Both those around the world and those we’re helping to shape here at home—food, diet, and eating habits are part of a much bigger picture. To understand our own habits, it first helps to step back and look at the wider cultural context that has shaped food choices and eating patterns here in the United States. First of all, you need to understand that if you’re overweight, it’s probably not your fault. We’re hardwired by evolution to crave calories—delicious rich fat, glistening roasted meats, sweet foods, and carbs. For most of human history, those calories were extraordinarily hard to get. Our bodies hoarded calories to survive. When we indulge in high-fat, high-carb, high-salt foods, we’re acting upon primeval organic impulses: to ingest as many calories as possible when they’re available.
There was a time when this behavior promoted our species’ survival, but things have changed dramatically in our food environment. Relatively recently in human history, refined starchy foods took the place of tubers and herbaceous plants in our diets. Sugar crept in. The quality and quantity of foods available changed drastically in the last few decades, with results at once triumphant and disastrous.
Some of the biggest changes came during the mid to late 20th century. Food science and government policy conspired to favor wheat, soybeans, sugar, and corn over other crops. Industrial agriculture increased productivity, even as small farms disappeared. Those few food crops predominated, and the food processing industry devised ways to use them to create cheaper food products that could be replicated in factories coast to coast and, ultimately, around the world. According to the USDA, from 1970 to 2000, the number of calories the average American consumed jumped by about 530 calories a day, a 24.5 percent increase. As food supply increased, food prices plummeted. At the beginning of the 20th century, we spent about 50 cents of every dollar earned on food; by the end of the century we were spending less than a dime of every dollar. Food companies, responding to demand, began engineering tastier processed foods, and they got very good at marketing them to us.
What makes it worse, at the same time that more food is so easily available, we’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives. There’s a button to push for yard work, another for housework, and another to mix our food. An elevator takes us up three or four floors to the office. Our grandparents burned more than fives times as many calories in the regular daily activities of work and life, without resorting to “exercise.” The number of miles the average American drives annually has nearly doubled, from 5,500 in 1970 to nearly 10,000 today.
If current trends continue, three-fourths of us will be overweight or obese and half of us will suffer from diabetes by 2030. The average American is already lugging 20 percent more weight than in 1970. Does that mean we’re bad people? That we lack the discipline of our forefathers? Do we somehow care less about our health and our children’s health than our grandparents did? No. Remember, we’ve gone from an environment of hardship and scarcity to one of abundance and ease. So if you’re fat, it’s probably not your fault. How do we overcome this?
The traditional answer has always had something to do with individual responsibility: Muster discipline and get on a diet and exercise program! The problem with that plan is that it requires long-term discipline and routine—both of which go against human nature. University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues found that each morning we wake up with only a finite amount of discipline and once we deplete it, it’s gone. We can use self-control for exercise, putting up with ornery kids, being nice to our spouse, trudging off to work, or avoiding those delicious calories. But at a certain point, the self-control bank account is empty. That’s why we’ve designed the Blue Zones Solution to become a permanent part of your lifestyle.
MAKING FOOD AND DINING SACRED
Knowing which foods to eat—and in what quantities—is the first step toward eating to 100. But there’s more that we can learn from people in the Blue Zones about the role of eating in the larger spheres of life. For them, growing, preparing, serving, and eating are all sacred practices with power to bring their families, their homes, their communities, their beliefs, and the natural world together in daily rhythms and harmonies. Centenarians in the Blue Zones follow daily rituals around food and meals. These rituals help them stay the course for the long run, and practicing them is certainly one of the keys to their longevity and sustained happiness with life.
After watching how Blue Zones principles can come to life in North American communities, I’ve settled in on six powerful food practices that create a virtuous circle between food, healthy social networks, moving naturally, strong spiritual life, and overall well-being. Here they are, along with a few thoughts on how to put them into practice in your own home.
Breakfast Like a King
There’s an old saying: “Breakfast like a king; lunch like a prince; dinner like a pauper.” In other words, make the first meal of your day the biggest, and eat only three meals per day. The routine is the same in almost all of the Blue Zones: People eat a huge breakfast before work, a medium-size late lunch, and a light, early dinner. They may occasionally grab a midmorning piece of fruit or a mid-afternoon handful of nuts, but most don’t make a habit of snacking. The average meal contains about 650 calories, so with just three meals a day, and a small snack, most people get all the calories a day they need. Adding a fourth meal, even a small one, can push your calorie consumption over the top for the day.
