Follow these guidelines and you’ll crowd out refined starches and sugar, replace them with more wholesome, nutrient-dense, and fiber-rich foods—and do it all naturally.
1. PLANT SLANT See that 95 percent of your food comes from a plant or a plant product.
Limit animal protein in your diet to no more than one small serving per day. Favor beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains are okay too. While people in four of the five Blue Zones consume meat, they do so sparingly, using it as a celebratory food, a small side, or a way to flavor dishes. As our adviser Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health puts it: “Meat is like radiation: We don’t know the safe level.” Indeed, 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. In the Blue Zones people 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. In Ikaria more than 75 varieties of edible greens grow like weeds; many contain ten times the polyphenols found in red wine. Studies have found that middle-aged people who consumed the equivalent of a cup of cooked greens daily were half as likely to die in the next four years as those who ate no greens.
Researchers have also found that people who consumed a quarter pound of fruit daily (about an apple) were 60 percent less likely to die during the next four years than those who didn’t.
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. Combined with seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans dominate Blue Zones meals all year long.
How you can do it:
• Keep your favorite fruits and vegetables on hand. Don’t try to force yourself to eat ones you don’t like. That may work for a while, but sooner or later it will fizzle. Try a variety of fruits and vegetables; know which ones you like, and keep your kitchen stocked with them. If you don’t have access to fresh, affordable vegetables, frozen veggies are just fine. (In fact, they often have more nutrients in them since they’re flash-frozen at the time of harvest rather than traveling for weeks to your local grocer’s shelves.)
• Use olive oil like butter. Sauté vegetables over low heat in olive oil. You can also finish steamed or boiled vegetables by drizzling over them a little extra-virgin olive oil, which you should keep on your table.
• Stock up on whole grains. We found that oats, barley, brown rice, and ground corn figured into Blue Zones diets around the world. Wheat did not play as big a role in these cultures, and the grains they used contained less gluten than do the modern strains of today.
• Use whatever vegetables are going unused in your fridge to make vegetable soup by chopping them, browning them in olive oil and herbs, and adding boiling water to cover. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked and then season to taste. Freeze what you don’t eat now in single or family-size containers, then serve later in the week or month when you don’t have time to cook.
Notes on Protein
We’ve all been taught that our bodies need protein for strong bones and muscle development—but what’s the right amount? The average American woman consumes 70 grams of protein daily, the average man more than 100 grams: Too much. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 46 to 56 grams per day.
But quantity isn’t all that matters. We also need the right kind of protein. Protein—also known as amino acids—comes in 21 varieties. Of those, the body can’t make nine, which are called the nine “essential” amino acids because we need them and must get them from our diet. Meat and eggs will provide all nine amino acids while few plant food sources do. But meat and eggs also deliver fat and cholesterol, which tend to promote heart disease and cancer. So if you want to eat the Blue Zones way and emphasize plant-based foods, how do you do it? The trick is “pairing” certain foods together. By combining the right plant foods, you will get all the essential amino acids. You’ll not only meet your protein needs but also keep your calorie intake in check.
2. RETREAT FROM MEAT Consume meat no more than twice a week.
Eat meat twice a week or even less in servings sized no more than two ounces cooked. Favor true free-range chicken and family-farmed pork or lamb instead of meats raised industrially. Avoid processed meats like hot dogs, luncheon meats, or sausages.
In most Blue Zones people ate small amounts of pork, chicken, or lamb. (Adventists, the one exception, ate no meat at all.) Families traditionally slaughtered their pig or goat for festival celebrations, ate heartily, and preserved the leftovers, which they would then use sparingly as fat for frying or as a condiment for flavor. Chickens roamed on the land, eating grubs and roosting freely. But chicken meat, likewise, was a rare treat savored over many meals.
Averaging out meat consumption over all Blue Zones, we found that people were eating small amounts of meat, about two ounces or less at a time, about five times per month. About once a month they splurged, usually on roasted pig or goat. Neither beef nor turkey figures significantly into the average Blue Zones diet.
The meat people in the Blue Zones eat comes from free-roaming animals. These animals are not dosed with hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics and do not experience the misery of big feedlots. Goats graze continually on grasses, foliage, and herbs. Sardinian and Ikarian pigs eat kitchen scraps and forage for wild acorns and roots. These traditional husbandry practices likely produce meat with higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids than the rich meat of grain-fed animals.
