Diana Nelson

Discover Keys to Longevity and Good Health from the Blue Zones

Living life to the fullest in your 90s and 100s may be easier than you think. Learn about Blue Zones – places where people forget to die.


Blue Zone is a geographical area in the world where people tend to live longer, often reaching the age of age 90 or even 100 years or more. The Blue Zone technically is an unscientific term. The term was first used by writer Dan Buettner, who studied areas of the world where people live exceptionally long lives. They are called ‘Blue Zones’ because when Buettner and his colleagues were looking for the areas, they circled them in blue on a map.

Blue Zones Map

5 identified Blue Zones in the World

1Okinawa, Japan

Many Blue Zones emphasize family and community, but bonding reaches its peak in this Japanese culture. Okinawans are supported by their moai, a small but tight-knit social circle meant to be there through all of life’s ups and downs. Moai provides social support that is strong enough to dull mental stressors and reinforce shared healthy behaviours. Moai also provides financial support: all members contribute a certain amount of money to a general pool, which a member in need is free to use to cover unexpected expenses. The result? A culture that boasts the longest-living women in the world, many of them are older than 100 years.

Okinawa, Japan, Blue Zones

2Ikaria, Greece

This Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.

One in three Ikarians reaches the age of 90 years and hardly ever suffers from dementia and chronic disease because of the combination of late bedtimes offset by daily naps and strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet (nutrition characterized by eating lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, potatoes and olive oil propels).

Ikaria Greece, Blue Zones

3Barbagia region, Sardinia, Italy

Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.

A largely plant-based diet, daily physical activity and familial closeness have given this Blue Zone the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world. Sardinian shepherds, who walk at least five miles a day, live even longer than 100 years. What is more, in this community, the M26 marker, a genetic variant linked to extreme longevity, has been passed down through generations.

Sardinia, Italy, Blue Zones

4The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

This place has world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality, and the second-highest concentration of male centenarians.

Most Blue Zone residents avoid processed food, but Nicoyans take it to another level. The Costa Rican people traditionally get most of their caloric intake from beans, squash, corn, and tropical fruits. This nutrient-dense plant-based diet, accompanied by plenty of outdoor time gives the inhabitants of this Blue Zone strong, well-nourished bodies. Meanwhile, a plan de Vida, or guiding life purpose, helps Nicoyans remain mentally and spiritually fulfilled into their 90s and beyond.

The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, Blue Zones

5Loma Linda, California, USA

The U.S.’s only Blue Zone is a haven for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Protestant denomination. A shared set of principles, emphasis on community and adherence to the Sabbath a day of rest, reflection and recharging help Loma Linda Adventists live 10 years longer than their fellow Americans. Many avoid meat and eat plenty of plants, whole grains and nuts.

Loma Linda, California, U.S., Blue Zones

What do people in these Blue Zones have in common?

The analysis of Blue Zoners’ lifestyles and diets can give us an excellent indication of the best longevity strategies. From a scientific point of view, it’s difficult to divide factors which benefit Blue Zoners and which create problems for their longevity. But finding commonalities and patterns from most of the Blue Zones can guide us in our life choices.

The centenarians’ diet is the #1 factor for longevity

Diet and food intake is by far the most important factor and differentiator for people who live longer lives

1. They don’t count calories, take vitamins or weigh grams of protein.

They don’t restrict their food intake in fact, they all celebrate food. It starts with food choices. Most of the Blue Zone residents have easy access to locally sourced fruits and vegetables largely pesticide-free and organically raised. If not growing these food items in their own gardens, they have found places where they can purchase them, and more affordably than processed alternatives.

They have incorporated certain nutritious foods into their daily or weekly meals foods that often are not even found on the shelves of convenience stores or on the menus of fast-food restaurants across the country.

2. 95% of their diet consists of plant-based foods

Whole grains and pulses dominate the dinner table in each of the Blue Zones all year round. Long-livers eat seasonal vegetables in all their impressive variety, and for the winter they salt or dry the excess. The best of the best foods for longevity are green leafy vegetables. The mortality rate among middle-aged people who ate at least a cup of cooked greens daily was half that of those who did not eat greens.

Science says that choosing clean foods such as vegetables is good for the health of long livers.

3. They have one important rule when they have a launch or dinner

Blue zone inhabitants stop eating when they’re 80% full. This 20% gap can make a huge difference when it comes to losing or gaining weight.

Okinawa Diet Plan Blue Zones

4. They eat meat no more than twice a week

Families in most Blue Zones do not eat a lot of meat. It is generally recommended to aim for no more than 60 grams of mean and no more than 5 times a month. Choose chicken, lamb or turkey from local farms. Meat in the Blue Zones comes from animals that graze freely or are fed locally, which probably results in a higher content of Omega-3 fatty acids.