Most food is consumed before noon. Nicoyans often eat two breakfasts and a light dinner. Lunch tends to be the big meal for Ikarians and Sardinians. Okinawans like to skip dinner altogether. Many Adventists who follow the “breakfast-like-a-king” rule eat only two meals a day, one mid-morning and another around 4 p.m. There are a number of reasons this might help people live longer and lose weight.
Recent research supports front-loading calories early in the day. An Israeli study found that dieting women who ate half of their daily calories at breakfast, about a third at lunch, and a seventh at dinner lost an average of 19 pounds in 12 weeks. They also saw drops in triglycerides, glucose, insulin, and hormones that trigger hunger. Further, experiments with animals have confirmed that it’s better not to skip breakfast: When lab rats were not fed before sleep and then starved for four hours after they awoke, they tended to overeat when finally given food. Other studies have shown that children who eat breakfast do better in school and are less likely to be overweight.
How you can do it:
- Make breakfast your biggest meal of the day. It should include protein, complex carbohydrates, and plant-based fats.
- Schedule breakfast early or as late as noon, depending on what works for your schedule.
- Expand your definition of breakfast beyond just cereal and eggs. In Nicoya, people add beans and corn tortillas; in Okinawa, it’s miso soup; in Ikaria, it’s bread and a bowl of savory beans.
Cook at Home
Cook your meals at home, and save eating out for celebrations. In most Blue Zones eating out is considered a celebratory field trip, a rare treat usually reserved for a wedding or other festive occasion. As globalization and the American food culture has encroached on the Blue Zones, restaurants too have been popping up in them (Ogimi, Okinawa, even boasts a longevity restaurant); but for the most part, people still eat at home and are likely the healthier for it.
When you cook at home, you can control the ingredients. You can choose the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and avoid consuming the cheap fillers and flavor enhancers that end up in much restaurant food. (Even high-end restaurants typically pile on the butter and salt.) Cooking also nudges you into action, requiring you to stand, stir, mix, knead, chop, and lift. All of this physical activity counts more than you know, especially when compared to sitting down at a restaurant.
Consider 80-year-old Eleni Kohilas of Raches Christos on Ikaria. I had the pleasure of watching her make bread one afternoon and realized at the time that I might have been witnessing the true explanation for why Ikarian sourdough bread contributes to longevity. The process started the night before baking day, when Kohilas walked to her neighbor’s house to procure a marshmallow-size piece of sourdough. This exchange, of course, occasioned a half-hour conversation and a thorough download on the village gossip. After walking home, Kohilas mixed water, flour, and salt with the starter and kneaded the new dough for about a half hour—a full-body workout that engaged shoulder, arm, and core muscles. The following day Kohilas cut wood, stoked a fire in the outdoor oven, and tended the fire until it reached baking temperature. By lunchtime, she had six steaming loaves of healthy, delicious bread—and a two-hour workout under her belt. She’d burned enough calories making the bread to equal her first four pieces.
Now not everyone in North America is going to walk to a neighbor’s house or build a fire to make a loaf of bread. But even making a simple meal in your kitchen could mean shaving 100 to 300 calories off your overall eating experience. Multiply those calories by 120—the number of times the average American eats out annually—and a new light shines on our obesity problem. One study followed the eating habits and caloric intake of 1,000 people for a week and discovered that, on average, people who ate out consumed about 275 more calories per day than people who ate at home. Why? Restaurants serve meals containing more calories. This may not sound like much, but by most estimates, just 200 extra calories per day could add up to as much as a 20-pound gain over the course of a year.
Finally, if you’re cooking at home, you’re likely to eat a narrower variety of foods in a single meal. The more items you are offered, the more food you tend to consume.
How you can do it:
- Always try to eat breakfast at home.
- Pack a lunch the night before.
- Prep ingredients for your dinner in the morning. Slow cooking is a great way to use your morning resolve to plan a Blue Zones dinner.
- Designate Sunday afternoon as your time to prepare meals for the week so that you can freeze food for later.
Hara Hachi Bu
In translation: Plan before you start eating to stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. If you’re ever lucky enough to share a meal with older Okinawans, as I have, you’ll often see them murmuring these three words before they eat a meal. Hara hachi bu is a 2,500-year-old Confucian adage that reminds Okinawans to stop eating when their stomach is 80 percent full. Since it takes about 20 minutes for the feeling of fullness to travel from your stomach to your brain, this mnemonic device increases the likelihood that you will sense the growing fullness and stop eating before you are 100 percent full. Dietary expert Leslie Lytle has estimated that if the average American would follow the practice of hara hachi bu, he or she could lose 17 pounds in just the first year!
