More and more we are hearing about so called “blue zones”. That is, specific areas spread across the globe where there is a significantly higher than average proportion of their populations enjoying long and healthy lives.
These regions, which extend from Nicoya in Costa Rica, to Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Icaria in Greece and Loma Linda in California, have particular patterns of living in common to which their extraordinary health and longevity is attributed. Despite the vast geographical distance between them, the combination of lifestyle factors is remarkably similar. Researchers identified nine primary factors, listed below in no particular order.
A primarily plant based diet
Although these population do eat animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy, the bulk of their diets are from plant sources. Meat is consumed in small amounts approximately once a week.
Interestingly, and not too surprisingly, an article published in 2018 in the Lancet suggested that both low and high carbohydrate diets led to higher mortality risk, with lower risk being associated with a moderate intake (around 50 – 55%). Another important factor related to the sources of protein and fat, that is, those with higher animal based protein and fat sources, had a higher risk of mortality than those choosing predominantly plant based sources. Another recent Sydney University study also found that a low protein, high carbohydrate diet may be protective of brain health.
It is unlikely that there will ever be consensus on this issue, with individual variances meaning that one size will never fit all. Yet, we continue to obsess about the latest food and diet fads which come and go. We’re fairly confident that those residing in the so called blue zones are not obsessing with calories, diets and and macros. What is evident though is the focus on balance and quality of food. Balance is achieved by variety of predominantly whole, local fresh foods, and food it is enjoyed with others. There is a conscious and intuitive aspect to their consumption. That is paying attention to the signals of the body, particularly the hunger and satiety signals, which leads to point number 2…
Stop eating when 80% full
The ancient mantra to stop eating when stomach’s are 80% full requires paying attention to these satiety signals which prevents over eating. Smallest meals are eaten towards the end of the day.
Moderate alcohol intake
Despite recent research suggesting there is no safe level of alcohol intake, inhabitants in these regions enjoy moderate and regular alcohol intake, importantly enjoyed with friends.
A sense of belonging
The great majority of centenarians involved in research belonged to a faith based community of any denomination, and attended services regularly.
Centenarians interviewed had a strong sense of family and a life partner. They were very committed to their children and lived in close proximity to other family members.
In addition to the above, centenarians were part of small, robust, like-minded social connections, encouraging healthy behaviours.
The founder of the Positive Psychology movement, Martin Seligman, includes relationships (of all kinds) amongst a key set of factors in his scientific theory of happiness, known as PERMA (Positive Emotions; Engagement; Relationships; Meaning and Accomplishments).
Sense of purpose
Not surprisingly, a sense of purpose is also linked to better health and a longer life.
This is also supported in Seligman’s PERMA model, relating to the ‘Meaning’ category.
Prolonged stress is well documented as being detrimental to our health. Stress contributes to numerous health conditions from anxiety and depression to digestive issues and chronic inflammatory conditions.
Those living in the blue zones are not immune to stress, however they have learned ways to manage their stress through rituals and slowing down. For more on this see article on regulating our nervous system.
Exercise through natural activity
This means that these populations move regularly through day to day work activities, rather than going to gyms and running marathons.
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