Blue Zones Longevity: Live to be 100, Healthy and Active

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Blue Zones

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

diet warsThe diet wars are raging. Everywhere you turn people are arguing about which diet is best. Each diet is based on plausible sounding hypotheses. Each diet has rigid do’s and don’ts. Proponents of these diets are absolutely convinced they have the only answer for a healthy life.

You’ve heard the arguments. It is fat that’s killing you. No, it’s the carbs. Saturated fats are bad for you. No, they’re good for you. Coconut oil is bad for you. No, you should eat as much of it as possible. Unsaturated fats are good for you. No, they’re bad for you. The list goes on and on.

It is so confusing. The “experts” arguing over which diet is best can’t all be right…or can they? What if they are like the fable of the 6 blind men grabbing different parts of an elephant and trying to describe the elephant. Each is describing part of the elephant, but none of them know what the whole elephant is like.

The problem is most diets are based on hypotheses derived from short-term clinical studies. For example, scientists design a clinical study that makes some changes to the diet, and cholesterol levels improve, or blood pressure improves, or markers of inflammation improve. Someone then incorporates those specific changes into their “diet program” and predicts what the health of people following their diet will be 20 or 30 years into the future. They write a book, and another diet fad is launched.

blue zonesThose diet authors are like one of the blind men. They have grabbed part of the elephant, and they are trying to predict what the whole elephant looks like based on the part they know. In most cases, they have no idea whether people who follow their diet for 20 or 30 years will be healthy. The long-term data to support their hypotheses simply does not exist.

What if you took the opposite approach? What if you started with the elephant? What if you asked people living healthy, active lives well into their 100s what they ate and how they lived?

Someone has done just that. His name is Dan Buettner. He identified five regions of the world, which he called ”Blue Zones,” where an unusually high percentage of people live into their 100s. He then asked the centenarians in each region about their diet and lifestyle. The results of this remarkable study were published in a book called “The Blue Zones.”

How Was The Study Done?

Dan Buettner is not a scientist. He is a journalist, and his initial “Blue Zone” expeditions were sponsored by National Geographic. However, to his credit he collaborated with the top scientists in the fields of demographics, social anthropology and statistics. In short, he did things right.

The demographers helped him locate the Blue Zones and poured over the birth and death records so they could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt these were regions where an extraordinary percentage of people lived to 100 and beyond. The social anthropologists helped him design the questionnaires and interview the centenarians. The statisticians helped him analyze the data.

blue zones longevityThe Blue Zones were very diverse. They consisted of:

  • A mountainous municipality on the Island of Sardinia off the coast of Italy.
  • Rural villages on the Island of Okinawa.
  • The 7th Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
  • Some remote villages in Costa Rica
  • A small island called Ikaria off the coast of Greece.

Many of these locations are remote, but the 7th Day Adventist community lives in the heavily populated Los Angeles basin. In his book, Dan Buettner describes getting off the freeway and driving past all the usual fast food restaurants on his way to interview the 7th Day Adventist centenarians, who obviously never ate at those restaurants.

The people in each of these regions followed a lifestyle that was dramatically different from people in surrounding communities. In the case of the 7th Day Adventists, their lifestyle was based on their religious teachings. People in the other regions were simply following traditions passed down over many generations.

It is fascinating to read about each of these Blue Zone communities. There were some significant differences in the foods they ate and the way they lived their lives. However, Dan Buettner and his scientific collaborators were not interested in the differences. They were interested in the similarities.

The similarities were striking. More importantly, they tell us a lot about the kind of diet and lifestyle that is associated with health and longevity. This isn’t hypothetical health and longevity based on some short-term clinical studies. This is real life health and longevity based on people who have actually lived it.

What Do Blue Zones Tell Us About Longevity?

live to be 100 in blue zonesHere are the common characteristics of every Blue Zone studied. I call them “the secrets of the centenarians.”

#1: They engage in moderate intensity exercise every day. None of them run marathons or engage in high intensity workouts in the gym. Some are shepherds. Others tend their farms. The 7th Day Adventists take nature walks. Exercise isn’t planned. It is part of their daily life.

#2: They stop eating before they are full. As a child, I remember a TV add in which the actor would say “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” before plopping two Alka-Seltzers in a glass of water. The long-living people in Blue Zones don’t do that. They stop eating when they are no longer hungry, not when they are full. Okinawans call it hara hachi bu, which roughly translates into stopping when their stomachs are 80% full. That simple practice cuts calories by 20% and dramatically reduces the incidence of obesity.