What science says: eating little meat may be associated with reduced mortality.

5. They eat fish in small quantities

Fish is also eaten in small quantities, up to three portions a week. In the Blue Zones, fish is a common part of the daily diet. The best options are sardines, anchovies and cod: they do not accumulate much mercury and other chemicals.

Small, relatively inexpensive fish such as sardines, anchovies and cod – species in the middle of the food chain that are not exposed to high levels of mercury and other chemicals – are mostly eaten in the blue zones all around the world.

6. They reduce the consumption of dairy products

The human adult digestive system cannot always digest cow’s milk. People in Blue Zones get calcium from plants. For example, a cup of cooked cabbage provides as much calcium as a glass of milk. However, products based on goat and sheep’s milk, such as yoghurt and cheese, are common in the traditional diet of the people of Ikaria and Sardinia. Also, spicy pecorino cheese, made from the milk of Sardinian grass-fed sheep, is high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Science says that dairy products – especially fatty sheep or goat milk, and naturally fermented yoghurt without added sugar – are useful and good for health.

7. They limit the consumption of eggs

In the Blue Zones, people tend to eat only one egg two-three times a week: for example, Nicoya residents fry eggs and put them in corn tortillas, while on Okinawa Island people add a boiled egg to soup. Try replacing egg/egg breakfast with fruit or other plant-based foods.

Based on actual scientific data, limitations in egg consumption could not be a factor for superior longevity.

8. They eat half a cup of beans, chickpeas or lentils daily

Black beans in the Nicoya Peninsula, soybeans in Okinawa, lentils, chickpeas and white beans in the Mediterranean – pulses are a cornerstone of the blue zone diet. On average, beans contain 21% protein, 77% complex carbohydrates and only a tiny amount of fat. They are also an excellent source of fibre. Beans contain more nutrients than many other foods on Earth.

The study shows that half a cup of pulses a day – which is the average amount eaten by Blue Zones residents – provides most of the vitamins and minerals that humans need.

9. They replace regular bread with wholemeal or sourdough bread

In three of the five Blue Zones, bread is a staple food. But this is not the bread that many of us buy daily. Bread in Ikaria and Sardinia, for example, is made from a variety of 100% whole grains, including wheat, rye and barley. Each provides a wide range of nutrients and high levels of fibre. In addition, blue zone bread contains bacteria that ‘digest’ starch and gluten, helping the dough to rise. During this process, acid is formed, which gives the sourdough its flavour. As a result, such bread has a lower glycaemic load and contains less gluten.

Studies show that the sourdough baking process helps turn sugar and glucose into lactic acid. This process lowers the glycemic index, which means you’ll feel fuller for longer and your blood sugar levels will remain normal. Also, diets rich in whole grains are associated with longevity and healthier ageing.

10. They minimise sugar intake. No added sugar at all

Blue Zones residents consume no more than a fifth of the amount of added sugar that we eat on average. Long-lived people tend to add honey to their tea and eat desserts only on holidays. Try to avoid adding sugar to food and drinks. Eat biscuits, sweets and bread only a few times a week. And avoid processed foods with sweeteners.

Science says that higher consumption of artificial sweeteners may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

11. Nuts are their favourite snack

People in Blue Zones consume two handfuls of nuts on daily basis.

Science says: Data from a 30-year Harvard study showed that people who ate nuts had a 20% lower mortality rate than those who did not eat nuts. Other studies show that nuts help reduce “bad” cholesterol levels by 20%.

12. They avoid processed food and eat natural whole foods

Blue Zone residents eat food that is not processed industrially and not ‘enriched’ with additional flavour, colour and aroma enhancers. They take no additives and get everything their body needs from local whole foods, which they often grow themselves. Conclusion: avoid products with long ingredient lists and buy food from local farmers’ markets as often as possible.

Multiple studies say that eating little to no processed foods but plenty of antioxidant-rich tropical fruit is very beneficial for people’s health and longevity.

13. They drink a lot of water

Adventists in California recommend drinking 7 glasses of water a day, citing studies that show that good hydration reduces the likelihood of blood clots. Also, by quenching your thirst with plain water, you avoid sugary or artificially sweetened drinks and reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.

What science says is that plain water is much healthier than tea, coffee or other drinks. It is a basic element of life, and therefore our body needs it just as much as we need air.

