Lessons from the Blue Zones
We’ve climbed to the top of the 2021 calendar despite the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have come to understand the fragility of our planet and to recognize the importance of good hygiene, healthy eating and the rest that goes along with staying physically and mentally well. What a great time to get acquainted with the Blue Zones for health’s sake.
If you’re not already familiar, the Blue Zones are five locations scattered over the world where residents are most likely to live to be 100-plus. Even better, most of these centenarians are reported to live without ailments and disabilities brought on by cancers, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, dementia, heart disease or diabetes.
They are referred to as Blue Zones because, during the past decades of study, scientists circled them in blue on a map. The ongoing question lingers: “Are more of these zones still to be identified?” Scientists currently consider the Blue Zones to be Ikaria (Greece), an island of rugged, steep terrain; Sardinia (Italy), a mountainous area home to the oldest men of the world; Okinawa (Japan), home to the world’s oldest women; Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), a tropical paradise in Central America; and Seventh-Day Adventists (Lorna Linda, Calif.), a community not far from Los Angeles.
Scientists do not credit the longevity of Blue Zone people with superior genes alone, but consider common similarities and patterns of lifestyles found across all Blue Zones as likely contributors. As scientists continue to study, here are a few interesting findings:
Other than the Adventists who are the only defined vegetarians of the Blue Zones, 95% of those living 100 years or more are known to eat a plant-based diet. In the other four zones, meat is consumed on the average of only five times a month and is eaten from grass-fed, pasture-raised livestock or is wild caught. The people of Sardinia and Ikaria follow a Mediterranean diet. Foods common to all Blue Zones are greens, grains, tubers, beans and nuts. It has long been known that, of the top foods to eat for a long and healthy life, half belong to the bean family — lentils, peanuts, soy beans, chickpeas and black beans — and are economical as well. A peasant diet, with foods rich in fiber, protein and olive oil, is the choice in Blue Zones; add tropical fresh fruits for those on the Nicoya Peninsula.
The use of fresh herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano and mint in cooking and to make herbal teas is a way of life. Sugary sweets are limited, eaten usually only during holidays or for celebratory reasons. Fermented foods like yogurt, miso and kefir are commonly eaten. Sourdough bread is the bread of favor since it’s metabolically different and contains only about 1/20 the amount of gluten compared to most white breads.
The people of Sardinia eat the same lunch every day: a bowl of minestrone soup and sourdough bread along with a small glass of red Cannonau wine. Both the Sardinians and Ikarians drink wine pressed, that includes skins and seeds, from Cannonau grapes. The skins and seeds contain high levels of antioxidants.
For the people of the Nicoya Peninsula, the “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash) play a big role in their diets. In California, the Adventists eat from the “Garden of Eden” to fuel their vegetarian lifestyle and include two ounces of nuts daily. The Okinawans consume lots of soy.
In general, Blue Zone people keep their daily calorie intake in check. The Okinawans are strict to follow the 80% rule, which means they stop eating when feeling 80% full rather than at 100%. Fasting is a common practice due to a mix of religious beliefs. Okinawans practice the meditative exercise called tai chi.
These centenarians drink lots of water. Depending upon which Blue Zone, sake, herbal teas, limited coffee, goat milk rather than cow’s milk and, for some, a moderate consumption of red wine comprises the most common beverages.
Blue Zone people believe their lives hold purpose. They foster this belief with strong social networks to include the support of family and friends. Most are religious or hold tight to spiritual practices; depression is seldom seen. The older and younger generations often share the same housing.
People stay physically active into old age; exercise is not created, but rather it is built into daily activities often because of living location. The word “retirement” does not exist. They do not have gym memberships, but rather their days are packed with responsibility that includes farm work, raising and caring for animals, gardening, pulling weeds, chopping trees, cooking and cleaning chores. They walk, usually long distances daily often over rough terrain and steep slopes. In September 2020, the AARP Bulletin commented on the positive advantages of living in communities that provide walking trails as well as living within neighborhoods of more work-age diversity rather than in senior communities.
Sleep habits differ within Blue Zones, but most people get eight hours of sleep with some daytime naps but not to exceed 30 minutes. They allow their bodies to determine sufficient sleep for themselves; seldom do they set clocks. Late-night games of dominoes and cards is often a common practice; bedtimes are flexible.
The Okinawans set aside a few minutes every day to recall their ancestors, Adventists pray daily, Ikarians nap, while the people of Sardinia do happy hour.
Now you can eat like a Blue Zone centenarian with these recipes that are full of taste, easy to prepare and healthy for you.
1 (15-ounce) can lentils or 1 pound lentils, cooked
2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
1 onion, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup tomatoes, stewed or canned
Salt and pepper to taste
While lentils are simmering in the stock, fry onion in a separate pan until soft. Add tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes. When lentils are done, combine with onion-tomato mixture and reheat, season to taste.
POTATO LEEK SOUP
2 medium leeks, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold are best), cubed
2 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth
1 cup unflavored soy milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped scallions or chives for garnish
In a large pot, sauté leeks and garlic in oil, until fragrant, about 8 minutes. Add potatoes and broth; bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. In batches, very briefly process in blender with soy milk. Return soup to pot and heat until hot. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with chives or scallions.
Oatmeal is a breakfast staple in Lorna Linda. Use a Mason jar to fill for this “grab and go” breakfast. Pop in the microwave for a few minutes if you like your oats warm.
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats, uncooked
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon ground flaxseed
1 tablespoon shredded coconut
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1/4 cup shredded carrots
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
3/4 cup plant-based milk (soy, almond, coconut)
Select a container like a Mason jar or glass storage container with tight-fitting lid. Layer in order of ingredients listed ending with carrots. Pour over mixture the vanilla, maple syrup and plant-based milk. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Next day, stir together with a spoon and enjoy.
1 avocado, mashed
1/2 cup sauerkraut from refrigerated section, not canned
2 tablespoons feta cheese
In bowl, smash avocado until desired texture is achieved. Stir in sauerkraut until well mixed. Sprinkle feta cheese on top and mix in. Enjoy as a spread or dip for vegetables.
(Whole Foods Market recipe)
1 (15-ounce) can (no-salt added) black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 cup, whole wheat bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground, black pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 whole wheat buns
4 green leaf lettuce leaves
1 tomato, sliced
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
Put beans in a bowl and mash well with a fork. Add egg, onion, bread crumbs, oregano, basil, garlic powder, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Mix well to combine; shape into 4 patties. Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Arrange patties in a single layer or work in batches, flipping once until golden brown on both sides and cooked through, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to buns and top with lettuce, tomatoes and red onions.
GOOD FOOD, GOOD MEMORIES