The Blue Zones Diet – What It Is, Benefits, Drawbacks, Research

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WHEN YOU COMBINE a whole-food, plant-based diet with daily activity, stress reduction, and community involvement, does the outcome equal a longer, healthier life?

Blue Zones experts seem to believe that, yes, yes it that does.

The Blue Zones lifestyle has been around for a while, but Netflix gave it a boost last year after release a docu-series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. And the dietary portion of the Blue Zones lifestyle even has it’s own meal planning service and line of frozen meals.

Unlike fad diets such as Whole30 and keto, the Blue Zones diet encompasses a lot of what dietitians have been recommending for decades.

Let’s take a look at what a Blue Zones diet entails, and if it’s right for everyone.

What are Blue Zones?

Blue Zones are regions all over the world where the lifespan—and heal thspan—of residents is longer than average. According to research, people in Blue Zones reach the age of 100 at 10 times greater rates than in the United States.

The actual term “Blue Zones” comes from the work of scientists Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, who drew blue circles on a map around locations with outstanding longevity. They began referring to these areas as “Blue Zones.”

There are currently five Blue Zones

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Loma Linda, California

Blue Zones are often touted as models of healthy living, with their commonalities around diet, lifestyle, stress levels, and community involvement. These factors, among others, are thought by some experts to be the reasons why people who live in Blue Zones are some of the healthiest and longest-living in the world.

And The Blue Zones Project argus that a part of the world can become a Blue Zone. The project has already helped to create Blue Zones communities in some American locations: Beach Cities, California; Albert Lea, Minnesota; Spencer, Iowa; and Fort Worth, Texas among others. The effects have been real: Many of these areas have reported healthcare savings after the implementation of the program.

What is lifespan vs health span?

Lifespan is how long we live. Health span is the duration of a person’s life during which they are in good health. In many cases, health span is shorter than lifespan.

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In addition to a longer lifespan, people who live in Blue Zones reportedly a longer health span, living happier, healthier lives for far longer than the average person around the world. This is difficult to quantify objectively, however.

What is the Blue Zones diet?

The Blue Zones diet is made up of 95 to 100 percent plants and mostly whole, minimally processed foods, including 4 ounces of nuts and 1/2 to 1 cup of beans daily. The food you eat is ideally locally-grown, with very limited animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. The diet is also low in added sugar. Wine is allowed in moderation, as are coffee and tea.

The main pillars of the Blue Zones do seem to align with current research around diet and lifestyle: that plant-forward, high-fiber diets are associated with lower risk for disease, lower stress levels may improve cardiovascular risk, and a focus on community can improve at least self-rated health levels.

The benefits of the Blue Zones diet

Consuming a diet that’s high in plants, including beans and pulses (these come with bonus points for sustainability), soy products such as tofu, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, is associated with better health outcomes.

It’s important to remember that eating whole foods doesn’t have to be expensive—canned foods such as beans and lentils, fruit, and vegetables, as well as frozen whole foods definitely count towards your plant intake.

Cutting down on your intake of ultra-processed foods, even by a small amount, and drinking alcohol moderately, can benefit health.

The drawbacks of the Blue Zones diet

For people on limited incomes, affording a wide variety of fresh food can be difficult.

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Growing your own food and eating local produce can be impossible due to time, space, and weather constraints.

For many people, eating a diet that’s 95 percent plants is challenging, especially if they are starting from a place where they eat very few plant foods. Starting slow is an option, as well as understanding that just simply increasing plants in the diet is also a positive change.

And also know that longevity can’t be attributed entirely to diet and lifestyle. Up to 40 percent may be due to genetics, although some studies have hypothesized that this number is much, much lower.

It’s easy to oversimplify the effects that anything, including diet and lifestyle, have on our lives. For example, the Blue Zones website claims that research shows attending faith-based services four times a month can add up to an additional four to fourteen years of lifespan. Being married can allegedly add up to three years, and people who consume a quarter pound of fruit daily (equivalent to an apple) are 60 percent less likely to die during the next four years than those who don’t.

Although these claims are based on research, there are questions around methodology and other limitations of those studies and others. Outcomes like these are almost impossible to quantify and accurately predict for each individual, and is subject to a multitude of confounders.

While some people may find the concept of Blue Zones to be controversial, there is still value in implementing some of those health behaviors that we know benefit health: reducing stress as much as possible, moving in a way that’s fun and intuitive, eating a diet that’s plant-forward and low in added sugars, and finding a sense of purpose and community.

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