For a long life and better health, try boosting your intake of foods that people living in Blue Zones have in their diet. A concept developed by National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner, Blue Zones are areas across the globe where people tend to live the longest and have remarkably low rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
With their strikingly high concentrations of individuals who live to be over 100-years-old, Blue Zones include the following regions: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; the province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy; the community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; and Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.
Although food choices vary from region to region, Blue Zone diets are primarily plant-based, with as much as 95 percent of daily food intake coming from vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. People in Blue Zones typically avoid meat and dairy, as well as sugary foods and beverages. They also steer clear of processed foods.
A wholesome diet isn’t the only factor thought to lead to longevity for those living in Blue Zones, however. Such individuals also have high levels of physical activity, low stress levels, robust social connections, and a strong sense of purpose.
Still, sticking to a vibrant, nutrient-rich eating plan appears to play a key role in the exceptional health of Blue Zone dwellers. Here’s a look at seven foods to include in your own Blue Zone-inspired diet.
From chickpeas to lentils, legumes are a vital component of all Blue Zone diets. Loaded with fiber and known for their heart-healthy effects, legumes also serve as a top source of protein, complex carbohydrates, and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Whether you prefer pinto beans or black-eyed peas, aim for at least a half-cup of legumes each day. Ideal for any meal, legumes make a great addition to salads, soups and stews, and many veggie-based recipes. “If you want to make a three-bean chili for dinner, use dry beans and soak them, cooking them with your own spices and fresh veggies,” recommends registered dietician Maya Feller, owner of Maya Feller Nutrition.
Dark Leafy Greens
While vegetables of all kinds abound in each Blue Zone diet, dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are especially prized. One of the most nutrient-dense types of veggies, dark leafy greens contain several vitamins with powerful antioxidant properties, including vitamin A and vitamin C.
When shopping for any kind of veggie, remember that people in Blue Zones generally consume locally grown, organically farmed vegetables.
Like legumes, nuts are packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals. They also supply heart-healthy unsaturated fats, with some research suggesting that including nuts in your diet may help reduce your cholesterol levels (and, in turn, stave off cardiovascular disease).
“Nuts are a high-fiber food,” says Feller. “Almonds, for instance, provide about 3.5 grams of fiber in a one-ounce serving.” For healthier snacking, borrow a habit from Blue Zone residents and try a handful of almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, or Brazil nuts.
A staple of Blue Zone diets, olive oil offers a wealth of health-enhancing fatty acids, antioxidants, and compounds such as oleuropein (a chemical found to curb inflammation).
Many studies have shown that olive oil may improve heart health in a number of ways, such as by keeping cholesterol and blood pressure in check. What’s more, emerging research indicates that olive oil could help protect against conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.
Select the extra-virgin variety of olive oil as often as possible, and use your oil for cooking and in salads and vegetable dishes. Olive oil is sensitive to light and heat, so be sure to store it in a cool, dark area like a kitchen cabinet.
When it comes to whole grains, those in Blue Zones often choose oats. One of the least processed forms of oats, steel-cut oats make for a high-fiber and incredibly filling breakfast option.
Although they’re perhaps best-known for their cholesterol-lowering power, oats may also provide plenty of other health benefits. For instance, recent research has determined that oats may thwart weight gain, fight diabetes, and prevent hardening of the arteries.
“Oats are known for their fiber content, but they also provide plant-based protein,” says Feller. “Oatmeal made with 1/4 cup of steel cut oats provides 7 grams of protein.”
Fresh fruit is the go-to sweet treat for many people living in Blue Zones. While most any type of fruit can make for a healthy dessert or snack, foods such as blueberries may offer bonus benefits. For example, recent studies have demonstrated that blueberries may help shield your brain health as you age, and fend off heart disease by improving blood pressure control.
For other Blue Zone-friendly but sweet-tooth-satisfying eats, look to such fruits as papayas, pineapples, bananas, and strawberries.
Another whole grain favored in Blue Zones, barley may possess cholesterol-lowering properties similar to those of oats, according to a study recently published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Barley also delivers essential amino acids, as well as compounds that may help stimulate digestion.
To get your fill of barley, try adding this whole grain to soups or consuming it as a hot cereal.