Moreover, we’re not sure if people lived longer because they ate a little bit of meat or if they thrived despite it. There are so many healthy practices Blue Zones people engaged in, they may have been able to get away with a little meat now and then because its deleterious effect was counterbalanced by other food and lifestyle choices. As my friend Dean Ornish puts it, “The more healthier practices you undertake, the healthier you become.”
How you can do it:
• Learn what two ounces of meat cooked looks like: Chicken—about half of a chicken breast fillet or the meat (not skin) of a chicken leg; Pork or lamb—a chop or slice the size of a deck of cards before cooking.
• Avoid bringing beef, hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages, or other processed meats into your house.
• Find plant-based substitutes for the meat Americans are used to having at the center of a meal. Try lightly sautéed tofu, drizzled with olive oil; tempeh, another soy product; or black bean or chickpea cakes.
• Designate two days a week when you eat meat or other animal-derived food—and enjoy it only on those days.
• Since restaurant meat portions are almost always four ounces or more, split meat entrées with another person or ask ahead of time for a container to take half the meat portion home for later.
3. FISH IS FINE Eat up to three ounces of fish daily.
Think of three ounces as about the size of a deck of cards before it is cooked. Select fish that are common and abundant, not threatened by overfishing. The Adventist Health Study 2, which has been following 96,000 Americans since 2002, found that the people who lived the longest were not vegans or meat-eaters. They were “pesco-vegetarians,” or pescatarians, people who ate a plant-based diet including a small portion of fish, up to once daily. In other Blue Zones, fish was a common part of everyday meals, eaten on average two to three times a week.
There are other ethical and health considerations involved in including fish in your diet. 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 as corporate fisheries do, threatening to deplete entire species. Blue Zones fishermen cannot afford to wreak havoc on the ecosystems they depend on. There is no Blue Zones evidence favoring any particular fish, though, including salmon.
How you can do it:
• Learn what three ounces looks like, whether it’s three ounces of a larger fish such as snapper or trout or three ounces of smaller fish such as sardines or anchovies.
• Favor mid-chain fish like trout, snapper, grouper, sardines, and anchovies. Avoid predator fish like swordfish, shark, or tuna. Avoid overfished species like Chilean sea bass.
• Steer clear of “farmed” fish, as they are typically raised in overcrowded pens that make it necessary to use antibiotics, pesticides, and coloring.
4. DIMINISH DAIRY Minimize your consumption of cow’s milk and dairy products such as cheese, cream, and butter.
Cow’s milk does not figure significantly in any Blue Zones diet except that of the Adventists, some of whom eat eggs and dairy products. In terms of the human diet, dairy is a relative newcomer, introduced about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Our digestive systems are not optimized for milk or milk products (other than human milk), and now we recognize that the number of people who (often unknowingly) have some difficulty digesting lactose may be as high as 60 percent.
Arguments against milk often focus on its high fat and sugar content. Neal Barnard, the founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, points out that 49 percent of the calories in whole milk and about 70 percent of the calories in cheese come from fat—and that much of this fat is saturated. All milk has lactose sugar as well. About 55 percent of the calories in skim milk come from lactose sugar, for example.
While Americans have relied on milk for calcium and protein for decades, people in the Blue Zones get these nutrients from plant-based sources. One cup of cooked kale or two-thirds of a cup of tofu, for instance, provides just as much bioavailable calcium as a cup of milk.
Small amounts of sheep’s milk or goat’s milk products—especially full-fat, naturally fermented yogurt with no added sugars—a few times weekly are okay. Goat’s and sheep’s milk products do figure prominently in the traditional menus of both 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 people in the Blue Zones climb up and down the same hilly terrain as the goats. Interestingly, most goat’s milk is consumed not as liquid but as fermented products such as yogurt, sour milk, or cheese. Although goat’s milk contains lactose, it also contains lactase, an enzyme that helps the body digest lactose.
How you can do it:
• Try unsweetened soy, coconut, or almond milk as a dairy alternative. Most have as much protein as regular milk and often taste as good or better.
