What diet strategies around the world are best for health and longevity. Who lives the longest, disability-free lives? And is this only because of nutrition?
One of my favourite topics is food culture. There is much to gain through learning about different cuisines, food traditions, influences, and of course, what is unique about their nutrition! After all, food is integral to life, and people enjoy it in many ways around the world.
This post will explore dietary strategies from so-called Blue Zones, five regions in the world that researchers identified to have the largest amount of centenarians (people who live to be 100 years old).
The Blue Zone Project
Blue Zones are regions in the world where people live longer, disability-free lives. Five regions were identified, and include Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, USA; Ikaria, Greece; and Sardinia, Italy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, two of those cities’ hail from the Mediterranean, with similar dietary patterns to the well-researched Mediterranean diet: a dietary strategy shown to be beneficial in chronic disease prevention and treatment.
Interestingly, the USA is in the process of creating artificial Blue Zones, and Canada is as well. Nearby Airdrie was chosen for a pilot project for an artificial Blue Zone! Let’s get into the nutrition of these Blue Zone diets.
Nutrition & Diet in Blue Zones
The Blue Zones study identified what they called the “Power 9”: lifestyle factors that contribute to excellent health across the lifespan. They saw that lifestyle components such as a sense of community, purpose, and getting physical activity are integral. But when it comes to diet, it was simplified to two guiding dietary strategies:
1. Emphasis on a plant-based diet that includes beans (Ex. fava, black, soy, lentils) as the cornerstone. There is also emphasis on fish, which is a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Red meat (typically pork) is eaten on average only 5 times per month with a single serving size (3-4oz).
2. Only eating until about 80% full, based on an Okinawan saying before meals, “Hara hachi bu”, to remind them not to overeat. Also, people in the blue zones tend to eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon and not eat for the rest of the day.
Other takeaways from the Blue Zones are to include a wide variety of whole foods, particularly vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Interestingly, many of these diets are high in carbs, which goes against popular dieting strategies that are mainstream today. In fact, the traditional (pre-Western influence) Okinawan diet consisted of approximately 85% carbs, 9% protein, and 6% fat.
That being said, the majority of these carbs (58-60%) were from vegetables, which quite certainly will play a role in lower total daily calories, higher daily fibre, not to mention the abundance of vitamins and minerals!
Another commonality among Blue Zones is to choose water as the drink of choice. But we also see diversity in other types of beverages they drink. For example, Sardinians, Ikarians, and Nicoyans drink large amounts of coffee, and Okinawans drink lots of green tea. Ikarians drink a brew of rosemary, wild sage, and dandelion!
It’s hard to say if the health benefits come from the pleasure they reap from enjoying these savoury brews, or the antioxidant-rich polyphenols abundant therein. What is fascinating though, is the cultural diversity in diet that plays a role in a similar outcome – health and longevity!
That said, we should be aiming for the recommendation of 2-3L of water each day since this essential nutrient plays a role in nearly every body process.
How Can We Eat Like Centenarians?
- Include more plant-based proteins in the diet. Try a meatless Monday where you incorporate beans or other legumes. Alberta Pulse or the Blue Zone website is a great place to start for inspiring recipes.
- Increase vegetables and fruits in the diet. When going to the grocery store next, pick out a vegetable you have never tried before and develop a meal around that! Google recipes in the store so you can make sure you have all the ingredients.
- Increase variety in the diet by experimenting with global cuisines, such as those from the Blue zones
- Try a Japanese dish that involves tofu or soybeans.
- Try a Costa Rican dish that has beans and rice.
- Try a Mediterranean dish such as fish with lentils.
What better way to add variety into your diet than by exploring foods from around the world!?
What is particularly interesting, is that there was no “single diet” from a cultural point of view that led to increased longevity. Also, did you know that most Canadians do not meet their requirements for vegetables and fruit in a day? This is also related to the fact that many Canadians also do not reach their fibre requirements. Vegetables in particular are incredibly nutrient dense, and can be enjoyed in a variety of different ways.
So how to eat like people in the Blue Zones?
You could eat like an Okinawan, enjoying foods mindfully, incorporating plant-based proteins such as soy and tofu more often. Or, you can adapt the patterns of a Mediterranean diet, like the Sardinians and Ikarians, focusing on fish, legumes, fresh vegetables and occasional wine.
Our food choices are incredibly unique, based on flavour, cost, availability, and cultural influence (just to name a few). Adopting a brand-new way of eating to meet your health goals may not be overly practical considering the uniqueness of the individual.
Making small, sustainable steps towards healthier choices, such as including a meatless Monday, or, trying out a new vegetable every week and making it the centerpiece of a meal, are just a couple of small steps!
Make it fun!
Ultimately, many diets from around the world promote health and longevity. We can learn from these cultures through their dietary practices, and become inspired about food and nutrition in our own lives!
We have seen the diversity in Blue Zone diets. Also diverse, are the nutrition goals of our clients. Blue Zone diet strategies may not be the best for your goals, but it may be of interest to consider these strategies in a plan that suits your tastes, interests, and goals – Pair that with evidence-based nutrition research that highlights the benefits of inclusion of certain ingredients and strategies!
Looking for more ideas?
Book an appointment with me, a Registered Dietitian and resident Preventous foodie. I would be happy to explore some recipes and ideas around healthy eating that incorporate recipes and dietary strategies aimed at health and longevity. Do you have any questions? Call us today 403.229.0129 or email me here.