In several unique communities around the world, people are living long and healthy lives, up to and beyond 100. Called “blue zones,” residents of these areas share common environments and lifestyles that scientists believe contribute to their longevity.
The Italian island of Sardinia was where one of the first groups of centenarians was studied – similar long-lived ones were soon discovered in Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
People in blue zones walk, garden and cycle as part of their daily lives. They are close with friends and family, have a purpose in life, cope well with stress and are often members of a social or religious group. They eat a plant-based diet and stop eating before they are full.
Dan Buettner, who first brought Blue Zones into the public consciousness with his National Geographic articles and later books, doesn’t like to call the Blue Zone eating pattern a “diet.” Instead, it is a part of a healthy lifestyle, Buettner said, one that he says anyone can copy, no matter where they live and eat — even in highly processed, food-obsessed cultures like the United States.
“The blue zone eating pattern is 98% plant-based foods – whole grains and high in carbohydrates. But only complex carbohydrates, not simple carbohydrates like salty snacks, candy and soda,” Buettner told CNN. “You say carbohydrates and people are horrified, but the healthiest foods in our food system are complex carbohydrates.”
Complex carbohydrates, such as beans, peas, vegetables and whole grains, provide vitamins, minerals and fiber that may be lacking in processed and refined foods. They’re also digested more slowly, and fiber helps you feel fuller longer, according to the American Heart Association.
With the help of researchers, Buettner spent dozens of hours looking for a glint of blue in traditional foods brought to the United States. He found it, but not in his own line.
“As it turns out, my European ancestors didn’t bring a longevity diet,” Buettner said. Instead it was the African, Asian, Hispanics and Native Americans “who have eaten a diet that is almost dead to the blue zone style.”
Buettner turned his findings into a new cookbook, “American Blue Zone Cuisine: 100 Recipes to Live to 100.”
“I tried to be very specific looking at the data to find out exactly what people in the blue zones were eating,” Buettner said. “The five pillars of any longevity diet, including the blue zone, are whole grains, seasonal vegetables, tubers, nuts and beans. In fact, I argue that the cornerstone of the longevity diet is beans.
Eating in the blue zone is similar to eating in the blue zone Mediterranean style, winner of annual gold medals as the best overall diet for health. But there are also differences between blue zone and Mediterranean eating patterns, Buettner said.
“People in the blue zones don’t eat nearly as much fish as the Mediterranean diet prescribes, just three times a week and only 3 ounces,” he said. “Meat is eaten only five times a month. There is no cow’s milk in any blue area.
Instead, people eat goat and sheep milk cheeses like feta and pecorino.
One of the most visually striking recipes in the book is made from purple sweet potatoes, which Buettner considers a longevity staple for people in Okinawa’s blue zone.
“The diet of Okinawans until 1975 came from purple sweet potatoes,” he said. “I would say it created the longest-lived population in human history.”
Blue Zone recipes are also found in Gullah Geechee cuisine, a cooking method developed by descendants of enslaved Africans who settled the Sea Islands of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Stews and soups can be thickened with ben seeds, an heirloom version of sesame seeds brought on slave ships.
There is no meat in any of the recipes in the cookbook, including “breasts” made from seitan, a plant-based meat substitute that mimics the taste and texture of chicken. The seitan and all other recipes were taste-tested by Buettner’s meat-and-potato-loving father, Roger, who traveled the country with him.
In addition to including recipes with little-known ingredients, Buettner filled his cookbook with stories from chefs making and popularizing ancestral cooking.
Senegalese chef Serigne Mbaye, who adds a Creole twist to dishes from his native country at his New Orleans restaurant, told Buettner the story of how slave traders forced his enslaved ancestors to eat black-eyed peas and palm oil.
Why? They had to be at least 125 pounds before they could be shipped to America. If slaves did not eat or gain weight, Mbaye said, they were shot. In their honor, Mbaye created a tastier version of the “last meal” using additional fresh vegetables and spices.
For anyone who thinks these 100 recipes are too much of a task in today’s fast-paced world, Buettner pointed out that many of them can be put together within 20 minutes. or in any programmable pressure cooker.
“Most of the one-pot meals I have in the book also freeze really well,” he said. “And when you want another quick meal, you take it out and throw it in the microwave, and you have a meal that’s full of complex carbohydrates, micronutrients and a whole variety of fiber.”
“And it’ll cost you under $2 a serving, make you feel better, and in my dad’s opinion, taste way better than a small hamburger.” Buettner added. “What’s there to lose?