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How to Live 100 Years: Lessons from the Blue Zones

How to Live 100 Years: the Blue Zones Revealed!

An interesting book to read, now almost a classic, is called “The Blue Zones” which researched areas of the world that have an unusual concentration of centenarians (people reaching the age of 100).

I first became aware of this research when I was living in Costa Rica and a group of researchers came to the Nicoya Peninsula to discover that this area of the world was one of those coveted “Blue Zones” where there’s a very high percentage of centenarians compared to the United States.

What I really liked about the book was the fact that it was based on actual, verifiable research.

In the past, many people have claimed that certain cultures have lived a very long time, such as the Hunzas in Pakistan or the Vilcabamba residents in Ecuador. The problem is that the record keeping in those areas was very poor and there was no way to verify the ages of the alleged centenarians. Someone could claim to be 110 years old and in fact be only 90. In fact, this kind of exaggeration was very common.

With The Blue Zones, the researchers had new scientific techniques that could verify someone’s age, and using DNA data they could also trace back the ancestry of the people they met. Combined with verifiable birth certificates, they have located five areas of the world where people have managed to outlive Americans by often a decade or more.

A lot of people who are proponents of specific diets, such as the paleo diet, like to refer to some unproven, anecdotal advice on the “good health” of certain tribes, such as the Inuits. When in fact there are many other people who lived far longer and healthier than this example.

The Blue Zones is the first set of data that looks at populations that have an unusually high number of centenarians. Often these areas have been overtaken by fast food and the health of new generations is poor. But those people that managed to live 100 years or more are from a different era, and have kept the same lifestyle practices that they had in their youth.

These five Blue Zones are:

  • The island of Sardinia, in Italy
  • The tropical islands of Okinawa, in Japan
  • The Nicoya peninsula, in Costa Rica
  • The religious group of the 7th Day Adventists, living in Loma Linda, California

Those four groups are covered in the book. But last year the group of researchers also uncovered another Blue Zone, on the island of Ikaria in Greece, where nearly 1 out of every 3 people make it to their 90s (Which is very unusual).

Before I go into the characteristics of these people, I want to point out one important point for all those people out there on low-carb, paleo, meat-eating, “hunter-gatherer” diets (or whatever you want to call them).

All of the longest live people in the world — without exception — live on a high-carb, plant-based diet!

You will not find anywhere in the world a group of people — with documented evidence — living that long and that well on a high-fat, high protein, animal-based, low carb diet.

Also, the research done on the 7th Day Adventists debunks the myth that there are no long-lived populations on a vegan diet (more on that later).

What did these people eat?

==> In Sardinia, Italy, the traditional diet was based on whole wheat bread, vegetables, a little goat cheese and wine. Meat was not consumed on a daily basis.

From the book: “Shepherds and peasants in Sardinia have an exceptionally simple diet, which is extraordinarily lean even by mediterranean standards”, a 1941 survey reported. “Bread is by far the main food. Peasants leave early in the morning to the fields with a kilogram of bread in their saddlebag… At noon their meal consists only of bread, with some cheese among wealthier families, while the majority of the workers are satisfied with an onion, a little fennel, or a bunch of radishes. At dinner, the reunited family eats a single meal consisting of a vegetable soup (minestrone) to which the richest add some pasta. In most areas, families ate meat only once a week, on Sunday (…). Interestingly for a Mediterranean culture, fish did not figure prominently into the diet”

Also, the Sardinians consumed goat’s milk and not cow’s milk.

It doesn’t take much nutritional knowledge to see that the diet described above is plant-based and very low in fat, and high in carbohydrates.

===> On Okinawa, the diet was based on sweet potatoes, traditional soy products, rice and vegetables.

When a 102-year old woman (who apparently looks like she’s in her 70’s) describes her routine, she says:

“I wake up at about 6 a.m. and make a pot of jasmine tea and eat my breakfast, usually miso soup with vegetables. (…) At noon, Kamada said, she wanders into the kitchen garden behind her house to harvest some herbs and vegetables for her lunch. “I’ll use mugwork to give my rice flavor or tumeric to spice my soup, she said. “I don’t eat much any more. Usually just stir-fried vegetables and maybe some tofu.” And meat, I asked. “Oh yes, I like meat, but not always. When I was a girl, I ate it only during the New Year festivals. I’m not in the habit of eating it every day.”

