The Blue Zones Diet is great, except for one unfortunate flaw

By | March 18, 2024

WHEN YOU COMBINE a whole food, plant-based diet with daily activity, stress reduction and community involvement, does the result equate to a longer, healthier life?

Blue Zones experts seem to believe that is indeed the case.

The Blue Zones lifestyle has been around for a while, but Netflix gave it a boost last year after the release of a docu-series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. And the diet part of the Blue Zones lifestyle even has its own meal planning service and a line of frozen meals.

Unlike popular diets like Whole30 and Keto, the Blue Zones Diet includes much of what dietitians have been recommending for decades.

Let’s take a look at what a Blue Zones diet entails and whether it’s right for everyone.

What are blue zones?

Blue Zones are regions around the world where the lifespan – and healing time – of residents is longer than average. According to research, people in Blue Zones reach the age of 100 ten times faster than in the United States.

The actual term ‘Blue Zones’ comes from the work of scientists Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, who drew blue circles on a map around locations with excellent longevity. They started calling these areas ‘Blue Zones’.

There are currently five Blue Zones

Blue Zones are often touted as models of healthy living, with their similarities in diet, lifestyle, stress levels and community involvement. Some experts believe these factors, among others, are why people living in the Blue Zones are among the healthiest and longest-lived in the world.

And the Blue Zones Project claims that part of the world can become a blue zone. The project has already helped create Blue Zones communities in a number of US locations: Beach Cities, California; Albert Lea, Minnesota; Spencer, Iowa; and Fort Worth, Texas, among others. The impacts are real: many of these areas have reported health care savings following the program’s implementation.

What is longevity versus health span?

Longevity is how long we live. Health span is the length of a person’s life during which he or she is in good health. In many cases the lifespan is shorter than the lifespan.

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In addition to longer lifespans, people living in Blue Zones reportedly have longer health spans and live happier, healthier lives for much longer than the average person around the world. However, this is difficult to quantify objectively.

What is the Blue Zones Diet?

The Blue Zones diet consists of 95 to 100 percent plants and primarily whole, minimally processed foods, including 100 grams of nuts and 1/2 to 1 cup of beans daily. The food you eat is ideally locally grown, with a very limited number of animal products such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs. The diet also contains little added sugar. Wine is allowed in moderation, as are coffee and tea.

The main pillars of the Blue Zones appear to be in line with current research around diet and lifestyle: that plant-forward, high-fiber diets are associated with a lower risk of disease, lower stress levels can improve cardiovascular risk, and a focus on the community can at least improve self-reported health levels.

The Benefits of the Blue Zones Diet

Consuming a diet rich in plants, including beans and legumes (these come with bonus points for sustainability), soy products like tofu, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, has been linked to better health outcomes.

It’s important to remember that eating whole foods doesn’t have to be expensive; canned foods like beans and lentils, fruits and vegetables, as well as frozen whole foods definitely count toward your plant intake.

Reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods, even in small amounts, and drinking alcohol in moderation can benefit your health.

The Disadvantages of the Blue Zones Diet

For people on a limited income, it can be difficult to provide a wide variety of fresh foods.

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Growing your own food and eating local produce can be impossible due to time, space and weather conditions.

For many people, following a diet that is 95 percent plant-based is a challenge, especially if they’re starting out in a place where they eat very few plant foods. Starting slowly is an option, but also understanding that simply increasing plants in the diet is also a positive change.

And also know that longevity cannot be entirely attributed to diet and lifestyle. Up to 40 percent may be due to genetics, although some studies suggest this number is much, much lower.

It’s easy to oversimplify the effects that everything, including diet and lifestyle, have on our lives. For example, the Blue Zones website claims that research shows that attending faith-based services four times a month can lead to an additional lifespan of four to fourteen years. Being married can reportedly last as long as three years, and people who consume a quarter pound of fruit (the equivalent of an apple) daily are 60 percent less likely to die in the next four years than those who don’t.

Although these claims are based on research, there are questions about the methodology and other limitations of this and other studies. These types of outcomes are virtually impossible to quantify and accurately predict for each individual, and are subject to a host of confounding factors.

While some people may find the concept of Blue Zones controversial, there is still value in implementing some of the health behaviors that we know benefit health: reducing stress as much as possible, exercising in ways that are fun and intuitively, following a diet that is plant-forward and low in added sugars, and finding a sense of purpose and community.

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