Annie Daly—When I was in Vietnam last month, I stopped at a bee farm on Unicorn Island, a rural village outside of Ho Chi Minh City. The locals at the farm served Vietnamese honey tea — made from black tea, honey, lime juice, and bee pollen — and told me that it helps you live longer.
The tea was delicious. And it also got me thinking: What else do other places know about longevity? I decided to check in with world-renowned longevity expert Dan Buettner, whose latest book, The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, just released in April 2015, answers that very question.
The ingredients for the honey tea that piqued my curiosity. (Photo: Annie Daly)
Let’s begin with a bit of context: You may recognize Buettner’s name, as he hit the world by storm back in 2004, when he released his book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. A quick refresher: He partnered with National Geographic and some of the world’s leading longevity experts to identify the top five “blue zones,” i.e. the places where people have the longest life spans. Once Buettner and his team of researchers pinpointed them — Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California — they also discovered that the people in those areas shared similar lifestyle characteristics. Consequently, they spent the next decade spreading the word in an attempt to increase global longevity.
Now, in his latest book, Buettner is back with even more specific, actionable longevity advice — but this time, he’s focused on food, not on lifestyle characteristics. His logic: If you try to both eat and behave more like the blue-zone people do, you will up your odds of living a longer life even more. With that in mind, here’s your ultimate guide to a longer life, sourced from the healthiest people on the planet.
You’ll be climbing the life expectancy ladder with these tips. (Photo: The Blue Zone Solution)
What to Eat
The key food finding in Buettner’s new book is that it’s not just what you eat, it’s how you eat. “The big insight from my new book is that eating for longevity is not a function of discipline; it’s a function of environment. The longest-living populations set up their houses, kitchens, and lifestyles so that eating right becomes easy and mindless,” he reveals. “The people in the blue zones don’t ever say, ‘I’m going to get healthy now.’ They just live around people who eat the right things, and therefore eat the right things themselves,” he says.
Not surprisingly, then, Buettner also pinpointed what the “right things” are in the first place. Here’s his basic primer of everything you need to know about eating for longevity, culled from all five of the blue zones.
1. Eat less meat. “People in blue zones eat mostly vegetarian; 90% of their diet is from plant and plant products,” he says. Of course, should you adopt the blue zone way, your diet will be mostly vegetarian — and that may not be realistic if you are currently a big meat-eater. However, if you want to eat for longevity, it may be wise to at least start eating a little less meat overall. “People in the blue zones generally eat meat about five times per month,” he continues. Aim for that amount, but be realistic, too. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Literally.
2. Go for more grains. “Grains seem to be about 65% of the dietary intake of people in blue zone areas,” says Buettner. They eats lots of oatmeal, sourdough bread, and sweet potatoes, in particular. In fact, Buettner found that sweet potatoes were the longevity staple for women over 60 years old.
Sourdough bread can actually sweeten up your life. (Photo: Thinkstock)
3. Fill up on beans. Blue zone people average about one cup of beans per day, specifically black beans (though other kinds are still good, too). “They have as much protein as meat, ounce for ounce, and are very high in both antioxidants and fiber,” begins Buettner. But what’s really beneficial about black beans is that they alter your gut. “The gut bacteria of people who live longer is different from those who die earlier. Black beans are like mulch for your gut: They make it easier for the right kind of bacteria to thrive,” he continues. Another black bean bonus: “Eating them means you will likely eat fewer less-healthy proteins, like fatty meats, which should really be reserved for more celebratory events.”
The more you eat, the more you … live. (Photo: Thinkstock)
4. Snack on nuts. “Nut eaters live about two to three years longer than those who don’t eat them,” says Buettner. It doesn’t even matter which kind you eat, either. “The secret is to eat a variety so that you don’t get sick of them. Everybody should have a can of nuts sitting around their office and in their homes,” he advises.
5. Be a green machine. “In our blue zone research, we found that one cup of greens per day can add four years to your life,” Buettner explains. Choose whatever you like best: collard greens, kale, spinach … it’s all good.
Behold: your leafy lifeline. (Photo: Thinkstock)
6. Set up your kitchen right. When people in blue zones go to their friends’ houses, they don’t eat Doritos. “Their kitchens are set up so they just eat healthier by nature,” Buettner says.
Of course, not everyone is so lucky as to be able to have access to healthy food in the first place, and that is part of a much bigger societal problem that needs to be solved. That said, the smaller, more micro solution is to set up your kitchen in the healthiest way possible, if you can. A couple tips: “Have a junk food drawer, because then you have to go to extra effort to retrieve what’s inside,” he suggests. Another tip: Never bring processed meats, salty snacks like chips, packaged sweets, or soda into the house. “If it’s not in your house, you will cut 60% of your intake. Make it so that you have to go outside to get these things,” he says.