She eats a very light dinner before 6 p.m. that might include some fish soup, whatever vegetables are in season, some spring onions, salad and rice. She’s usually in bed by 9 p.m.

When the researcher asks her daughter if she ever drank a Coke, we find out she never once did that in her life, and when she first saw a hamburger she had asked “What do you do with that?”

The typical diet of these Okinawan centenarian was again very simple: vegetables from the garden, green tea, and maybe a little fish, with some rice and tofu.

They also have the interesting habit of saying hara hachi bu, before each meal. It’s a Confucian adage that these elders say before they eat to remind them to eat until they are 80 percent full.

===> The 7th Day Adventists’s diet is more aligned with your typical health-food store enthusiast rather than a traditional diet forced by circumstances. Things like fresh fruit, oatmeal, salads and vegetarian foods are part of the menu. Interestingly enough, not all 7th Day Adventists are vegetarians or vegan. But the vegetarians lived longer than the meat eaters (on average two years longer), and the vegans lived even longer than the vegetarians.

“(…) Adventists who are what we call lacto-ovo vegetarians, meaning they eat eggs and other dairy products, still are an average of 16 pounds lighter than Adventists of the same height who are non-vegetarian. And Adventists who are strictly vegan, which is only 4 percent, are 30 to 32 pounds lighter than non-vegetarian Adventists of the same height. That has a huge impact on cardiovascular disease, on blood pressure, on blood cholesterol, on inflammation related to hormones and the way it stimulates cells in the body.”

For those who think there are no documented populations of vegans in the world who live a long life, they are wrong. The 7th Day Adventists prove exactly that.

===> The Nicoyans in Costa Rica ate mostly corn tortillas, beans, some animal protein such as eggs and some amount of pork or chicken. They ate more animal foods than other long-lived populations, but also ate the most fruit out of all long-lived populations.

From the book: “They asked centenarians what they ate and heard “beans, rice, tortillas and fruit” over and over. (…) A few characteristics of the Nicoya’s diet stood out. Like the people in most other Blue Zones, Nicoyans ate the emblematic low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet, rich in legumes. But unlike other Blue Zones, the Nicoyan diet featured portions of corn tortillas at almost every meal and huge quantities of tropical fruit. Sweet lemon, orange, and a banana variety are the most common fruits throughout most of the year in Nicoya.”

An interesting fact of the Nicoyan diet is that Nicoya have the lowest stomach cancer rate out of the country of Costa Rica. For some reason, Costa Ricans have one of the highest stomach cancer rates in the world. The conclusion by the researchers was that the high amount of fruit consumed in Nicoya helped prevent stomach cancer.

If you want the full story, you can read the book, but let me outline a few important points about diet that stood out for me.

  1. All long-lived people live on a high-carb, low-fat, plant-based diet
  2. All long-lived people eat a lot of vegetables, including greens.
  3. Whenever they can get it, long-lived populations eat a lot of fruit and it seems to contribute to their longevity
  4. When animal products are consumed, it’s occasionally and in small amounts only. But the 7th Day Adventist study also showed that vegans live longer than vegetarians or meat eaters, so the ideal is to avoid all animal products. If you do eat animal products, it shouldn’t be more than a few times a month (paleo eaters take note).
  5. All long-lived people had periods in their life when a lot less food was available and they had to survive on a very sparse, limited diet. For example, the centenarians in the book in Okinawa describe a time during World War II when they lived on sweet potatoes for three meals a day. When discussing the centenarians in Italy: “When their family was young, in the 1950s, they were very poor. They ate what they produced on their land — mostly bread, cheese and vegetables (zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and most significantly, fava beans). Meat was at best a weekly affair, boiled on Sunday with pasta and roasted during the festivals.” This reinforces my concept of periodic fasting. Because we live in a society of such abundance, we have to force ourselves to go through periods of restrictions with periodic cleanses and fasting.
  6. All long-lived people live in a sunny, warm climate — but not necessarily tropical. They got plenty of vitamin D from natural sunshine. The warmer climate probably also contributes to less stress and a more relaxed lifestyle.
  7. All long-lived people consume beans in some form or another.
  8. Nuts appear to be good for health. The 7th Day Adventists who ate a small serving of nuts several times a week had about half the risk of heart disease of those who didn’t.
  9. The typical centenarian diet is very simple. If you analyze all these diets from long-lived people around the world, they essentially eat the same simple foods every day. It appears that you do not need a wide variety of foods in your diet to be healthy. Quality food over variety is more important. Also, rich foods like meat and cheese are reserved for special occasions, and eaten at the most a few times a month if at all.
  10. They did not constantly change their diet or jump on the latest superfood fad. They ate the same seasonal things every day of the year.