• Satisfy your occasional cheese cravings with cheese made from grass-fed goats or sheep. Try Sardinian pecorino Sardo or Greek feta. Both are rich, so you need only a small amount to flavor food.
5. OCCASIONAL EGG Eat no more than three eggs per week.
Eggs are consumed in all five Blue Zones, where people eat them an average of two to four times per week. As with meat protein, the egg is a side dish, eaten alongside a larger portion of a whole-grain or other plant-based feature. 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.
Eggs in the Blue Zones come from chickens that range freely, eat a wide variety of natural foods, do not receive hormones or antibiotics, and produce slowly matured eggs that are naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Factory-produced eggs come to maturity about twice as fast as eggs laid by breeds of chickens in the Blue Zones.
Eggs provide a complete protein that includes amino acids necessary for your body plus B vitamins, vitamins A, D, and E, and minerals such as selenium. Data from the Adventist Health Study 2 showed that egg-eating vegetarians lived slightly longer than vegans (though they tended to weigh more).
There are other health concerns that might influence your decision to eat eggs. Diabetics need to be cautious about consuming egg yolks, and egg consumption has been correlated to higher rates of prostate cancer for men and exacerbated kidney problems for women. Academics still argue about the effect of dietary cholesterol on arteries, but some people with heart or circulatory problems forgo them despite expert debate.
How you can do it:
• Buy only small eggs from cage-free, pastured chickens.
• Fill out a one-egg breakfast with fruit or other plant-based foods such as whole-grain porridge or bread.
• Try substituting scrambled tofu for eggs.
• In baking, use a quarter cup of applesauce, a quarter cup of mashed potatoes, or a small banana to substitute for one egg. There are also ways to use flax seeds or agar (extracted from algae) in recipes that call for eggs. Instructions for using these alternatives can be found online.
6. DAILY DOSE OF BEANS Eat at least a half cup of cooked beans daily.
Beans are the cornerstone of every Blue Zones diet in the world: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa. The long-lived populations in these Blue Zones eat at least four times as many beans as we do, on average. One five-country study, financed by the World Health Organization, found that eating 20 grams of beans daily reduced a person’s risk of dying in any given year by about 8 percent.
The fact is, beans represent 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.
Humans have eaten beans for at least 8,000 years; they’re part of our culinary DNA. Even the Bible’s Book of Daniel (1:1-21) offers a two-week bean diet to make children healthier. The Blue Zones dietary average—at least a half cup per day—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. Moreover, the high fiber content in beans helps healthy probiotics flourish in the gut.
How you can do it:
• Find ways to cook beans that taste good to you and your family. Centenarians in the Blue Zones know how to make beans taste good. If you don’t have favorite recipes already, resolve to try three of the bean recipes in this book over the next month.
• Make sure your kitchen pantry has a variety of beans to prepare. Dry beans are cheapest, but canned beans are quicker. When buying canned beans, be sure to read the label: The only ingredients should be beans, water, spices, and perhaps a small amount of salt. Avoid the brands with added fat or sugar.
• Use pureed beans as a thickener to make soups creamy and protein-rich.
• Make salads heartier by sprinkling cooked beans onto them. Serve hummus or black bean cakes alongside salads for added texture and appeal.
• Keep your pantry stocked with condiments that dress up bean dishes and make them taste delicious. Mediterranean bean recipes, for example, usually include carrots, celery, and onion, seasoned with garlic, thyme, pepper, and bay leaves.
• When you go out to dinner, consider Mexican restaurants, which almost always serve pinto or black beans. Enhance the beans by adding rice, onions, peppers, guacamole, and hot sauce. Avoid white flour tortillas. Instead, opt for corn tortillas, with which beans are consumed in Costa Rica.
7. SLASH SUGAR Consume no more than seven added teaspoons a day.
Centenarians typically eat sweets only during celebrations. Their foods have no added sugar, and they typically sweeten their tea with honey. This adds up to about seven teaspoons of sugar a day. The lesson to us: Enjoy cookies, candy, and bakery items only a few times a week and ideally as part of a meal. Avoid foods with added sugar. Skip any product where sugar is among the first five ingredients listed. Limit sugar added to coffee, tea, or other foods to no more than four teaspoons per day. Break the habit of snacking on sugar-heavy sweets.