7. Choose your friends wisely. This one’s a biggie. If your friends are constantly playing video games and eating frozen pizza, you probably will, too. So rather than try to resist the pizza all the time, rethink who your friends are in the first place — it will make eating healthier easier by default. “People in blue zones are active, and their social lives generally revolve around healthy activities, like hiking and biking and farming,” says Buettner. To steal those blue-zone secrets for yourself, try to associate with a more active group, who will subtly influence you to get off the couch.
How to Behave
The key to increasing your lifespan isn’t just eating the right foods. The other crucial part of the puzzle is behaving in the right way, as Buettner revealed in his hit book in 2004. Here, he shares the number one lifestyle secret of each blue zone group. Pair these with the eating tips above, and you’ll be well on your way to living to 100!
Blue Zone #1: Okinawa, Japan
The Okinawans are all about finding their sense of purpose. “When you have a sense of purpose, it’s easier to make the effort to stay healthy,” Buettner explains. And no one knows this better than the Okinawans, who have a very strong one.
A Japanese man extremely focused on doing his job — and doing it well. (Photo: The Blue Zone Solution)
And his Okinawa research isn’t the only case study that backs up this notion. A famous study from 1976, researched by Robert Butler and funded by the National Institute of Health, shows that people who have a strong sense of purpose live eight years longer than people who are rudderless. And furthermore, a Canadian study also showed that there was a 50% lower chance of dementia among people who had a stronger self-reported sense of purpose.
The problem is that Japanese society is set up so that their sense of purpose is quite obvious. “But in America, it’s not as clear what your sense of purpose may be,” Buettner points out. In that case, he suggests the following trick: “Sit down and list ten words that best describe what you like to do, ten things that best describe your values, ten priorities you have, and ten things you’re good at. Then, look at those 40 words, find the ones that repeat themselves over and over, and there’s your sense of purpose,” advises Buettner. It’s up to you, then, to figure out how to weave your sense of purpose into your life, whether it’s through work, volunteering, your relationships, or whatever else.
Blue Zone #2: Sardinia, Italy
The Sardinians keep their aging parents nearby — and doing so, according to Buettner’s research, adds two to six years of life expectancy. Why? “You can harness their wisdom to help raise your children, and, in turn, kids have a lower mortality rate because Grandma is transferring the wisdom of a century of life to younger generations,” he explains. “In other words, it’s a virtuous circle: If you keep your aging parents in or near your house, you model a family pattern that makes it less likely that you will be put in a home yourself.”
Grandma knows best. (Photo: The Blue Zone Solution)
Blue Zone #3: Nicoya, Costa Rica
Costa Ricans live in consistently walkable villages. “Every time they go to a friend’s house or out to eat, they are moving every twenty minutes or so. Rather than thinking they are going to sit all day long and then go to the gym three times a week to make up for it, their lives are constantly nudged in physical activity by living in a place where walking is easy,” says Buettner.
In Nicoya, Costa Rica, walking is a way of life. (Photo: The Blue Zone Solution)
This behavior isn’t necessarily replicable in many societies, where driving to a 9-to-5 office job is the norm. But even if you are a desk sitter, there are smaller ways to incorporate more movement into your day, like taking the stairs instead of the escalator, or going over to ask your co-worker a question rather than g-chatting it to him or her when you’re in the same room (admit it, you’ve done it). Point is, going to the gym is great, but to truly replicate the longevity habits of the Nicoyans, it’s just as important to keep it moving throughout your day, too.
Blue Zone #4: Ikaria, Greece
As anyone who has ever watched My Big, Fat Greek Wedding knows, the Greeks are all about family — a fact that may help increase their longevity overall. “You never see people in this region eating with one hand on the steering wheel. They eat with their families, which helps them wake up in the morning feeling connected to a place, not existentially flapping in the wind,” says Buettner. And when you feel more connected, you’re less likely to turn to junk food for comfort — because the people around you may help you fill that void.
Laughter really is the best medicine. (Photo: The Blue Zone Solution)
Blue Zone #5: Loma Linda, California
Loma Linda is an Adventist region, which means that its people believe that the Bible is the one and only source of truth. And while this concrete belief system may feel extreme to some people, it is simply the norm for the Adventists — a norm that, it turns out, may play an important role in longevity.
The pew may be more powerful than you think. (Photo: The Blue Zone Solution)
“Church friends tend to be less likely to engage in risky behaviors. They tend to think of their bodies like temples,” explains Buettner. In fact, the people in Loma Linda take a walk every Saturday.
The sense of community plays a big role in longevity, too. “Adventists have a very strong social network, and that sense of belonging may help people eat and behave in a healthier way overall,” Buettner continues. That said, organized religion is not for everyone, and that’s okay — you do you. But there are also other ways to get the community effect: Anything where you are a part of something bigger, like being a member of a club or a sports team, may help give you the same vibe.
One final note: Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I would also add that it may belong to those who believe in the beauty of worldly wellness wisdom, too.