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In parts of Italy, Greece, Japan, Costa Rica and the United States, there are pockets of people who are living longer than most of us, and they’re staying healthy well into their later years. Researchers call these areas Blue Zones, and they’ve studied the people who live there to tease out their secrets to longevity.
It turns out, diet is just one healthy habit the people in the Blue Zones adopt. They also get a lot of movement during their days, manage their stress, have a sense of purpose, and connect with family, friends and community. “Managing health and managing weight isn’t just about what we put in our mouths. It’s all the other things that are interconnected,” Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian based in New York City and the coauthor of “Sugar Shock,” told TODAY. “These are all things that make you feel better emotionally and physically.”
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But what the people in the Blue Zones eat undoubtedly plays a role in their longevity. Foods that come from plants are central to the diets in all the Blue Zones. “Plant-based eating is hands-down going to be the healthiest way to eat, even if you’re an omnivore,” Cassetty said.
How does the Blue Zones diet work?
People who live in the Blue Zones don’t have to create a healthy diet plan. They live in environments where it’s easy to make healthier choices. And those choices are centered around plants — about 95% of what people in the Blue Zones eat is plant-based.
But when you hear “plant,” don’t think you’re restricted to vegetables. Many things are plant-based. Whole-grain bread and pasta, chickpeas and beans are all on the list. “Beans, in my opinion, are one of the most underrated, undervalued and underused foods in the supermarket,” Bonnie Taub-Dix, a New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table,” told TODAY.
Another thing people do in the Blue Zones is to eat until they are 80% full. “When you eat until you’re somewhat full, you’re being mindful and present, understanding your hunger and fullness cues, and recognizing when it’s enough,” Cassetty said. “It can help you stay healthy even when you go out to eat and have more indulgent foods.”
What does the research say about the Blue Zones diet?
A diet rich in whole, plant-based foods like the Blue Zones diet can help lower your risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood sugar levels and prevent cancer.
A study of more than 130,000 people found that eating more plant protein instead of animal protein reduced the risk of heart disease. And a meta-analysis of 16 studies found that eating more fruits and vegetables lowered the risk of death from heart disease. In addition, research has found that adding nuts to a healthy diet can reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome — a condition marked by high blood pressure and blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol levels and excess weight in the abdomen.
Is the Blue Zones diet a good choice for you?
“There are just so many things about this diet and this lifestyle that I love,” Taub-Dix said. A diet centered mainly around plants is a healthy choice for just about anyone.
There aren’t many downsides to the Blue Zones diet. If it’s a big jump from what you’re eating, it could feel overwhelming. In that case, you can ease into it more gradually. For example, you can make sure each meal includes a serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains or beans. Or you can try meatless Mondays to start finding meals you enjoy that aren’t centered around meat.
And the Blue Zone diet could include more cooking than you’re used to. People in the Blue Zones tend to eat at home, with family and friends. Dan Buettner, the author of “The Blue Zones Challenge” and other Blue Zones books, recommends getting an Instant Pot or similar pressure cooker and a good cookbook to help build your kitchen skills.
What do you eat on the Blue Zones diet?
There are a few differences in what people eat in the Blue Zones, based on what’s available and what they prefer — for example, some are vegetarians and some don’t drink alcohol. But by surveying people in the various Blue Zones, these guidelines surface:
- Choose a mostly plant-based diet — think leafy greens, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans.
- Scale back on meat, fish, dairy, eggs and added sugar. People in the Blue Zones eat about the same amount of natural sugars —sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk — as North Americans do, but they eat much less added sugar.
- Eat at least a half-cup of beans every day — they’re satisfying, packed with nutrients and a staple food in all the Blue Zones.
- Eat two handfuls of nuts per day, ideally almonds, peanuts, Brazil nuts, cashews and walnuts.
- Choose 100 percent whole-grain bread or sourdough bread.
- Drink water, coffee, tea and wine — mostly water.
In a typical day, you might eat:
· Breakfast: Carrot cake overnight oats.
· Lunch: Sesame Buddha bowl.
· Dinner: Takeout-style vegetable lo mein.
· Snack: Savory roasted chickpeas.
The Blue Zones diet is similar to:
- Mediterranean diet, which also emphasizes whole, plant-based foods.
- DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which is designed to reduce or control high blood pressure.
- MIND diet, which combines the Mediterranean and DASH diets to help promote brain health.
- Flexitarian diet, a mostly vegetarian diet that includes some meat.
Is the Blue Zones diet effective long term?
Yes. The Blue Zones diet — and the other healthy lifestyle habits people in the Blue Zones follow — are designed to be part of your life long-term. The people in the Blue Zones who are living into their 90s and 100s in good health are proof that the lifestyle works.
Talk with your doctor before starting the Blue Zones diet or any other diet — your doctor can recommend the best eating plan for you, based on your health needs.