Other Considerations

Of course, diet is only part of the answer. Other important points outlined in the Blue Zones include:

  1. Exercise. The biggest insight in the book besides the diet points I have outlined is how much long-lived people exercise. It actually shocked me to realize that I’m not getting nearly as much exercise as I should.It seems that in the prime of their lives, these centenarians were probably getting something like 5 or 6 hours of moderate exercise per day (such as walking and working outdoors). And as they get older, they keep on walking and being active.Thus, the concept of exercising a few times a week to stay in shape seems seriously flawed. None of these centenarians “worked out”. They simply had an active lifestyle and walked a lot.An hour a day of walking or running, combined with weight training exercises and other outdoor activities you enjoy (golfing, swimming, etc.) should be the goal for anyone wanting to live a long and healthy life.
  2. An Active Life — Another stunning realization is that all of the long-lived people in the book loved to work. In fact, some of them could be considered to have been “workaholics” in the prime of their life, and many of them never actually “retired”. They maintained an active lifestyle throughout their life.This blows out the concept that working hard is bad for you, or that staying home doing nothing is the best way to relax, or that the goal in life should be to save enough to retire at age 55 or 60 and then enjoy the good life.
  3. A sense of purpose — All long-lived people had a strong sense of purpose. They had a reason to get up in the morning and do something. The Nicoyans called it “A plan de vida” which means a “life plan”. They were also engaged socially in their communities.
  4. Family — This is a tough one for many of us, but it seems pretty obvious that in order to live a long life you can’t go it alone. All centenarians had big families that they supported and who supported them until the end.
  5. Obvious things — Of course, the obvious factors are there as well. None of them smoked (no kidding) or ate massive quantities of food. However, from reading between the lines, I also understood that these centenarians progressively reduced the quantities of food they ate as they got older. One lady in Okinawa said ‘I don’t eat much anymore”.

Obviously, if you’re 35 you can’t follow the diet of a 102 year old lady. But as we get older, we must progressively reduce the amount of food we eat if we want to live a long life.

How Come There Are No Raw-Foodists on this list?

The big question everybody will ask is obviously this one: how come none of the long-lived people on the planet eat a raw-food diet?

You have to keep in mind that except for the 7th Day Adventists, none of these long-lived people actually consciously chose their diet and lifestyle. It was something that evolved naturally and that they did due to the environment of where they lived.

But the 7th Day Adventist study showed that when a group of people consciously decides to improve their diet as a whole, that they can significantly increase their lifespan and the quality of their lives.

The 7th Day Adventists did not have particularly good genes. They just were part of a religious group that had the particular feature of discouraging bad habits such as eating meat or drinking caffeine.

The 7th Day Adventists who ate a vegetarian diets lived longer than those who still ate meat, and those who were vegans lived even longer. Who knows what would have happened if some of them also ate a mostly-raw or all raw diet?

We actually don’t know what would happen if a population of people ate a raw food diet because it’s never been done and documented before.

However, based on the current studies done on long-lived people with the Blue Zones, we know that:

  • All long-lived people eat a high-carb, low fat diet
  • All long-lived people eat a plant-based diet
  • All long-lived people ate a lot of vegetables

So if you wanted to try a raw-food diet for longevity, it would have to at least meet those requirements.

Which means potentially the best diet in the world would be a diet of fruits and vegetables, with some nuts and seeds, where most of the calories come from fruit.

How many of you are ready to live 100 years or more?

Read the blue zones on Amazon Kindle or order the printed copy here