Is this the secret to a long healthy life?

By Health Correspondent

A journalist has discovered the good news for people wanting to live a long healthy life.

Author Dan Buettner studied the parts of the world where people lived exceptionally long lives. 

He came up with the Blue Zones – geographic areas that are home to some of the oldest people in the world.

The people in these regions don’t just live longer – they have lower rates of chronic diseases, cancer, diabetes, obesity compared to anywhere else in the world.

They are named Blue Zones because of the blue circles Buettner had drawn on the areas of the map he and his colleagues studied.

According to Dan Buettner – explorer, National Geographic Fellow, journalist, producer and bestselling author – the residents in these Blue Zones are outliving us.

It was in 2004, when Buettner – together with anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists and other researchers – travelled around the world to specifically study these communities that had a high percentage of nonagenarians and centenarians – people that live to be over 90 and 100.

They interviewed dozens of people who lived to 100 years old, on their diet, sleeping habits and day to day activities. Their research showed all of these people shared something in common.

Dan Buettner figured out that there were at least five Blue Zones in the world, where people were living past the 100 mark. These zones are:

Icaria: Icaria is an Island in Greece where the residents eat a Mediterranean diet consisting of plenty of olive oil and vegetables. According to numerous studies, the Mediterranean diet promotes brain and physical health and keeps chronic diseases away. 

Ogliastra, Sardinia: Ogliastra – a region of Sardinia in Italy – is where some of the oldest men in the world live. These locals live on mountainous regions and normally work on farms.

Okinawa: Okinawa, in Japan, has some of the world’s oldest women. Their diet consists of soy-based foods and they also practice a meditative exercise known as “tai chi”.

Nicoya Peninsula: Nicoya in Costa Rica is home to people whose diet is mainly beans and corn tortillas. They have physical jobs, even into old age, and have a sense of life purpose which they’ve called “plan de vida”.

The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California: This group of people in California, USA are very religious, live in tight-knit communities and are strict vegetarians.

People in the Blue Zones eat a diet full of whole plant foods

The people in the Blue Zones all have one similarity in their diet and that is it is 90% plant based. Sometimes more.

Not all of the groups are strictly vegetarian, but when they do eat meat, it will only be about five times a month.

What should you eat if you want a Blue Zone diet?

Vegetables: Vegetables are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Research show that eating five portions of fruits and vegetables daily can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and death.

Whole grains: These are also a good source of fibre – good in so many ways.

Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, beans and peas are all types of legumes, and they’re all a good source of fibre and protein.

Nuts: These are rich in fibre, protein and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

They eat less dairy and eggs

In four of the Blue Zones, there is a low consumption of cow’s milk products. In Ikaria and Sardinia, the residents consume goat and sheep products.

The locals in all of the Blue Zones consume eggs two to four times a week, but it’s normally just one at a time, and it’s usually part of a dish instead of being the main source of protein.

Water, tea and coffee

Drinks that are consumed regularly in the Blue Zones include tea, coffee and water. According to Buettner, they drink herbal day. Green tea is drunk regularly in Okinawa, and in Ikaria, they drink a tea that’s made with oregano, rosemary or mint.

Coffee is also consumed in the mornings in most of the Blue Zones; however the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda tend to avoid caffeine. 

Avoid processed and packaged foods 

One reason western diets are so unhealthy is the fast food culture plus processed and packaged foods. None of that in the Blue Zones. The diets in the Blue Zones are low in sugar, pesticides and artificial ingredients.

They do treat themselves and use small amounts of natural sweeteners on occasions; however refined carbohydrates and artificial flavours are a rarity.

Fasting and eating fewer calories

Another factor that may contribute to the long lives in some of the Blue Zones is eating fewer calories.

A common practice among the Okinawans, is following the 80% rule, which they’ve named “hara hachi bu”. These locals stop eating when they feel 80% full, rather than 100% full.

By doing this, they don’t overeat which could then result in them gaining weight and chronic disease.

As well as consuming lower calories, fasting seems to have a positive impact on health.

Many Icarians, for example, are Greek Orthodox Christians. There are many periods throughout the year in which they fast.

Studies show that these periods of fasting resulted in lower blood cholesterol and lower BMI (body mass index).

Other studies such as those done by journalist Michael Mosely show that other types of fasting such as intermittent fasting (fasting for certain hours in a day, or certain days in a week) reduces the risk of chronic disease.

So you want to live to age 100 and more

Speak to a health professional or your doctor before embarking on any dit programme.

But there are lots of simple things we can do to bring the Blue Zones to our homes.

Increase your intake of plants

None of the centenarians in the Blue Zones were on and off diets, and none of them were obese.

Make sure your home has plenty of healthy foods to choose from, and get rid of those foods that will tempt you.

Plan healthy foods and snacks in advance so that you can cut back on sugar and processed foods.

Walk, walk and walk some more

Centenarians in the Blue Zones have active lives. These people don’t go to the gym and they don’t dread exercising either.

Physical activity is just a part of their daily life.

In addition to diet, exercise is also an important factor in aging. For people in the Blue Zones, exercise is incorporated into their life everyday through walking, gardening and other chores.

According to Buettner, walking is one of the best ways to exercise, and you can do it without thinking about it.

He also encourages people to rely on public transport more than cars, so that they have to walk more.

As well as walking and gardening, many of the Blue Zone locals have jobs such as farming which are physically demanding. This is very different to sitting behind a desk all day like many of us do.

Get better sleep

Sleep is good. Really good.

It appears to contribute to living a prolonged life. Those in the Blue Zones get enough sleep and take regular day naps.

Get at least 7 hours of sleep. Sleeping much less or much more was linked to an increased risk of death.

In the Blue Zones, it is common that the people tend not to sleep, wake or work at set hours. Instead, they sleep for as long as their body tells them to.

As well as diet, physical activity and sleep there are some other common factors in the Blue Zones that can be associated with these peoples longevity.

Purpose and community

A strong sense of purpose and community are also essential factors. According to Buettner – in an article written by Nicole Spector, “‘Blue Zones’: 6 secrets to borrow from people who live the longest”, NBC NEWS BETTER, 20th Oct 2018 – the people in the Blue Zones do not wake up in the morning feeling worthless or without any sense of purpose.

He says, because they invest in family and keep their minds occupied, they don’t have that feeling of worthlessness that so many people feel today.

Buettner goes on to say that loneliness knocks eight years off your life in the US, but this does not happen in the Blue Zones. Instead, when you walk outside in these regions, you bump into someone you know, and this is much important than you think.

 “Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy,” according to Buettner.

The good news for 3 million people part of the Blue Zones Project

This is a project – based on the principles of the Blue Zones – that helps communities live better and longer by making healthy choices easier. The project helps communities through a number of solutions that are designed to positively impact overall well-being.

Buettner works together with municipal governments, large employers and health insurance companies to implement the Blue Zones project in workplaces, communities and universities.

The project has had great results – healthcare costs have decreased, productivity has increased and the people in these communities have a better quality of life.

Over 3 million people have been positively affected in North America by this initiative.

As Buettner said, there is no quick fix when it comes to longevity. You have to be willing to something for years or even decades.

Talk with your doctor before starting anything. But it is clear that the Blue Zones have hugely beneficial effects on health and longevity.

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