Let’s face it: You can’t 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 sugars in the food supply rose 25 percent. This adds up to about 22 teaspoons of added sugar that the average American consumes daily—insidious, hidden sugars mixed into sodas, yogurts, muffins, and sauces. Too much sugar in our diet has been shown to suppress the immune system, making it harder to fend off diseases. It also spikes insulin levels, which can lead to diabetes and lower fertility, make you fat, and even shorten your life. In the Blue Zones, people consume about the same amount of naturally occurring sugars as North Americans do, but only about a fifth as much added sugar. The key: People in the Blue Zones consume sugar intentionally, not by habit or accident.
How you can do it:
• Make honey your go-to sweetener. Granted, honey spikes blood sugar levels just as sugar does, but it’s harder to spoon in and doesn’t dissolve as well in cold liquids. So, you tend to consume it more intentionally and consume less of it. Honey is a whole food product, and some honeys, like Ikarian heather honey, contain anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antimicrobial properties.
• Avoid sugar-sweetened sodas, teas, and fruit drinks altogether. Sugar-sweetened soda is the single biggest source of added sugars in our diet—in fact, soft drink consumption may account for 50 percent of America’s weight gain since 1970. One can of soda pop alone contains around ten teaspoons of sugar. If you must drink sodas, choose diet soda or, better yet, seltzer or sparkling water.
• Consume sweets as celebratory food. People in Blue Zones love sweets, but sweets (cookies, cakes, pies, desserts of many varieties) are almost always served as a celebratory food—after a Sunday meal, as part of a religious holiday, or during the village festivals. In fact, there are often special sweets for these special occasions. Limit desserts or treats to 100 calories. Eat just one serving a day or less.
• Consider fruit your sweet treat. Eat fresh fruit rather than dried fruit. Fresh fruit has more water and makes you feel fuller with fewer calories. In dried fruit, such as raisins and dates, the sugars are concentrated way beyond what you would get in a typical portion of the fruit when fresh.
• Watch out for processed foods with added sugar, particularly sauces, salad dressings, and ketchup. Many contain several teaspoons of added sugar.
• Watch for low-fat products, many of which are sugar-sweetened to make up for the lack of fat. Some low-fat yogurts, for instance, often contain more sugar—ounce for ounce—than soda pop.
• If your sweet tooth just won’t quit, try stevia to sweeten your tea or coffee. It’s not authentic Blue Zones, of course, but it’s highly concentrated, so it’s probably better than refined sugar.
8. SNACK ON NUTS Eat two handfuls of nuts per day.
A handful of nuts equals about two ounces, which appears to be the average amount that Blue Zones centenarians are eating. Almonds in Ikaria and Sardinia, pistachios in Nicoya, and all nuts with the Adventists—all nuts are good. Nut-eaters on average outlive non–nut-eaters by two to three years, according to the Adventist Health Study 2. Similarly, a recent Harvard study that followed 100,000 people for 30 years found that nut-eaters have a 20 percent lower mortality rate than non–nut-eaters. Other studies show that diets with nuts reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol by 9 percent to 20 percent, regardless of the amount of nuts consumed or the fat level in them. Other healthful ingredients in nuts include copper, fiber, folate, vitamin E, and arginine, an amino acid.
How you can do it:
• Keep nuts around your workplace for mid-morning or mid-afternoon snacks. Take small packages for travel and car trips.
• Try adding nuts or other seeds to salads and soups.
• Stock up on a variety of nuts. The optimal mix: almonds (high in vitamin E and magnesium), peanuts (high in protein and folate, a B vitamin), Brazil nuts (high in selenium, a mineral thought to possibly protect 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). All of these nuts will help lower your cholesterol.
• Incorporate nuts into regular meals as a protein source.
• Eat some nuts before a meal to reduce the overall glycemic load.
9. SOUR ON BREAD Replace common bread with sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat bread.
Bread has been a staple in the human diet for at least 10,000 years. In three of the five Blue Zones, it is still a staple. While not typically used for sandwiches, it does make an appearance at most meals. But what people in Blue Zones are eating is a different food altogether from the bread that most North Americans buy. Most commercially available breads start with bleached white flour, which metabolizes quickly into sugar. White bread delivers relatively empty calories and spikes insulin levels. In fact, white bread (together with glucose) represents the standard glycemic index score of 100, against which all other foods are measured.
