Achieving a Blue Zones lifestyle

Have you ever heard of Blue Zones? I know diets work great for some people, but I didn’t want to pursue a short-term plan only to yield short-term results. When I heard about the Blue Zones a few years ago, I was interested because it isn’t a diet, but an analysis of lifestyles and habits that yield unusually high amounts of centenarians. People in those areas eat healthily, stay active, and enjoy community (oh, and enjoy wine!) What’s not to love?!

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A berry container holds harvested cherry tomatoes and oregano, with sage nearby
Blue Zone centenarians use a lot of vegetables, fruits, legumes, spices and herbs in their diets. It’s easy to grow your own food in a container garden, even if you live in an apartment. You can even grow blueberries in a pot! This was a small harvest of cherry tomatoes, oregano and sage from my porch garden.

What are Blue Zones?

Dan Buettner is an author who, with National Geographic, discovered five “Blue Zones,” or places that people tend to live longer and healthier lives compared to the rest of the planet: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.

Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain began the work and coined the term “Blue Zone,” and Buettner went on to identify similar regions.

Buettner and the researchers made a list called the Power 9 (nope, it has nothing to do with The Gathering!), which are the nine characteristics that groups of centenarians in the five areas above have in common. While the average American citizen can expect to live to 78.2, many in the five Blue Zones will likely live to be at least 100 or greater.

The Power 9

The nine shared characteristics of centenarians that Buettner and the team identified are:

  • Move naturally— Most centenarians they studied aren’t watching the clock to finish their exercise routine before heading back to the couch. They’re moving throughout the day, doing chores, walking and otherwise making activity an essential part of their lifestyle.
  • Purpose— Most of these people have a definite reason to live.
  • Less stress— While stress is practically unavoidable, there are ways to deal with it. “Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour,” according to BlueZones.
  • 80% rule— Most people in the Blue Zones only eat until they feel about 80% full.
  • Eat more plants!— Not everyone in the Blue Zones are vegetarians, but as a rule most eat lots and LOTS of plants. It’s the main part of their diet.
  • Drink wine— Centenarians in these Blue Zones aren’t alcoholics, but they don’ shun alcohol altogether, either. Like the rest of the lifestyle, they embrace a moderate approach, drinking one or two glasses a day.
  • Faith— Most of the centenarians observed have a strong sense of faith and a community within that faith, such as attending a church.
  • Family— The groups observed in the Blue Zones put family first, taking care of children, partners and parents.
  • Community— The centenarians studied have a close set of friends and family that they belong to, creating a deep sense of community (which can go back to faith, family and purpose).

Incorporating Blue Zone principles

I’ve always eaten a low-meat diet and as I got older, I ate fewer animal products. I still eat some (cheese, ice cream, etc.) but not nearly as many as I used to, and I stopped eating meat several years ago. It feels wonderful, both physically and mentally. If it weren’t for my husband, I’d probably be almost wholly vegan. As it is, he still occasionally eats meat and we keep some animal products in the house, but we eat a very Mediterranean-style diet.

Zoodles, tomatoes, chickpeas and herbs
My husband recently made this awesome dinner of zoodles (zucchini noodles) with chickpeas, a can of fire-roasted tomatoes, olive oil and herbs.

Blue Zone centenarians aren’t always vegetarians, but they don’t eat much meat, if they have any. According to the Blue Zones dietary guidelines, their diets are 90% to 95% “vegetables, grains, greens and beans.”

If you’re interested in specific Blue Zones recipes, you can get those here. They have some for sides, main courses and desserts. But you don’t have to follow a specific recipe to eat like a centenarian– you can create healthy, plant-based recipes yourself. The trick is to include vegetables, fruits and healthy whole grains and legumes while omitting or reducing sugar, processed foods and other, less healthy options.

I’ve used some of the recipes with great success. Even my meat-loving husband loves their vegetarian recipes. But we also just throw things together or use recipes from non-Blue Zones sites.

The thing I love about Blue Zones is that it’s a lifestyle, not a diet. I don’t have to count points, or cringe at the scale, or exercise with a stopwatch. I do what I naturally do, and then try to refine it. Hiking is one of my favorite hobbies, so I try to shake up the trails I take to make it more interesting. Biking is also fun. Using a baby bike trailer with my Schwinn lets me introduce biking to my toddler and get my exercise in without finding a babysitter. Gardening is one of my favorite hobbies, so doing that lets me grow fresh food and flowers, fresh air and move around. Growing fresh fruits and veggies helps me cook healthy, plant-based meals.

It also saves money! Good-quality meat is pretty expensive, and you can get good-quality proteins from a plant-based diet with things like peas or beans. If your area is safe enough for it, you may even be able to use your bike to ride to the farmer’s market to pick up your ingredients. You can use a bike trailer for your child or to haul your veggies home in.

Becoming a centenarian

Of course, the Blue Zones guidelines are just that: guidelines. They’re helpful suggestions, not an absolute rulebook.

When I learned about Blue Zones, I realized that I was already living a very similar lifestyle– I hike, bike swim, canoe, garden, am vegetarian, etc. But I’m not in my peak physical shape, each too much ice cream and I KNOW I need to de-stress. In short, I have a ways to go (not to mention more decades to live) before I can declare my home a Blue Zone! 😉

There’s no guarantee that following these principles will make you a centenarian, but the research is promising. Even if your life ended after 80 or 90 years, wouldn’t it be great to make them an awesome, healthy 80 or 90 years? My goal is to make my life– whether or not it goes into triple digits– happy, healthy and meaningful. If I join the centenarian club, that will be great, too!

The Blue Zones website has a lot of articles, recipes and information on their research and recommendations available. Like I said, we don’t follow it to a T, but we do live very similarly. I know I personally feel better when I’m active, purpose-driven, increasing in my relationships and faith and eating a plant-based diet.

Have you heard of Blue Zones before? What areas would you need to work on most to make your lifestyle similar to that of an average Blue Zones centenarian?

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