For more than a decade, I’ve been working with a team of experts to study hot spots of longevity—regions we call Blue Zones, where many people live to 100 and beyond. They are the Greek island of Ikaria; the highlands of Sardinia; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, Calif., home of the highest concentration of Seventh-day Adventists in the U.S. Remarkably, we’ve learned that folks in all these places share similar rituals and practices surrounding food. (Hint: They don’t count calories, take vitamins or weigh protein grams!) After analyzing more than 150 dietary studies conducted in Blue Zones over the past century, we came up with a global average of what centenarians really eat. Here are 15 age-old diet tips to borrow from the longest-living people on the planet.
Get 95% of your food from plants
Produce, whole grains and beans dominate meals all year long in each of the Blue Zones. People eat an impressive variety of vegetables when they are in season, and then pickle or dry the surplus. The best of the best longevity foods are leafy greens. In Ikaria, more than 75 varieties grow like weeds. Studies found that middle-aged people who consumed the equivalent of a cup of cooked greens daily were half as likely to die in the next four years as those who ate no greens.
Consume meat no more than twice a week
Families in most of the Blue Zones enjoy meat sparingly, as a side or a way to flavor other dishes. Aim to limit your intake to 2 ounces or less of cooked meat (an amount smaller than a deck of cards) five times a month. And favor chicken, lamb or pork from family farms. The meat in the Blue Zones comes from animals that graze or forage freely, which likely leads to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Eat up to 3 ounces of fish daily
The Adventist Health Study 2, which has been following 96,000 Americans since 2002, discovered that people who ate a plant-based diet and included a small portion of fish up to once a day were the ones who lived the longest. In the Blue Zones overseas, fish is a common part of everyday meals. For the most part, the best fish choices are middle-of-the-food-chain species such as sardines, anchovies and cod, which aren’t exposed to high levels of mercury or other chemicals.
Cut back on dairy
The human digestive system isn’t optimized for cow’s milk, which happens to be high in fat and sugar. People in the Blue Zones get their calcium from plants. (A cup of cooked kale, for instance, gives you as much calcium as a cup of milk.) However, goat’s- and sheep’s-milk products like yogurt and cheese are common in the traditional diets of Ikaria and Sardinia. We don’t know if it’s the milk that makes folks healthier or the fact that they climb the same hilly terrain as their goats.
Enjoy up to three eggs per week
In the Blue Zones, people tend to eat just one egg at a time: For example, Nicoyans fry an egg to fold into a corn tortilla and Okinawans boil an egg in soup. Try filling out a one-egg breakfast with fruit or other plant-based foods such as whole-grain porridge or bread. When baking, use 1/4 cup of applesauce, 1/4 cup of mashed potatoes or a small banana to sub in for one egg.
Add a half cup of cooked beans every day
Black beans in Nicoya, soybeans in Okinawa, lentils, garbanzo and white beans in the Mediterranean: Beans are the cornerstone of Blue Zones diets. On average, beans are made up of 21 percent protein, 77 percent complex carbohydrates and only a little fat. They’re also an excellent source of fiber and are packed with more nutrients per gram than any other food on earth. The Blue Zones dietary average—at least 1/2 cup per day—provides most of the vitamins and minerals that you need.
Switch to sourdough or whole-wheat
In three of the five Blue Zones, bread is a staple. But it’s an altogether different food from the loaves most of us buy. Breads in Ikaria and Sardinia, for example, are made from a variety of 100 percent whole grains, including wheat, rye and barley—each of which offers a wide spectrum of nutrients and high levels of fiber. Other traditional Blue Zones breads are made with bacteria that “digest” the starches and glutens while helping the bread rise. This process creates an acid that lends the sour flavor to sourdough. The result is bread that actually lowers the glycemic load of meals. (It also has less gluten than “gluten-free” breads.) To find true sourdough, visit a bakery and ask about their starter. If they can’t give you an answer, they’re probably not making their sourdough in the traditional way.