This ancient diet can help you live well into your 90s

Photo: JD Mason

According to the journal of Experimental Gerontology, Sardinia, a mountainous lush Italian island located in the heart of the Mediterranean sea, houses the highest concentration of male centenarians in the entire world.

Journalist and explorer, Dan Buettner, was so compelled by the healthy elderly citizens of the areas encompassing the Blue Zones he devoted several publications to detailing the daily mechanisms that appear to curb their mortality; enter the Blue Zone Diet.

Diet central

This isn’t the first diet to come out of this area of the world as, to their credit, the peoples of Greece certainly live a long time, but not quite as long as the Dorian Greens of Sardinia.

Studying the lifestyle and dietary habits observed by regions that evidence extreme longevity isn’t a novel approach to nutrition science by any means. In fact, the regions neighboring Sardinia have already provided us with one of the first foreign diets to successfully penetrate Western notice. Among many enticing benefits, the Mediterranean diet has been documented to reduce one’s risk of dying at any age by as much as 20%.

“A true Mediterranean diet is based on the region’s traditional fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, olive oil, and dairy—with perhaps a glass or two of red wine. That’s how the inhabitants of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy ate circa 1960, when their rates of chronic disease were among the lowest in the world and their life expectancy among the highest, despite having only limited medical services,” the paper’s authors’ Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, report. 

Where trends meet tradition

There couldn’t have been a more opportune time for the Blue Zone Diet to make an impact than 2020. As noted by several dietitians and nutritionists earlier this year, plant-based diets are currently experiencing a surge in popularity among younger generations.

The countries of the Blue Zone enjoy a diet that is 95% to 100% plant-based, particularly leafy greens like spinach, kale, beets, turnip tops, chard, and collards. When these veggies aren’t in season, they can be dried and applied to the other mainstay elements that comprise the national regimen. Beans and whole grains can be enjoyed all year round and are important sources of the kinds of proteins and fibers designed to balance the additions supplied by seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Not unlike the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a component of most meals in the blue zones, which in and of itself is a quantifiable superfood. Just this week it was revealed that habitual olive oil consumption prevents toxic protein buildups correlated to several forms of dementia. Another independent report revealed that six tablespoons of olive oil a day can cut one’s risk of dying of any cause by 50%.

The blues and don’ts

Although the absence of meat likely staffs many of the longevity assets associated with the blue zone diet, adherence leaves room for healthy lean meats on occasion.

“Averaging out consumption in Blue Zones, we found that people ate about two ounces or less about five times per month. And we don’t know if they lived longer despite eating meat. The Adventist Health Study 2, which has been following 96,000 Americans since 2002, has found that the people who lived the longest were vegans or pesco-vegetarians, who ate a plant-based diet that included a small amount of fish,” BlueZones.com reports.

Remember, there isn’t an official rubric because what we know about the diet has mostly been procured via observation. There are however broad strokes that seem to be consistent among the denizens of the blue zones. On balance, I reckon the two ounces of meat at a maximum of five times a month rule of thumb should do the trick. As previously covered by Ladders, the flexitarian diet adopts a similar principle only the followers shoot for an exact meat threshold of which to adhere to at their own discretion. This threshold (in both contexts) refers to chicken, beef, and pork but even fish is a relatively scarce dinner companion in the blue zones.

By reason of a triad of sociodemographic factors, namely health, environment, and economics, blue zoners limit their fish consumption to about three ounces, less than three times a week. Milk, sugar, and eggs are beholden to similar constrictions, though rules regarding these are a little more vague, with the median leaning more toward complete abstinence.

Conversely, the Blue Zone Diet calls for a daily portion of beans, the superfood packed with protein and complex carbohydrates. Aim for about half a cup a day if you can manage it. Similarly, nuts which have been documented to extend the average lifespan by two to three years, account for a large portion of the day to day diet. Denizens of most of the Blue Zone areas eat roughly two handfuls of nuts a day. Bluezone.com adds,

“The optimal mix of nuts: almonds (high in vitamin E and magnesium), peanuts (high in protein and folate, a B vitamin), Brazil nuts (high in selenium, a mineral found effective in protecting against prostate cancer), cashews (high in magnesium), and walnuts (high in alpha-linolenic acid, the only omega-3 fat found in a plant-based food). Walnuts, peanuts, and almonds are the nuts most likely to lower your cholesterol.”

As far as carbs are concerned, particularly as it regards bread, the diet permits only sourdough or 100% whole wheat.

Thankfully, the list of beverages that contribute to the Blue Zone regimen is impressively robust. Water is a given, but you might be elated to learn that Blue Zone followers love coffee, which Ladders has already reported on its impacts on reducing aging biomarkers, protecting DNA integrity and preventing both the development of Parkinson’s and dementia. If you enjoy a daily dose of caffeine but don’t love java, consider green tea as it offers many of the same benefits including a healthy gut community.

At the end of each day, the diet even permits a glass of red wine. Red Wine reduces one’s risk for developing colon cancer, vision loss later in life, and type 2 diabetes.

As is the case with any diet, the content itself can only help so much. Everything from a sense of purpose to stress, to a strong community, are all predictors of the notches left on our biological clocks. In other words, for any diet to be of any utility, it’s advisable for subscribers to supply a comparably healthy outlook to boot.

“In these Blue Zones areas, people don’t live a long time because they’ve consciously tried to shift their behaviors,” explained one of the diet’s founders, Dave  Buettner. “They lived a long time because they lived in the right environment, an environment that nudges them into doing the right thing for most of their lives, and nudges them away from the wrong thing. Most of what we know about what makes us live longer is wrong. Exercise, diets, aging serums, supplements — they make somebody a lot of money, and they’re marketed a lot. They might work in the short term, but they fail almost all the time for all the people in the long run.”