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The Blue Zone Diet: What to Eat to Live Longer

Nicole Golden
Nicole Golden
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In 2009, my family captured a five-generation photo: five children (ages 5, 2, 2, 2, and 2), myself (age 26), my mother (age 55), my grandfather (age 79), and my great-grandmother (age 107). Although my great-grandmother passed away at almost 108 years old, my grandfather, her son, is now 93 and maintains an active lifestyle, walking several miles a day and hitting the gym weekly. Did I inherit good genes, or did lifestyle choices contribute to my ancestors' longevity? What dietary practices did Great-Grandma Madeline and Grandpa Joe follow that I can adopt?

In this blog, we'll explore the principles and foods linked to blue zones and blue zone map areas with a high number of centenarians. Join us to uncover the nutritional habits for a longer, healthier life. Whether you're exploring the blue zone diet or incorporating longevity-promoting foods, this blog guides you through the essentials.

Do you want to become an expert on blue zone diets? Explore the NASM Certified Nutrition Coach Certification.

Table of Contents 

What is the Blue Zone Diet?

You may have heard of the Netflix documentary, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, which highlighted the different areas of the world where people were living not just longer lives, but healthier lives.

In the film, researcher Dan Buettner and fellow researchers concluded that there are nine habits that are correlated to the significant longevity of people living in five specific blue zone map areas. These include Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. Dietary guidelines represent three of these nine principles and make up the foundation of what we know as the “blue zone diet” (Buettner & Skemp, 2016).

Read more about diet essentials for certain body types in our blog, The Endomorph Diet Essentials: Food Lists, Sample Menus, Benefits & Beyond.

Basics of the Blue Zone Diet

Examining the three dietary principles of the Power of 9 reveals significant overlaps with the Mediterranean diet. This plant-heavy diet is carbohydrate-rich, low in sugar, and features modest portions of proteins like meat, dairy, and fish a few times a week (3-4 oz servings). Daily legume consumption, especially lentils, is recommended. Drink options are limited to tea, coffee, water, and moderate wine intake.

Yet, the blue zone diet extends beyond food selection; behavioral principles like Hara hachi bu (eating to 80% fullness) and having the last meal in the late afternoon/early evening are key, reducing overall caloric intake (Blue Zones, 2015).

Interested in looking at nutrition from the inside-out? Look into becoming a Certified Wellness Coach.

Blue Zone Diet Meal Plan

The blue zone diet is 95% plant-based which includes fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. There are certain foods that are staples of this dietary practice:

  • Leafy greens (examples include kale, spinach, collard greens, chard, and turnips)
  • Daily consumption of beans (examples include lentils, garbanzo, white beans, and soybeans)
  • Two handfuls of nuts daily (examples include almonds, cashews, walnuts, and Brazil nuts).
  • Whole grain or sourdough breads
  • Consumption of mostly whole foods. This means consuming the entire food item as opposed to parts of it (i.e., whole milk, fruits, vegetables, or eggs). Food processing should be limited to simple cooking, grounding, or fermenting.

(Blue zones, 2015)

Produce

Any fruit or vegetable is permitted on the blue zone diet, but some examples of common produce items include:

  • Leafy greens (spinach, collard greens, kale, chard)
  • Legumes (green peas, lentils, lima beans, kidney beans)
  • Seasonal fruits (blueberries, cherries, avocados, melons, grapes, etc.)
  • Potatoes and tubers (Yuca, sweet potato, potatoes)

Some tasty dishes that follow blue zone guidelines can include stuffed tomatoes, lentil soups, salsa, oatmeal, gazpacho, tofu stir-fry, baked chickpeas, and vegetable stews. These dishes are primarily plant based, colorful, high in fiber, and extremely nutrient dense. Dan Buettner, investigator that is credited with discovering the blue zones provides an excellent reference for blue zone recipes: Recipes - Dan Buettner (Buettner, 2023).

Protein

The blue zone diet is considered a moderate protein diet. Though meat, dairy and fish are acceptable in moderation on the blue zone diet, most protein sources should be plant-based (Nieddu et al., 2020) when it comes to Blue zone recipes.

Some examples of plant-based proteins include:

  • Tofu
  • Beans (garbanzo, lentil, black, white, soybeans, or any variety)
  • Nuts (walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, etc.)
  • Peas

Blue zone recipes should emphasize moderate protein intake. While recommended foods like beans and nuts may not be complete proteins or very high in protein, they can be complemented by occasional consumption of eggs, dairy, meats, and fish. Plant-based protein sources include black bean burgers, tofu stir-fry, lentil soups, chickpea "meatballs," and quinoa salads (Buettner, 2023).