Refined flour is not the only problem inherent to our customary white or wheat breads. Gluten, a protein, gives bread its loft and texture, but it also creates digestive problems for some people. Bread in the Blue Zones is different: either whole grain or sourdough, each with its own healthful characteristics. Breads in Ikaria and Sardinia, for example, are made from a variety of 100 percent whole grains, including wheat, rye, and barley—each of which offer a wide spectrum of nutrients, such as tryptophan, an amino acid, and the minerals selenium and magnesium. Whole grains all have higher levels of fiber than most commonly used wheat flours. Interestingly, too, barley was the food most highly correlated with longevity in Sardinia.
Other 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 than breads labeled “gluten-free” (and about one-thousandth the amount of gluten in normal breads), with a longer shelf life and a pleasantly sour taste that most people like. Most important, traditional sourdough breads actually lower the glycemic load of meals. That means they make your entire meal healthier, slower burning, easier on your pancreas, and more likely to make calories available as energy than stored as fat.
Be aware that commercial sourdough bread found in the grocery store can be very different from traditional, real sourdough, and thus may not have the same nutritional characteristics. If you want to buy true sourdough bread, shop from a reputable—probably local—bakery and ask them about their starter. A bakery that cannot answer that question is probably not making true sourdough bread.
How you can do it:
• If you’re going to eat bread, be sure it’s authentic sourdough bread like the ones they make in Ikaria. Sometimes called pain au levain, this slow-rising bread is made with lactobacteria as a rising agent, not commercial yeast.
• Try to make sourdough bread yourself, and make it from an authentic sourdough starter. Ed Wood, a fellow National Geographic writer, offers some of the best information on sourdough and starters at sourdo.com.
• Try a sprouted grain bread. When grains are sprouted, experts say, starches and proteins become easier to digest. Sprouted breads also offer more essential amino acids, minerals, and B vitamins than standard whole-grain varieties, and higher amounts of usable iron. Ounce for ounce, sprouts are thought to be among the most nutritious of foods.
• Choose whole-grain rye or pumpernickel bread over whole wheat: They have a lower glycemic index. But look at the label. Avoid rye breads that list wheat flour as their first ingredient and look for the bread that lists rye flour as the first ingredient. Most supermarket breads aren’t true rye breads.
• Choose or make breads that incorporate seeds, nuts, dried fruits, and whole grains. A whole food (see the next Blue Zones food rule), like flaxseeds, adds flavor, complexity, texture, and nutritional value.
• Look for (or bake) coarse barley bread, with an average of 75 to 80 percent whole barley kernels.
• In general, if you can squeeze a slice of bread into a ball, it’s the kind you should avoid. Look for heavy, dense, 100 percent whole-grain breads that are minimally processed.
10. GO WHOLLY WHOLE Eat foods that are recognizable for what they are.
Another 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 doodles and frozen sausage dogs are highly processed.)
Throughout the world’s Blue Zones, people 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 vitamins or other supplements, they get everything they need from nutrient-dense, fiber-rich whole foods. And when they prepare dishes, those dishes typically contain a half dozen or so ingredients, simply blended together.
Almost all of the food consumed by centenarians in the Blue Zones—up to 90 percent—also grows within a ten-mile radius of their home. Food preparation is simple. 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.
Eating only whole foods, people living in the Blue Zones rarely ingest any artificial preservatives. The foods they eat, especially the grains, are digested slowly, so blood sugar doesn’t spike. Nutritional scientists are only just beginning to understand how all the elements from the entire plant (rather than isolated nutrients) work together synergistically to bring forth ultimate health. There are likely many thousands of phytonutrients—naturally occurring nutritional components of plants—yet to be discovered.
How you can do it:
• Shop for foods at your local farmers markets or community-supported farms.
• Avoid factory-made foods.
• Avoid foods wrapped in plastic.
• Avoid food products made with more than five ingredients.
• Avoid premade or ready-to-eat meals.
• Try to eat at least three Super Blue Foods (see sidebar below) daily. You don’t have to eat copious amounts of these foods. But you will likely discover that these foods go far to boost your energy and sense of vitality, so you’ll be less likely to turn to the sugary, fatty, and processed stuff that gives you the immediate (and fast-fleeting) “fix.”