Content provided by the Health & Wellness Team at GBS Benefits
From the Dietitian’s Desk
With Becca Rick, MS, RD
Five distinct locations around the world share a high concentration of centenarians – those who live to be at least 100 years old despite vastly differing social customs, cultural traditions, and dietary patterns. National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging investigated the five locations, now known as blue zones, for insights. Blue zones include Loma Linda, CA, USA; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan.
Research has uncovered unique characteristics and commonalities of the lifestyles in blue zone regions. Over time, dietary patterns have shifted with the industrialization of food production and agriculture. Despite the global shift towards accessible, processed food beginning in the 1960s, many blue zone cultures have stuck with traditional agriculture or shepherding that directly influences their dietary pattern.
Blue zone inhabitants are known to live longer, have an increased quality of life, and experience lower rates of chronic disease.
Below are the main principles of blue zone dietary patterns gathered from surveys completed by centenarians. Keep in mind the dietary pattern is only one part of the lifestyle blue zone centenarians share, which also includes daily movement, community connection, life purpose, low stress, and a family-centered home.
Blue zone inhabitants consume a variety of plant foods daily. The plant-centered diet focuses on locally grown fruits, vegetables, olive oil, beans, and grains. They serve small portions of meat from the herd about once a week. Extra produce is dried, pickled, or jarred for off-season consumption. Plant foods are full of fiber, which lowers blood cholesterol levels, feeds gut bacteria to support healthy digestion and immune function, and provides a sense of fullness. Vitamins and minerals from plant foods help with cell repair, cancer prevention, and support metabolism.
Mini Doses of Meat
The average consumption of meat in blue zones is two ounces or less about five times a month. The Seventh Day Adventist blue zone group in Loma Linda does not consume meat, and research has shown their plant-based diet has helped them live longer. Okinawans substitute protein-rich tofu as a hearty meat alternative. Meat is served as a topping or side and provides protein, iron, and saturated fat.
Blue zone populations eat small servings of fish, less than 3 ounces, up to three times a week. Notably, the fish they consume are middle-of-the-food-chain species like anchovies, sardines, and cod. These inexpensive fish are lower in mercury content than fish higher up on the food chain. Fish boast high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which support a healthy inflammation reaction in the body.
Most blue zone inhabitants consume little milk from cows, instead choosing local goat’s or sheep’s milk. They usually ferment milk into yogurt, sour milk, or aged cheese. Fermented dairy provides probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that thrive in the gut and support digestive and immune health.
Eggs in Moderation
All five zones consume eggs, but only two to four times a week. Inhabitants use eggs as a side or topping, just as with meat. Eggs are a great source of protein, and cholesterol in eggs does not raise blood cholesterol.
Beans Every Day
Beans are the backbone of the blue zone diet pattern, providing protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Most inhabitants consume at least a half cup of cooked beans every day. Beans are drought tolerant and replenish soil nitrogen, making them sustainable for their environment as well.
Blue zone inhabitants consume sugar in its natural form – found in foods like fruits, vegetables, honey, and milk. Excluding honey, these natural forms of sugar also provide fiber and protein, which help regulate blood sugar. Local treats are savored and enjoyed for special occasions and social gatherings.
All zones consume various nuts, which provide heart-healthy unsaturated fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Consuming two handfuls of nuts daily can help reduce blood cholesterol.
If you started making sourdough during the pandemic, keep it going. Blue zone centenarians often use fermented sourdough starter cultures to make 100% whole grain bread. Whole grains provide fiber, protein, and minerals. Sourdough provides probiotics, as noted above, to support a happy gut.
Blue zone cultures choose whole foods harvested locally and with few additives or chemicals. For example, they consume the whole egg rather than tossing the yolk to make egg-white omelets. They consume whole fruits rather than removing the skin (taking out the fiber as a result) to make juice and use preservation methods such as canning or pickling rather than additives that extend the shelf life of processed foods.
Blue zone inhabitants drink water, tea, and coffee. Four of five drink red wine socially. There is no soda consumption, which otherwise adds a high amount of sugar to the diet. Tea, coffee, and red wine offer high levels of antioxidants, which decrease oxidative stress to help fend off disease and aging.
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