The good life, the fountain of youth. It seems people are always in search of something to help them live healthier, happier, longer lives, which is a good thing. Except how they achieve it can be unhealthy sometimes. Dan Buettner, through years of research and travel, may have hit upon the healthiest way to live longer — he’s met the centenarians to prove it. The National Geographic Fellow and New York Times Best-Selling author uncovered several groups — around the world — who know the secret, and he chronicles their lives, philosophies and diets (including recipes) in his new book Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People. Here, he discusses the concept and why it works.
In the spring of 2000, I was leading a series of educational projects called “Quests,” in which a team of scientists investigated some of Earth’s great puzzles. I had heard about Okinawa’s unusual longevity a few years earlier and thought it would be a great quest to investigate what their secrets to good health and long life were. We spent 10 days studying, exploring and summing up what we found. Five years later, I returned to Okinawa with a new team. I’d just written a cover story for National Geographic about the “Secrets of Long Life,” which profiled three areas of the world with concentrations of some of the world’s longest-lived people — areas we dubbed “Blue Zones.” I was determined to delve deeper into the lifestyle of Okinawa. During these explorations we were always thinking, how can we bring these teachings back to our communities? This is how the Blue Zones Project was born. We decided that we could take the nine common denominators that we found in all the Blue Zones and implement them in communities across the United States. Our goal was to make small adjustments to make the healthy choice the easy choice for people in their communities.
You’ve spoken to so many centenarians from all over the world. Is there a common thread amongst what they’ve said to how they have lived their lives?
There is not one key to longevity. The formula is to create a lifestyle and environment that makes the healthy choice the easy choice.
What are the nine principles — or Power 9 — that are the common denominators you found in the Blue Zones?
1. Move Naturally: The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron or run marathons. Their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it.
2. Purpose: Why do you wake up in the morning? Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift: Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed that stress.
4. 80% Rule: Hara hachi bu — the Okinawans say this mantra before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.
5. Plant Slant: The cornerstone of most centenarian diets? Beans. They typically eat meat — mostly pork — only five times per month.
6. Wine @ 5: Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends.
7. Belong: Attending faith-based services four times per month — no matter the denomination — adds up to 14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones: First Centenarians put their families first. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children.
9. Right Tribe: They world’s longest lived people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviors.
Sounds like this is based on good old-fashioned common sense and balance. Not a trend, a drastic change, a deprivation…
Alas, it’s uncommon sense for most Americans. We tend to think of diet and exercise as the path to health. The Blue Zones Solution offers food guidelines, but then a way for readers to set up their lives so that better health and longevity comes naturally. We need to curate environments that make the healthy choice the easy choice so that longevity ensues naturally. To your second point, you’re right. It’s not about deprivation at all.
Bread, alcohol, meat. These have become bad words in today’s race to become healthier and thinner. Do they fit into the Blue Zones?
In all Blue Zones except Loma Linda we found that they consume wine, mostly red, moderately. Sardinians drink Cannonau wine, which has two or three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids as other wines. Moderate wine-consumption may help explain the lower levels of stress among men. People in Blue Zone areas do eat meat but maybe five servings per week. And in the book, I give a recipe for bread that will actually make your meal healthier.
Are there such things as super foods?
Nuts and beans are the cornerstone of every Blue Zone. You should eat a handful of nuts and a cup of beans every day. Best supplement you could ever take.
So many theories, diets and practices say they are “easy.” But how easy is the Blue Zone? What is the first step?
The first step is to set up your environment for health. Most people do all of their daily activity within 20 miles of their home. If they are able to walk or bike to run errands and get to work that’s a good start. Surround yourself with other like-minded healthy friends. Making simple small changes add up quickly.
Is it possible/realistic for a country like the U.S. that is so fast-paced, where work hours are so long, to make a change like this?
Absolutely. One of the five Blue Zones is located in Loma Linda, California. It is a community of Seventh-Day Adventists who base their daily lives around exercise, healthy eating and connecting with their community. Even if you are not a practicing Seventh-Day Adventist we are still seeing very positive results in our Blue Zones Project Areas. We have gone into many communities throughout the United States and are continuing to expand. We have worked with policy makers and government to help create an environment that nurtures a healthy lifestyle. This approach takes the pressure off of the individuals to make large changes and puts it on the community as a whole to make small changes. We have seen great milestones such as the smoking rate of the Beach Cities of California dropping 30% and obesity rates dropping 14% in a short time.
Best piece of advice you’ve received from a centenarian…
Take care of your teeth.
How has this work personally changed how you live?
I used to be a long-distance cyclist and now I do yoga. I believe in enjoyable, low intensity physical activity so I’ll do it every day. Also, I’m now mostly vegan but I do eat a little fish.