
The physically active population here has the second highest concentration (after Sardinia) of centenarian men. This Latin community also has extremely low rates of middle-aged death, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Their fiber- and protein-rich diet is heavy on plants, but also carbs and meat — particularly beef, chicken and fish. Nicoyans don’t eat tons of dairy, but they make up for it by eating copious amounts of calcium-rich “nixtamalized” corn. The traditional tortilla dough is made with lime and water, which boosts calcium and unleashes amino acids. They also get lots and lots of beans, rice, fruit, strong coffee and sunshine.
• Nixtamalized corn
• Black beans
• Peach palms
Loma Linda, California
Finally, we come to the only longevity hot spot in North America. Residents of the Seventh Day Adventist community in this small town east of Los Angeles live up to 10 years longer than the rest of us, and enjoy excellent mental health all the while. As in other Blue Zones, Loma Lindans are consistently active, belong to a strong community and eat mostly plants. Some are strict vegetarians, but many include fish — usually salmon — in the daily or weekly diet. They are also known for extolling the benefits of drinking water. Some Adventists abstain from alcohol, caffeine, strong spices and rich foods.
Distinctly Loma Linda:
• Lots of water
• Slow-cooked oatmeal
• Soy products and soy milk
• Whole-wheat bread
The Mediterranean Model
Although Blue Zones occur across the globe, people who live near the Mediterranean Sea have the most extensively studied of the world’s healthy diets. They eat primarily in-season plants, including abundant fruits, vegetables and herbs. They combine this bounty with high-protein legumes, whole grains (often fermented), mushrooms, nuts and seeds. Everything is seasoned with herbs, spices, citrus, vinegar and liberal doses of olive oil. Fish, eggs and naturally fermented dairy are generally eaten a few times a week in small portions. Grass-fed and wild meats are enjoyed, but infrequently. Mediterraneans also love sweet dates and honey, and their daily doses of antioxidant-rich coffee, tea and wine. Their food is fresh, flavorful, colorful and bright — it just looks healthy. And numerous studies confirm it. The Mediterranean diet fights inflammation, high blood pressure, high “bad” cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancers, type 2 diabetes, bone loss and hormone imbalance. This style of eating also improves metabolism, fertility, detoxification — and famously, longevity.
Don’t Underestimate the Humble Bean! Legumes have more nutrients per gram than any other food, and happen to be the cornerstone of every one of the world’s healthiest diets. People living in the so-called Blue Zones (maximum life span, minimal disease) eat up to four times as many beans, peas and lentils as most Americans do.
World’s Healthiest Eating Habits
In addition to the food they eat, people living in Blue Zones share other habits. One key is relishing food and eating well. To make food sacred, prepare most of your food at home — even if it is incredibly simple food. Cooking at home is linked with longevity. In addition, try these shared habits borrowed from our planet’s venerable centenarians.
Bring Food and People Together. Grow food, cook food and eat food with other people. When you do eat alone, avoid distracting yourself. Just eat.
Eat Most of Your Food Early in the Day. Enjoy a tremendous breakfast before you put your body to work. Fuel up with a moderate lunch, and relax over a lighter, early dinner. Then give your body a break from eating for at least eight hours. If you feel the urge to snack, munch on nuts and fruit between meals.
Stay Hydrated. Drink water throughout the day, most importantly right after waking up. If you like coffee or green tea, have these early in the day. Enjoy herbal teas throughout the day, and wine with dinner. Skip the soda, including diet soda. And the fruit juice — except on special occasions.
Stop Eating Before Your’re Overfull. If you find it difficult to tune in to signals of satiety, begin meals with a moment of silence or a prayer. Practice gratitude. Remind yourself and your family that food is special. Eat more slowly, and aim to eat until you are four-fifths full.
Celebrate. Enjoy favorite foods, and also share treats with other people from time to time. A healthy body has the capacity to recover after rich foods, though it’s still ideal that they be real foods. Just be sure to give your body opportunities to bounce back and be nourished. If you find it helpful, designate a specific day of the week to relish in “sometimes” foods, and definitely celebrate special occasions. Blue Zone denizens enjoy desserts on average a few times a month. Sweet fruits, however, they gobble up daily.
Don’t Underestimate the Humble Grain! Want to know the food most strongly linked with living to be 100 years old? Barley. Toss some chewy, nutty barley in soups and salads, or cook it risotto-style with vegetables, olive oil and a pinch of cheese. Wild-fermented sourdough barley breads are even more nutritious. Check for barley breads at artisan bakeries, especially those with Eastern European specialties.
World’s Healthiest Foods
Here is a quick guide to many of the foods that make up the world’s healthiest diets, with suggestions for choosing especially healthy options, as backed up by nutrition research.
Eat a largely plant-based diet (approximately 95 percent plants, in fact, Buettner says). Eat whatever is fresh and ripe that’s grown locally in the most natural way. Eat legumes every day, maybe fish and seaweed, too. Forage for wild, ephemeral edibles sometimes. Revere good meat and cheese, and eat these in moderation. Revere good coffee and wine, too, and enjoy them daily. Eat whole-grain sourdough bread every day if you like. Have many cups of tea. Pour olive oil, lemon juice and herbs on everything. Put herbs in your tea cup, too. And a little honey. Have a dessert every now and then — with friends.