Grains

Grains are a large part of the blue zone diet; however, consumption of grains is limited to whole grains such as oats, barley, corn, whole grain pastas, brown rice, and quinoa. Wheat is part of the blue zone diets, but processing of such is minimal. Some examples of grain choices compatible with a blue zone diet include:

  • Whole grain or sourdough bread
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Corn

An interesting fact about some of the blue zones is that sourdough bread seems to be a dietary staple, especially blue zone map areas like in the region of Ikaria, Greece. The process of producing sourdough bread reduces the number of sugars (lowering the glycemic index) and gluten in bread. Sourdough proves to be a healthy grain-based option that pairs well with many blue zone-approved soups and stews.

Other grain dishes that can be included in blue zone recipes include oatmeal and fruit, cornmeal waffles, blueberry muffin energy bites, and pasta with tomato and basil. For a complete list of blue zone-friendly recipes, visit Recipes - Blue Zones (Buettner, 2023)

For more information on the Blue zones, check out the Random Fit podcast, Blue Zones: Live Long & Prosper:

Foods to Avoid in the Blue Zone Diet

The health benefits of blue zone recipes are closely tied to avoiding certain foods. Limiting or eliminating foods high in sugar, heavily processed items, and those rich in saturated fat is crucial. Such foods are highly palatable, encouraging overeating, and can contribute to weight gain and inflammation, promoting chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—not conducive to achieving longevity.

Now that we have reviewed what TO EAT on the Blue zone diet, let’s look at some foods to avoid:

  • Highly refined cereals, breads, and pastries (cookies, cakes, breads, donuts, etc.)
  • Meats high in saturated fats 
  • Butter and many cooking oils
  • Fast foods or highly processed meals (frozen dinners, etc.)
  • Highly processed snack foods (chips, candy, protein bars)
  • Drinks with added sugars such as fruit juices or sodas

(Nieddu et al., 2020)

Learn how to explore different diets to find the most impactful way to boost your overall health with our Navigating Diets course.

Criticism of the Blue Zone Diet

It's crucial to note that correlation doesn't always imply causation. Studies proving the blue zone's "Power of 9" impact on longevity are limited, with only three recommendations related to diet. The dietary practices are dynamic and challenging to attribute solely to longevity. Validation of ages in blue zone studies relied on self-report, and statistical analyses were imperfect.

While well-validated recommendations exist, high-protein intake may be challenging, especially for athletes. Despite this, a blue zone diet, combined with exercise, sleep, self-care, and stress reduction, likely offers more benefits than drawbacks (Pes et al., 2022).

In my talks with Grandpa Joe, he mentions including many of these dietary practices—especially the frequent consumption of fruits, whole grains, and fresh vegetables. However, he also commits to daily movement, quality sleep, and spending plenty of time outdoors and with friends and family. Plus, I have personally witnessed him eating cookies for lunch on more than one occasion. Overall, he has likely incorporated about 80 percent of these dietary practices in his nearly 94 years of life. Perhaps that is a reasonable strategy to follow for most of us.
Do you want to become an expert on blue zone diets? Explore the Certified Nutrition Coach course.
Become a Certified Nutrition Coach

Would you like to become a nutrition expert and help others sort through the pros and cons of dietary practices? The Certified Nutrition Coach course will help you learn which diets are reasonable choices and which ones are simply ineffective fads. Learn how to evaluate client needs and select which practices fit their personal fitness and wellness goals.

Help them to stay on track with evidence-based behavior change strategies to make nutritional changes sustainable and lifestyle changes permanent.

What'S next

The Author

Nicole Golden

Nicole Golden

Nicole Golden has been a health/fitness professional since 2014 when she left the field of education to pursue a full-time career in fitness. Nicole holds a Master of Science degree from Concordia University Chicago in Applied Exercise Science with a concentration in Sports Nutrition. She is a NASM Master Trainer, CES, FNS, BCS, CSCS (NSCA) and AFAA certified group fitness instructor. Nicole is a sports nutritionist (CISSN) certified through the International Society of Sports Nutrition. She is the owner of FWF Wellness where she specializes in corrective exercise, nutrition coaching, and training special populations. She has a great deal of experience working with a wide variety of clients including female athletes, cancer survivors, older adults with medical comorbidities, and clients who have undergone bariatric surgery. She also has a special interest in coaching clients in recovery from Substance Use Disorders. Nicole enjoys spending time with her husband and five children when she is not training clients or teaching fitness classes. Follow her on LinkedIn!

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