Perhaps even more important, rituals like hara hachi bu and other forms of saying grace also provides a pause in everyday living, forcing people to slow down and pay attention to their food. Ikarians, Sardinians, Costa Ricans, and Adventists all begin meals by saying a prayer. In many cases, these premeal rituals also remind people that food is special—it comes from an animal that give its life or is a gift of the land or a product of hard work. This sort of attention puts more value on food. Realizing that food is not just stuff to wolf down, but a blessing, something to be respected and praised, can change your relationship to food and the meals you share. Pausing before eating makes the meal a time to enjoy, relax, and release stress. As one Adventist preacher told me, “You’re more likely to eat quality food if you express appreciation.”
How you can do it:
- Try saying “hara hachi bu” as you begin meals or, if you are religiously inclined, say grace before meals. You can find your own way of doing this: Simply pausing for a moment of silence and saying or thinking what you feel is another way of recognizing the sacredness of your food.
- Wear a blue wristband. It may sound silly, but in doing so you will join with thousands of others in our Blue Zones cities across the continent. Throughout our projects we have distributed thousands of blue rubber bracelets to be used as a simple reminder to slow down at meals. Wear it—or your own version of it—for at least six weeks to enforce the habit. Research shows that if you can stick to a behavior for six weeks, you hit a tipping point that increases the chance it will become a permanent habit. Only things you do for a long time positively impact your life expectancy.
- Pre-plate food at the kitchen counter. People may eat up to 29 percent more when food is served family style. The trick is to serve food at the counter, put leftovers away before the meal, then serve plates on the table.
Learn the advantages of occasionally going without food. Fasting need not mean going for days without food and drink. As a matter of fact, you can experience the benefits of a small fast every 24 hours, by scheduling the time you eat during only 8 hours of the day. To do so, it’s important to consume half of your day’s calories at breakfast. It takes between 6 and 12 hours for our bodies to digest and absorb a meal. After this time, the body enters a fasting state, during which time it calls on reserves for energy—like stored fat—so establishing this schedule of eating 8 hours and fasting 16 can contribute to weight loss.
Other deliberate longer-term fasts are valuable as well. If you are religious, fasting may already be an important part of your practice. Greek Orthodox Ikarians fast up to half of the year, some days avoiding eggs and meat, other days avoiding food altogether. Devout Catholic Sardinians and Nicoyans fast during Lent, the 40 days before Easter, during which time they completely abstain from meat.
Recent scientific evidence shows that fasting, even for a day, can recalibrate insulin release, giving the pancreas a break. It can temporarily lower cholesterol and blood pressure. And fasting undeniably works as a short-term way to lose weight, break food addictions, and perhaps even cleanse the digestive tract. Most convincingly, moderate fasting for longer periods can create a form of caloric restriction and may slow aging.
Fasting puts the cells in our bodies into a survival mode, with at least two benefits. First, cells produce fewer free radicals, the oxidizing agents that “rust” our bodies from the inside out. Lower levels of free radicals strengthen arteries, brain cells, and even the skin. Second, occasional fasting seems to reduce levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone important for cell growth in youth but potentially dangerous after about age 20, as high levels may promote prostate, breast, and other cancers.
Research also suggests that occasional fasting may stave off dementia. It keeps blood vessels healthy and may also spur brain cell growth, as shown in experiments with mice conducted by Mark P. Mattson, head of neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health.
How you can do it:
- If you belong to a faith, join other members of your faith during annual or weekly fasts. Religious fasts may be easier to adhere to than personal, solo fasts, since they are often reinforced by a social network and moral underpinnings.
- Find a “fast buddy.” It’s easier to fast with a friend.
- Limit food intake to 500 calories every other day to establish a regular fasting program and safely lose weight. With this and any other fasting program, drink six glasses of water daily.
- Try eating only two meals a day: a big late-morning brunch and a second meal at around 5 p.m.
IMPORTANT: Consult your doctor before fasting. Avoid starvation diets for more than a day at a time.
Eat With Friends and Family
Elevating the act of eating to a social event may help you enjoy and digest your food better by making your meals a time of sharing and being together with friends and family. I’ve eaten countless meals with people in the Blue Zones, and they were often three-hour affairs with a succession of many small plates punctuated by toasts, stories, jokes, and conversation. Mealtimes are celebrations, a time to give thanks, share stories, talk out problems, and bond as a family. Eating as a family forces you to slow down, making it less likely that you will overeat.
