Mountaintop Medicine: Nutrition Notes — Why People in Blue Zones Tend to Live Longer
Welcome back to Nutrition Notes! The ever-concerning subject of longevity, and how to achieve it, has been on my mind lately. Blue Zones are geographic areas with lower rates of chronic diseases and longer life expectancy, or in other words, the homes of some of the world’s oldest people. These areas are known as Ogliastra, Sardinia in Italy, Icaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and in Loma Linda in California, although many more areas may exist.
As chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are becoming increasingly common in old age, it is apparent that our lifestyle choices have a significant impact on our overall health and the development of these diseases. Research has shown that genetics only account for about 20-30% of longevity, therefore, environmental influences like diet and exercise play a huge role in determining our lifespan. I first heard about Blue Zones in a class in my undergraduate studies, and ever since, I have thought there is much to learn from the people who reside in them.
Common Lifestyle Factors of the People in Blue Zones
Their diet is primarily comprised of whole plant foods. Their intake of red meat, dairy products, and processed foods is limited, and instead, their diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, fatty fish, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. All of which are protective against chronic disease.
They follow the 80% rule; meaning they stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full so they do not overeat.
Exercise is built into their daily routine through gardening, raising farm animals, walking, cooking, and other daily chores. Blue Zones tend to be highly walkable areas where most people walk to work and to the grocery store, etc. The current recommendations from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest a minimum of 75 vigorous-intensity or 150 moderate-intensity minutes of aerobic activity per week.
They consume alcohol in moderation, limiting it to no more than one to two drinks per day. In the Mediterranean regions, it is common for individuals to drink red wine, which has antioxidants from its red grapes. Antioxidants help prevent damage to our DNA that can contribute to aging.
They get enough sleep each night. Many people do not realize the effect that poor sleeping patterns has on our health. People in Blue Zones prioritize a good night’s rest and often take short daytime naps.
Aside from diet and exercise, people in Blue Zones often belong to a religious or spiritual community and typically have a deep, supportive family and social network. This has been shown to reduce rates of mental health issues such as depression.
As a reminder, I am now offering outpatient nutrition counseling and education services at Estes Park Health. If you are interested, please contact your healthcare provider for a referral. If you have any questions or if there are any nutrition-related topics that you would like me to discuss here on Nutrition Notes, please reach out at LGardner@EPH.org.