Can We Learn Anything from the Blue Zone Diets?

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The “Blue Zones” are five different regions around the world with the highest percentages of centenarians.  That is, people living to at least 100 years old.  Each eats their own distinctive diets largely influenced by the produce and wildlife that is local to their regions.

Is their longevity because of their location or is there anything at all they can teach us?

What are the Blue Zones

Five regions in the world have made the cut to be defined as a Blue Zone:

Ikaria, Greece

Okinawa, Japan

Sardinia, Italy

Loma Linda, California

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

What Does Each Diet Consist Of?

Ikaria: Ikarians diets include foods like potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes, wild greens, garden vegetables, some fruit and small amounts of fish.  Plenty of olive oil is consumed.  Ikarians also drink herbal teas, including teas made from sage and marjoram.

Okinawa: Although the diet has changed in the latter half of the 20th century due to Western influences, Okinawans still like to consume foods such as bitter melons, garlic, brown rice, tofu, shitake mushrooms, green, orange and yellow vegetables, and small amounts of fish.  Prior to Western influence changing some dietary habits, foods like seaweed, turmeric and sweet potatoes were consumed more heavily.

Sardinia: Unlike the other zones, Sardinians eat much more dairy, like goat’s milk and cheese.  Sardinians also enjoy breads like sourdough and barley.  In addition, they also enjoy foods like fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds and wine.  Vegetables are typically prepared simply with olive oil, lemon, garlic and other local spices.  Meat is consumed sparingly.

Loma Linda: The Loma Linda diet is owed in large part to its concentration of Seventh Day Adventists, who follow a strict, mostly plant-based diet with some fish and less meat.  Important to note is the shunning of added sugars (natural sugars found in fruit are okay). This is very noteworthy as the community is surrounded by such offerings.  Some favorites of this diet include salmon, nuts, avocados, oatmeal and whole wheat breads.

Nicoya Peninsula: Nicoyans enjoy a diet rich in beans, corn, squash, garlic, green vegetables, and ripe tropical fruits like papayas, mangos, pineapples, oranges  and bananas. They are also known to eat a fair amount of eggs and wild ginger.  Meat is consumed, although in smaller amounts.

What Do These Diets Have in Common?

It would be nice to be able to pick out the commonalities between these diets in order to create the perfect diet.  However, you probably noticed there are not many specific foods that cross over from list to list.  So what do they have in common that we can learn from?

I see one major commonality: whole foods that are produced locally.

One of the reasons we do not see much crossover in the actual foods themselves is the fact that these diets have not changed much over time.  The residents of these areas largely stick to the fruit of the land they live on.  Which is good for sustainability, availability and, perhaps, longevity.

Processed foods have not made much headway into these societies and it appears their residents are better off for it.

What Do We Not Learn From These Diets?

While we are able to see that a higher percentage of people in these communities live past 100, we are not able to tell if their diets and/or lifestyles are fully maximized.

Are there elements of their diets that are less that ideal? Do any of them consume too much alcohol than is ideal? Grains? Sugars? Meats? So on and so forth.

Additionally, none of this addresses the lifestyle portion of health and longevity.  What kind of physical activity goes along with these diets in order to contribute to their longevity?  In general, these populations look on the surface to be fairly active.  Many in these regions grow their own food, tend their own animals, and it is fair to assume are fairly active.

We know that a certain level of physical activity contributes to better health and longevity over a sedentary lifestyle.  Are people in these communities appropriately active? Beyond not being sedentary, are they training their bodies in a way that is ideal, or are there benefits from physical exercise being left on the table? These questions are likely best served in other articles.

Are Any of These Diets Ideal?

Unless you live there, probably not.  In my personal opinion, I believe there is a good chance that some produce grows better in certain areas than others.  A papaya, for example, may have better growth conditions in Costa Rica than it does in Manitoba, possibly producing a better fruit.

Now, Manitobans may still indulge in papayas when they want to, but it may not be as ideal as if they plucked it from a tree in Costa Rica themselves.

With that said, we may still be able to find the ideal within these diets.  Being able to find a common thread (whole foods) means we can start to look at translating the successes of these diets to our own lives.

Some of us may not have a lot of fennel and salmon in our stores, but perhaps we do have a lot of bell peppers and cod.  Maybe our community grows apples instead of papayas.  Perhaps we can create our own “Blue Zone Diets” where we live.

Conclusion about the Blue Zone Diets

I believe if we start with whole foods and shy away from processed foods, we’ve gotten ourselves on the right track, as it seems the Blue Zone regions have. 

From there, we can determine which whole foods are the best for us.

Taste buds are probably a good place to start.  Sometimes our bodies tell us what we need and if we listen we can then respond.

So, my take is to buy produce from the produce section and meats from the meats section.  If it’s in a box, save it for a special treat.  Then listen to (and watch) our bodies to see which foods and which combinations work best.

It may seem overly simple, but often times the things that are best for our health are. Most concepts and fundamentals of health and fitness are quite simple with a tendency to become over-complicated, often for profit. But just because something is simple does not mean it is easy. The combination of simplicity of persistence can take us much farther than those selling complex programs likely want to admit.

Who knows, is we adopt some of these simple concepts as those in the Blue Zones seem to have, we may start to see some of those excess pounds fall off and maybe we can blow right past 100 with the wind blowing through our hair.

Here’s to your health!

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