As a rule, people in the Blue Zones never eat alone, never eat standing up, and never eat with the other hand on the steering wheel. As my Ikarian guide Thea Parikos pointed out, when her family sits down to a meal, she leaves the stress hormones of the day elsewhere. Ikarians, she said, eat slowly while holding conversations with family, a ritual good for building not only stronger family ties but also healthier bodies.
How you eat can be as important as what you eat. If you eat on your feet and on the run, or driving in the car, stress hormones can interfere with your digestion and degrade food metabolism. Eating fast promotes overeating and, studies show, can double your risk of obesity. A 2011 study from the University of Illinois found that children and adolescents who share family meals three or more times per week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer family meals together. Other benefits include a reduction in likelihood of being overweight (12 percent), eating unhealthy foods (20 percent), and an increase in the likelihood of eating healthy foods (24 percent). Adolescents who eat dinner with their family are 15 percent less likely to become obese. Additionally, a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse points out that teens who eat dinner with their family more than three times a week are less likely to do poorly in school. Make sure you have a comfortable kitchen table, ideally a round one, that is small enough to encourage family conversation.
How you can do it:
- Never eat standing up.
- Never eat while driving.
- When you eat alone, just eat. Avoid reading, watching TV, or perusing your phone or computer—all of which lead to faster, mindless eating.
- Establish a time and a family rule that everyone eats dinner together.
Celebrate and Enjoy Food
None of these rituals—nothing in the Blue Zones Solution—should feel like a restriction, a limitation, or deprivation. Don’t deprive yourself. Go ahead and enjoy the good meals and the occasional indulgent celebration. We eat about 1,100 meals a year. If we celebrate a couple of times a week and enjoy what we love to eat, that still leaves almost 1,000 meals a year to eat the Blue Zones way.
“What dieters forget is that eating is one of the greatest pleasures of living,” said Antonia Trichopoulou, arguably the greatest living expert on the Mediterranean diet. “Why would you want to miss any of this?” she asked, gesturing to the food on the table before us.
If they make you happy, you shouldn’t give up that slice of pie at Thanksgiving, or that piece of birthday cake, or even that weekly steak. It may not be optimally healthy for you, but as residents of the Blue Zones have shown us, the body has some capacity to equalize after an occasional indulgence. The trick is painlessly finding that happy balance between savoring our lives and behaving in a way that saves them for the longest possible time. In our world, those two forces are at odds, but in the Blue Zones, those two forces harmonize.
How you can do it:
- Pick one day of the week and make it your celebratory day to splurge on a meal with your favorite foods. It could be Sunday after church or Saturday Sabbath, Monday to offset the beginning of the workweek, or Friday to celebrate another week well lived.
- Feel free to indulge at family celebrations and holidays. Find the individual balance that works for you.
Some of these Blue Zones food rituals will feel familiar to North Americans today. Eating one, two, and even three meals together as a family is part of our cultural tradition—but not necessarily part of our everyday lives anymore. On the other hand, some may seem new, even difficult. “Eighty percent full” in a culture of all-you-can-eat may mean a serious change in expectations. But after spending years watching these same food rituals mean so much to the centenarians I have met in every Blue Zone, I am sure they will benefit us too.
As will new lessons on just what to cook in the kitchen and serve at the table—which is what I’ll be sharing in the rest of this chapter.
FOOD CHOICES FOR LONGEVITY
None of the Blue Zones centenarians I’ve ever met tried to live to 100. No one said at age 50, “You know what, I’m going to get on that longevity diet and live another 50 years!” They don’t count calories, take vitamins, weigh protein grams, or even read labels. They don’t restrict their food intake—in fact, they all celebrate with food. As we have applied the wisdom of the world’s Blue Zones to transform cities in the United States, I’ve begun to believe that we can create the same sort of culture here.
It starts with food choices. Most of the Blue Zones residents I’ve come to know have easy access to locally sourced fruits and vegetables—largely pesticide free and organically raised. If not growing these food items in their own gardens, they have found places where they can purchase them, and more affordably than processed alternatives. They have incorporated certain nutritious foods into their daily or weekly meals—foods that often are not even found on the shelves of convenience stores or on the menus of fast-food restaurants across the country. They have inherited time-honored recipes or developed recipes on their own to make healthful foods taste good—a hugely important part of the picture, because if you don’t like what you’re eating, you’re not going to eat it for very long.
The findings here represent a long-term, statistical, and science-based study. We needed information that was not just anecdotal or based on interviews, visits in the kitchen, or shared meals with individual centenarians. We analyzed more than 150 dietary studies conducted in Blue Zones over the past century, and then we distilled those studies to arrive at a global average of what centenarians really ate. Here we provide some guidelines you can follow to eat like they do and live to 100.