Fresh Vegetables, Lots of Them
• Notably nutritious: Deeply colored, in-season, wild-harvested, wild-fermented, sprouted, and sea vegetables
• Eat less or don’t bother: Out-of-season produce, especially asparagus and tomatoes; sweet corn; canned vegetables
Legumes, Every Day
• Notably nutritious: Lentils, beans of all kinds (especially canned; look for glass jars or BPA-free cans), peas that come in the shell, sprouted legumes
• Eat less or don’t bother: Shelled peas
Mushrooms, Especially Wild
• Fresh, dried or freeze-dried chanterelle, cordyceps, enoki, maitake, morel, oyster, porcini, reishi and shiitake
All Herbs and Spices, All the Time
• Garlic, ginger, turmeric; fresh or frozen herbs; whole spices
• Eat less or don’t bother: Some dried herbs are OK (marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme), but most are not worth your time; homegrown dried herbs are definitely preferred; grind whole spices upon use — ground spices don’t stay potent for long
Nuts and Seeds, By the Handful
• Sprouted nuts and seeds
Revered Grains, Kept Whole
• Notably nutritious: Amaranth, barley, durum wheat, millet, nixtamalized corn, oats, quinoa, rye, spelt; any whole grain that is fermented or sprouted
• Eat less or don’t bother: Refined (white) grains and flours
Fruits, Relished but Rarely Juiced
• Notably nutritious: Fresh berries and especially wild berries; bitter melon, banana (especially red), citrus, mangoes, pineapple, pomegranate and watermelons with deep, red flesh; preserved and frozen fruit; superfood berry powders and purees, such as acai, camu camu, goji and macqui berries
• Eat less or don’t bother: Cantaloupe, honeydew and casaba are least nutritious
Many Oils, Throughout the Day
• Three or four tablespoons a day of fresh, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil and nut oils
• Eat less or don’t bother: Avoid toxic trans fats at all costs
Wild and Grass-Fed Animal Products, Small Portions
• Eggs a few times a week: bone broth; naturally fermented dairy, especially whole-milk yogurt and goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
• Eat less or don’t bother: Conventionally raised animal products, processed meats and cheeses
Sustainable Seafood, Daily or Weekly
• Fresh, frozen or canned wild-caught anchovy, herring, mackerel, mussels, oyster, salmon, sardines, trout
• Eat less or don’t bother: Farmed fish; large fish, such as tuna and swordfish
• Water, coffee, tea, herbal tea, alcohol in moderation (especially red wine)
• Eat less or don’t bother: Fruit juice, soda
• Notably nutritious: Dark chocolate, dates and honey in moderation; superfood sweeteners (powdered lucuma, mesquite, sacha inchi and stevia)
World’s Healthiest Lifestyles
The world’s longest-living people all maintain surprisingly similar lifestyles. Most important, tight communities foster healthy people. Additionally, walkable/bikeable communities have lower rates of obesity and depression — and higher home values. In these communities, many activities lead to multiple wellness outcomes. People connect with each other while they eat and drink. Taking a walk with a friend offers both exercise and social support. Riding a bike is good for your body, but also gives you a chance to decompress and clear your head.
“The path to a long healthy life,” Buettner writes in The Blue Zones Solution, “comes from creating an environment around yourself, your family, and your community that nudges you into following the right behaviors subtly and relentlessly.” Buettner’s team is currently focused on The Blue Zones Project, which aims to help entire communities support wellness, rather than focusing on what individuals can do through diet and exercise. The theory, which is working so far, is that healthy habits fall in line naturally when people’s environments are set up for them — as has happened in the Blue Zones. Based on the promising results of the early programs, Blue Zone researchers offer these tips for supporting your own health.
De-Stress Daily: Stress leads to inflammation, which leads to every known chronic disease. Your method of getting centered can vary. Yoga, meditation, biking and hiking work for many people. Okinawans pause daily to remember their ancestors. Seventh Day Adventists pray. Ikarians take naps. Sardinians enjoy happy hour. Costa Ricans surf. Make rejuvenating and grounding yourself essential.
Be with People: Create a strong social network. Join a club or volunteer organization. Take walks with a buddy. Find a way to connect with other people who prioritize positivity and wellness. Research also shows that attending a weekly faith-based service (doesn’t matter which faith) can add up to 14 years to your life.
Focus on Family: The world’s longest-living people put family first, commit to a life partner, spend lots of time with their kids, keep aging relatives nearby (or in the same home), and connect with each other regularly over meals.
Move Your Body Naturally: Walk as often as possible. Ride a bike. Work in a garden. And do these activities with other people. Avoid modern conveniences that allow you to move your body less.
Know Your Purpose: This one may be hard, but intentionally placing focus on finding a reason to get up each morning can add up to seven years to your life.
Afraid lifestyle changes won’t matter because bad genes are working against you? In recent research conducted by the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, study participants of all ages who made lifestyle changes similar to these were found within three months to have turned off many genes linked to diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and breast and prostate cancers. Meanwhile, their lifestyle modifications appeared to turn on genes that promote health and prevent disease.
A Word from the Writer
This broad overview of healthy food choices distills the best available information from nutrition studies and experts — in particular, Dan Buettner’s research into long-living Blue Zone populations; the extraordinary research of Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, and Rebecca Katz, author of The Longevity Kitchen and The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen; plus my own extensive look at nutrient density and the evidence-based powers of so-called superfoods. (Check out my special publication, Superfoods: Eat and Live Well Every Day, on newsstands now.)
Food Editor Tabitha Grace now plans to start eating a lot more barley. You can purchase her book from the Mother Earth Living store: Whole Grain Baking Made Easy.