14. They don’t fully eliminate alcohol (thank God) but limit its intake and prefer red wine

People in most Blue Zones drink one to three glasses a day. Wine promotes the absorption of plant antioxidants. In addition, a little alcohol at the end of the day reduces stress, which is good for your overall health.

What science says is to drink wine moderately. Moderate wine consumption may help explain the lower levels of stress among men.

15. They fancy coffee but drink green and herbal teas as well

People who live on the Nicoya Peninsula and the islands of Sardinia and Ikaria drink a lot of coffee. The results of a study link coffee drinking to a lower risk of developing dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Okinawans drink green tea all day long. It’s a green tea with jasmine flowers and turmeric called shan-pien, which translates to “tea with a bit of scent”, it helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. And the people of Ikaria brew teas of rosemary, wild sage and dandelion, all of which have anti-inflammatory properties.

What science says: Coffee beans are full of antioxidants, polyphenols and other substances with anti-inflammatory properties and may be linked to longevity and reduced risk of chronic diseases. Drinking green tea also helps to reduce the risk of serious diseases.

The Blue Zoners’ active lifestyle is the #2 factor for exceptional health and a long lifespan

physically active seniors blue zones

People living in Blue Zones are naturally physically active. Exercise is not something they do at the gym, in class or on the mat, but their environment constantly encourages them to move without even thinking about it. They work in their backyard gardens without the use of any mechanical conveniences, which encourages them to remain active in a natural way.

The list of detrimental effects of sedentary lifestyles is quite long, to name just a few: inactivity increases all causes of death, doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and rises colon cancer or high blood pressure odds. Although it is difficult to reduce sitting time in general, since most of our jobs require us to sit in front of a screen, we should all try to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives.

What science showed us is that those who did 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, compared to those who did none, had a 20% lower mortality rate.

Socialising and close-knit families are the #3 factor for a long life

blue zones happy seniors family

Family is also an important component of successful longevity in Blue Zones. This means supporting elderly parents by taking good care of them. They also commit to having a life partner who can increase their life expectancy by up to three years. They invest time and love in their children.

What science says is that caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with a lower mortality rate for caregivers.

Let’s sum the Blue Zones up

Blue Zones are areas of the world where people tend to live longer and healthier lives. There are five Blue Zones in the world: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. People in these regions tend to have a lower risk of chronic diseases and live life to the fullest even at a senior age. Good health and longevity of Blue-Zoners are provided with sense of purpose, strong family bonds, a plant-based diet and regular physical activity.

Although several behavior patterns found among centenarians – such as an active lifestyle and not overeating – are backed up by science and are useful to follow for a longer and healthier lifespan, the whole picture is more complicated. It is now accepted by the scientific community that exceptional longevity is a heritable trait. Therefore, one really has to have ‘the right genes’ to be able to reach super advanced age. Research is ongoing to uncover specific gene variants associated with an extremely long healthspan and lifespan. Moreover, researchers are often surprised by the resilience some centenarians demonstrate against a poor lifestyle. The lifestyle choices detrimental to most people’s health such as smoking and excessive drinking seem to be less dangerous for centenarians, which is again likely explained by their protective gene variants. It does not mean, however, that healthy lifestyle does not extend lifespan. It’s just that centenerians won the genetic lottery and can enjoy a long life almost irrespective of what they do. With genetics though it is the same as with other lotteries – chances are you are not among the very lucky winners, so making lifestyle choices based on scientific evidence is always a good idea.
Larisa Sheloukhova, PhD
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

Hungry for knowledge? Here is more

‘The Blue Zones Solution’, a great book to learn more about the Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner.

the blue zones book cover

The author reveals how to transform your health using smart nutrition, lifestyle, fitness habits etc. to live a longer life.

‘The Blue Zones kitchen’ – healthy recipes that can make the blue-zone lifestyle even more achievable and at the same time improve your health, prolong life and fill your kitchen with happiness.

the blue zones kitchen book cover

Healthypedia FAQ

The Blue Zones project is based on research into the regions of the world with the greatest concentration of centenarians (people who have lived to the age of 100 or older). There are five initial Blue Zones regions: Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; and Ikaria, Greece. These regions share nine traits that contribute to people's longevity.

The project aims to improve the general well-being of residents throughout the community. Well-being is a measure of a person's overall physical, social, and emotional health. Improved well-being leads to lower health care costs, increased productivity, and economic vitality, and provides benefits for all.

There are several key things you can do to incorporate Blue Zone principles into your life and potentially improve your health and longevity. These include finding purpose, creating strong social connections, a plant-based diet, and regular physical activity. It can also be helpful to reduce stress, get enough sleep and practice mindfulness.

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