#3: They eat a mostly plant-based diet. They eat mostly fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Nuts also play an important role in their diet. Beans are the major protein source. They avoid processed foods and seldom eat meat. Strict 7th Day Adventists avoid meat entirely. The other Blue Zone populations ate meat primarily on special occasions. When they did eat meat, it was often pork or lamb. Based on the data from these Blue Zone populations, Dan Buettner recommends eating meat no more than twice a week, with each serving being the size of a deck of cards.

#4: They have a libation with their meals. For the Sardinians, it was red wine. For the Okinawans, it was sake. The key is moderation. No more than a glass or two. If you don’t drink, that’s fine too.

#5: They have a purpose in their lives. They have a reason to live. It can be service to others. It can be a hobby. It can be a quest for learning something new. Whatever it is, they have something to look forward to every day.

#6: They set aside time for relaxation. They have a time set aside each day to relax with friends or family and de-stress. This improves their mental outlook and reduces their risk of disease.

centarians#7: They participate in a spiritual community. The religions were different in each Blue Zone, but they all belonged to strong religious communities. As Dan Buettner put it: “The simple act of worship is one of those subtly powerful habits that seems to improve your chances of having more good years.”

#8: They put family first. They build their lives around their families, and when they become old their families take care of them.

#9: They surround themselves with communities that share their values. These social networks provide support, encouragement, and happiness.

As you read through the 9 things that these Blue Zone communities have in common, your first reaction may be one of dismay. In today’s world, it is exceedingly difficult to achieve all 9 elements of a centenarian lifestyle. Just be comforted with the thought that the more of these 9 elements you can incorporate into your personal “Blue Zone,”  the healthier you will be and the longer you will live.

 

What Do Blue Zones Tell Us About Diet?

If you have been trying to figure out what kind of diet is best for you, the biggest take home lesson from “The Blue Zones” is that you can forget all the absolutes you have heard from the proponents of various diet plans. For example:

  • All the Blue Zone communities included whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables as part of their diet. You don’t have follow a low carb diet to live to 100.
  • While all the Blue Zone communities ate a plant-based diet, most included some meat in their diet. You don’t have to go meatless to live to 100.
  • Some of the Blue Zone communities ate pork and lamb as their main meat. If you eat meats sparingly as part of a mostly plant-based diet, you can eat red meat and still live to 100.
  • Only two of the five Blue Zones were in the Mediterranean region. You don’t have to follow a Mediterranean diet to live to 100.

In short, the proponents of today’s popular diet plans are indeed like the 6 blind men trying to describe an elephant. When you see the entire elephant, it looks a lot different.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  1. In his book “The Blue Zones,” Dan Buettner described five regions of the world where an exceptionally high proportion of people are living healthy, active lives well into their 100s. He teamed with a group of scientists to find out what they eat and how they live.
  2. Here are the 9 common characteristics of every Blue Zone Community he studied:
    • They engage in moderate intensity exercise every day.
    • They stop eating before they are full.
    • They eat a mostly plant-based diet.
    • They have a libation with their meals.
    • They have a purpose in their lives.
    • They set aside time for relaxation.
    • They participate in a spiritual community.
    • They put family first.
    • They surround themselves with communities that share their values.
  3. As you read through 9 things the Blue Zone communities have in common, your first reaction might be one of dismay. In today’s world, it is exceedingly difficult to achieve all 9 elements of a centenarian lifestyle. Just be comforted with the thought that the more of these 9 elements you can incorporate into your personal “Blue Zone,” the healthier you will be and the longer you will live.
  4. When you look at what people in Blue Zone communities eat, the biggest take home lesson is that you can forget all the absolutes you have heard from the proponents of various popular diet plans. For example:
    • All the Blue Zone communities included whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables as part of their diet. You don’t have follow a low carb diet to live to 100.
    • While all the Blue Zone communities ate a plant-based diet, most included some meat in their diet. You don’t have to go meatless to live to 100.
    • Some of the Blue Zone communities ate pork and lamb as their main meat. If you eat meats sparingly as part of a mostly plant-based diet, you can eat red meat and still live to 100.
    • Only two of the five Blue Zones were in the Mediterranean region. You don’t have to follow a Mediterranean diet to live to 100.
  5. For details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Allen Partch

    |

    Thanks Dr Steve Chaney Pam and I just started a plant based diet, and it always gets confusing on which diet is the best, I heard some people on a vegan diet after 19 years or so can be in worse health than people on the Standard American Diet, it is so confusing but this information email helped me know the truth and am convinced we are on the right path eliminating chicken beef pork and any fast food. Dr Steve helped clear up confusion about weather people on kemo should take supplements. Thanks Dr Steve for the info.

    Reply

  • Tammy Johnson

    |

    Thank you for this information. I was talking with a friend about this recently so it was good to have it reviewed and discussed from a Dr’s perspective. Thank you Steve!

    Reply

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Latest Article

What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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