Since you’re here reading these words today, you’re aware that the quest for health — and a longer, healthier life — is among the short-list of things most humans seek in life (which typically also comprises our desire for love and financial security).
Our obsession with finding the best pathways to live longer, get sick less, and have more energy and a better mood has led researchers to scour the ends of the earth for the secrets of vitality. From 100-year-old studies on joy’s impact on lifespan to longevity research on 100-year-olds, we all seek that magic formula to help us spend as much time — healthily and happily — on this planet as possible.
One such formula is found in five regions across the globe: Blue Zones.
Admittedly, I first learned about Blue Zones when Chanel created a “Blue Zone serum” skincare product (it’s fine, you can judge me) — I immediately launched into my rabbit hole of research, discovering as much as I could about what Blue Zones were, where they were, and what makes them so special. And for the past week, I’ve begun integrating what I’ve learned into my own lifestyle, with an emphasis on the Blue Zone Diet.
What is a Blue Zone?
The term Blue Zone was introduced to the world by researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain by way of an academic paper in 2004, after they had begun using the term (and working toward that published research) in March 2000. Studying longevity in international regions (sometimes called “centenarian hot spots” in subsequent research), Pes and Poulain circled areas on the map in blue ink.
These are five regions across the globe in which people live longer and healthier — their chance of living to 100 years old is ten times higher than the US average. Additional research on the specific regions shows that not only is their life expectancy longer, but they have a lower risk of diseases and better mental health as they age.
So where are they? Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California, USA. And of these five (very different) regions and populations, there are five core habits, centered on diet, exercise, and overall wellbeing (we’ll get to those).
You may have noticed the outlier on this list is a California city — it’s actually because Loma Linda comprises a large population of Seventh Day Adventists, a sect of Christianity that adheres to eight ‘laws of health’. Health is central to their faith, and those laws happen to coincide with cultural practices of the other four Blue Zones:
- Eat nutritiously (many choose a plant-based diet).
- Exercise regularly and often to improve your body, mind, and spirit.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Spend time in sunlight.
- Practice temperance: Use good things moderately; avoid bad things.
- Breathe in pure air, and do it properly.
- Rest well, remembering that the best rest follows labor.
- Trust in divine power as you make choices and seek inner peace.
Blue Zone Diet Habits
So now for the five core habits of the five regions! Here’s the general overview of what these healthy practices are:
Eat Plants: These people eat a mostly plant-based diet.
Move Your Body: They exercise regularly — mostly walking, a little pilates, and some strength. Regular, low-intensity exercise (nothing crazy!) seems to be the universal trait.
Limit Booze: Some groups drink moderate amounts of alcohol.
Sleep and Rest: There’s an emphasis on getting enough sleep — seven and a half hours per night or more! Rest is essential.
Connect Socially: All the Blue Zone cultures have good spiritual, family, and social networks — they do something socially nourishing every day.
The Blue Zone Principles I Adopted For 1 Week
I decided I’d adopt all five and get a bit more granular when it came to diet and exercise.
When it comes to the food (a main emphasis of my week), each region has its own cultural cuisine, with different emphasis on different particular foods, but one main thing is the same: it’s primarily plant-based. Not vegan, not even vegetarian, just mostly plant-based with a small amount of fish, and sometimes meat.
I typically have no dietary restrictions, but I spent a year of the pandemic on a pescetarian diet, so this was familiar territory to me. I decided to mostly adhere to my everyday diet with less meat while incorporating foods from each region.
Here’s a review of what I went for:
Blue Zone Dietary Habits I Tried For 7 Days
Plants, plants, plants: As noted, these diets are primarily plant-based, with some exceptions here and there (particularly in Sardinia and Costa Rica, as far as I can tell).
Legumes and beans: These are prioritized in all zones, so they were a priority for my diet!
Limited meat: Though meat isn’t off-limits, it certainly is minimized in these cultures. I followed suit.
Limited alcohol: The research on whether or not you should have alcohol is mixed. If you don’t drink already, stay the course — it probably won’t benefit your health to add alcohol into the mix. Though, if you enjoy alcohol now and then, that glass of wine was associated with good health in certain regions. In the words of Dr. David L. Katz, “I drink wine judiciously to avoid the hazards of excess, and for pleasure — not to reduce my health risks. Pleasure itself is important to health; if you choose to raise a glass to the limitations of population-based epidemiological studies, I suggest you toast to that.” I don’t usually drink at all during the week (and rarely on weekends unless I’m out with friends, at a restaurant, etc) so I decided to continue along with my mostly alcohol-free lifestyle. If you enjoy the occasional drink, it’s all about moderation!
High carb: This is easy when you’re eating plant-based!
Organic: Residents of Loma Linda tend to eat organic most of the time. I ensured my produce was all organic this week!
Blue Zone Lifestyle Principles I Incorporated
Passeggiata: Not specifically a Sardinian practice, but an Italian one nonetheless, passeggiata is a post-meal walk. This contributes to overall movement and activity, and aids mental wellbeing, good digestion, and stress reduction. My dog was a big fan of this component of the week’s experiment!
