By Dan Buettner
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 10 age-old diet tips to borrow from the longest-living people on the planet.
1. Get 95 percent of your food from plants
2. 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.
3. Eat up to 3 ounces of fish daily
4. 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.
5. Enjoy up to three eggs per week
6. 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 a half cup per day — provides most of the vitamins and minerals that you need.
7. Switch to sourdough or whole-wheat
8. Slash your sugar consumption
Blue Zones dwellers consume about a fifth as much added sugar as we do. Centenarians typically put honey in their tea and enjoy dessert only at celebrations. The lesson to us: Try not to add more than 4 teaspoons of sugar a day to your drinks and foods. Have cookies, candy and bakery items only a few times a week. And avoid processed foods with sweeteners — especially when sugar is listed among the first five ingredients.
9. Snack on two handfuls of nuts per day
10. Stick with foods that are recognizable for what they are
Throughout the world’s Blue Zones, people eat foods in their entirety: They don’t throw away the egg yolk or juice the pulp out of their fruits. They also don’t take supplements. They get everything they need from whole foods that are often grown locally. The takeaway? Avoid products with long lists of ingredients and shop at your farmers market when you can. Scientists are only beginning to understand how the elements in whole plants work together synergistically to bring forth ultimate health.
11. Up your water intake
12. When you drink alcohol, make it red wine
People in most Blue Zones have one to three glasses per day. Wine has been found to help the system absorb plant-based antioxidants. But it may also be that a little alcohol at the end of the day reduces stress, which is good for overall health.
13. Drink this kind of tea
Okinawans nurse green tea all day long, and green tea has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and several cancers. Ikarians drink brews of rosemary, wild sage and dandelion — all herbs with anti-inflammatory properties.
14. Get your caffeine fix from coffee
15. Perfect protein pairings
Worried about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet? The trick is to partner legumes, grains, nuts and veggies that supply all nine of the essential amino acids your body can’t make on its own. Try these match-ups in the ratios described below.
1 1/3 parts chopped red peppers to 3 parts cooked cauliflower
1 part cooked chickpeas to 3 parts cooked mustard greens
1 part lima beans to 2 parts cooked carrots
1 1/2 parts cooked broccoli rabe to 1 1/3 parts cooked wild rice
1/2 part firm tofu to 1 1/4 parts cooked soba noodles