Across all five Blue Zones, the focus is on a plant-rich, unprocessed diet. Fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes make up the majority of meals, with meat only consumed on special occasions. Nicoya, for example, an 80-mile peninsula south of the Nicaraguan border in Costa Rica, boasts the lowest middle-aged mortality rate worldwide. It's well documented that the “three sisters” of Meso-American agriculture - beans, corn and squash - are the secret behind this region’s longevity. Meanwhile, in Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, locals eat a Mediterranean diet packed with plants, including plenty of potatoes, beans and horta, a nutrient-rich wild green. Their diet is also rich in fish, a good source of omega-3 fats, which has been linked to slower brain decline in old age and a reduced risk of heart disease.
TRY THIS: Eat 95% plant-based, concentrating on single-ingredient (i.e. not highly processed) foods, including plenty of beans, greens and nutrient-dense carbs. When it comes to meat, aim for a small serving once a week.
In the Blue Zones, Buettner found people stopped eating when they were mostly full, not when they had finished everything on their plate. Okinawans abide by the 2,500-year-old mantra of ‘Hara hachi bu’, which reminds them to push their plates away when they feel 80% full. Buettner also observed the biggest meal tended to occur in the late afternoon or early evening. Interestingly, Okinawa’s female population are the longest-living in the world, with many surpassing 100.
TRY THIS: You’ve heard it before, but take your time with your food. The hormones that make you feel full only reach their maximum blood levels 20 minutes after you eat, so it takes a while for your brain to realise you’ve had enough. Countless studies have suggested eating slower can reduce hunger and increase satiety.
Sardinians regularly drink cannonau wine, which boasts one of the highest levels of antioxidants of any alcohol in the world and contains three times more polyphenols (micronutrients that prevent degenerative disease) than other wines. Red wine in particular has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and slow the progression of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, thanks to health-boosting plant compounds. The one caveat? Don’t overdo it. The recommended amount for optimum longevity is one glass a day for women.
TRY THIS: Having a drink with close friends could be the secret to a longer life. Buettner found having a tight-knit group of friends is crucial for longevity. “Really putting the effort into creating that group of four or five people who nourish you is the most powerful thing you can do to add years to your life,” he says. We’ll drink to that.
Physical activity is integral to the lives of those living in the world’s Blue Zones, but not in the way you might think. “Blue Zone residents are nudged into moving on a daily basis,” says Buettner, explaining that movement is more linked to natural surroundings than a gym membership. “They don’t have buttons to push for housework and kitchen work. They’re kneading dough by hand for bread, grinding corn or herding sheep, walking up to five miles a day,” he says.
TRY THIS: Modern lifestyles have been engineered in a way to take movement out of our lives, so it’s up to us to pack in as much as we can throughout the day. Take the stairs instead of the lift, walk home from the supermarket, or try cutting your commute short by one stop and walking the rest. This will help boost your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis, i.e. the calories expended outside of exercise), which recent studies show can have a huge impact on your metabolism over time.
Inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica live by the ‘plan de vida’ or ‘reason to live’. Residents of Okinawa believe in ‘ikigai’, which translates roughly as ‘reason for being’. Buettner posits that knowing your sense of purpose could add seven years to your life expectancy. In his research, he suggests making three lists: your values, things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross section of the three lists is your purpose.
TRY THIS: Discovering your purpose in life may seem a little philosophical, but studies have shown doing so can bring fulfilment and happiness, which in turn can boost life expectancy. Buettner says that without purpose, it’s next to impossible to maintain the healthy behaviours conducive to a long life.