Regular Exercise: Building upon good walking habits, it’s important to incorporate regular exercise into your routine — that’s a given! These people are generally careful not to overtrain, and partake in anything from walking to martial arts to dance. As you may have guessed, I peppered my week’s itinerary with FitOn workouts!
Social support: A tight-knit community is a cornerstone of health in these regions. Ensuring you spend some time with those you love is essential to a happy, healthy life. Whether catching up on FaceTime or over a (plant-based!) meal, getting social nourishment is key to Blue Zone living. I made extra time to see friends and family this week.
Sleep: Getting good rest is another pillar of the Blue Zone habits. It ensures that your cellular function is on point, your digestion is working smoothly, and that you’re staving off illness, recovering from workouts, and managing stress levels. I used a sleep tracker and recommended bedtime windows to make sure I was on top of my rest.
What My 7 Days of Blue Zone Eating Looked Like
Naturally, I began researching what my meals would look like by perusing the Blue Zone website, which inspired me with recipes like blueberry chia muffins and matcha custard. In general, this page is an excellent resource for learning more about this lifestyle.
From there, I also researched regional foods and delicacies to get a general idea of what a diet looked like for each of the five Blue Zones. I wanted to add a mix of Italian, Greek, Japanese, and Costa Rican food to my diet (I already live in Southern California, less than two hours from Loma Linda, so I can only assume the food is pretty similar here!).
Meal Inspiration from Various Blue Zones
I learned that across the board, legumes and beans were a staple. This was true for Costa Rica, whose national dish is Gallo Pinto, made with rice and beans. A high-carb diet was also a hallmark. Like the Costa Ricans, Okinawans in Japan also eat rice, but they’re particularly fond of sweet potatoes — from my research, this appears to be their biggest dietary staple. With the addition of tea (like matcha!) fruit, tofu, soybean-based food, and some marine foods (hello, sushi!), they get an excellent mix of nutrients with healthy fats and protein.
(After making these creamy mashed Japanese sweet potatoes, I understand why these vibrant root veggies make up 67 percent (!!) of an Okinawan’s diet!)
Looking to Mediterranean, I researched Sardinian and Ikarian foods, and as you may imagine, there were some similarities. From Sardinia, I was excited to try the region’s signature malloreddus pasta (I’m not going to NOT eat pasta) and artichoke & bean salad. And Ikarian eggplant caught my eye during my research on the Greek isle, as well as their dandelion tea and a whipped goat cheese & honey dip (I made crudités with this!). Both cultures use a lot of olive oil and emphasize fresh local produce.
This produce emphasis is also similar to the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda (as mentioned, they’re big on organic foods). There’s an emphasis on hydration, and it’s reported that they enjoy veggie burgers and big salads.
(One of my favorite rainbow salads (à la Loma Linda cuisine) with tofu inspired by Okinawa)
Ahead, a list of options I put together for myself based on my research! I tried to incorporate some regional options into every meal of the day.
These were less culturally focused, moreso plant-based, and focused on incorporating general principles.
- Blueberry lemon mochi muffins
- Chia pudding
- Smoothie bowls
- Sweet potato pancakes
- Raspberry chia jam on multigrain toast + homemade peanut butter (for the legumes, of course!)
Inspired by the different Blue Zone favorites
- Dandelion tea
- Ginger honey lemonade
Each of these was inspired by a different region
- Artichoke & bean salad from Sardinia
- Greek crudités with a whipped goat cheese dip (using olive oil, honey, and garlic)
- Veggie burgers
- Salads (including a rainbow tofu salad I love!)
- Okinawan mushroom soup
- Gallo Pinto from Costa Rica
- Rice Cakes (a vegan dish I got from Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung; not a Blue Zone, but this recipe felt BZ-approved!)
Each of these was inspired by a different region
- Sardinian malloreddus pasta
- Okinawan purple sweet potato mash and roasted vegetables
- Sushi (I went out to eat with friends and had sushi rolls and edamame!)
- Ikarian eggplant
- Fish with plantains, rice, and beans (inspired by Costa Rican dishes)
After 7 Days of Eating Like the Longest Living People in the World: Here’s My Takeaway
Obviously my single-person, non-clinical experiment pales in comparison to the bodies of research that exist on PubMed and NIH — but that’s not what my efforts were leading to. My goal here was to assess how it feels to make this shift; how did it impact my day-to-day life, how much effort did it take, do I feel able to continue, do I feel energized in general, etc.
The summary? Please, please try this at home!
This is an exceptionally easy lifestyle change with delicious food to choose from, very few limitations, and science-backed data that helps you live a longer, healthier life. The food is delicious, varied, and energizing. The habits are simple, straightforward, and enriching. It just makes you feel good! To be honest, this experiment started as merely a project for the article you’re reading today, but I will absolutely be continuing this for the foreseeable future.
My biggest takeaways? More plants, a varied diet, reducing stress, hydrating a lot, resting well, and connecting with people I love. These are things that we (self-included!) inherently know, but they can so easily end up on the back burner when we are overwhelmed, distracted, or scattered.
The Blue Zone diet and lifestyle are truly so much simpler than you might think at first glance. You can get specific as I did and research specific foods and recipes to follow more closely, or you can stick to the general idea. Either way, you’ll be making a positive change in your life.