Blue Zones: The Secret to Eating to Live Longer

Five specific regions around the world have been identified as having the highest concentrations of 100-year-old people. And a regional slow-food diet plays a big role in their longevity.

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Greece has a high concentration of centenarians among European countries, alongside Italy. Photo by: Tom Jastram/Shutterstock

For well over a decade, longevity researcher Dan Buettner (also a National Geographic Fellow) has underscored the lifestyle of Blue Zones, a term he and his research team coined, referring to five specific areas across the globe where there are exceptionally high rates of centenarians. These areas are Icaria (Greece), Ogliastra, Barbagia, Seulo of Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and the community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California (U.S.A.). There are nine overarching factors, known as the ‘Power of Nine,’ Buettner’s team identified as evinced reasons for significantly increased longevity in these areas.

The common denominators include, ‘Moving Naturally’ (daily walking or gardening); ‘Purpose’ (motivation to get up in the morning); ‘Down Shift’ (activities like prayer, meditation, naps, and early evening tipples with friends are ways different Blue Zone communities shed stress); ‘The 80% Rule’(which means eat only until you are 80 per cent full); ‘Plant Slant’ ( significant portions of beans and greens in each region’s diet, and if meat is eaten, it is done in small, spaced out portions); ‘Wine @ 5’ (moderate drinking is common in four of the Blue Zones, the wines of Ikaria and Sardinia being particularly salubrious when portioned adequately); ‘Belong’ (the team’s research indicates that the vast majority of Blue Zone citizens are part of some form of faith-based community); ‘Loved Ones First’ (close family ties); ‘Right Tribe’ (strong social circles).

Three of these nine factors have to do with one’s diet, evidence of the Blue Zones’ plentiful organic and local fare. They also show that taste and wholesomeness can go hand in hand in these regions where bowlfuls of soba noodles, wedges of pecorino cheese, and platters of sizzling, Ikarian-style ratatouille are enjoyed on the supper table. We examine what mealtimes mean in these far-off corners of the world, where people are most likely to enjoy their favourite foods for 100 years.

 

Zone 1:

Ikaria, Greece

 

Blue Zones: The Secret To Eating To Live Longer

The Ikarian dance, in which locals hold each other close in circles, fosters a strong cultural connection. Photo by: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

The Mediterranean diet of the island of Ikaria is similar to Sardinia in its consumption of grass-fed goat’s milk, Kathoura (goat’s cheese), olive oil, seafood preferences, reiki (heather) honey, and wine, typically made with its indigenous Fokianou (red) and Begleri (white) grapes. However, while Sardinians prefer small portions of pork, Ikarians show a taste for potatoes lightly fried in olive oil. They often appear in homemade medleys with zucchini, but a true summertime treat is soufico, an Ikarian ratatouille.

The potatoes are accompanied by garden-fresh bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, wafting scents of garlic and oregano. Herbs have quite a bit to do with the Ikarian Blue Zone diet, appearing in a host of popular herbal teas. Hawthorne, chamomile, and mint make up the typical end of the spectrum, while oregano, sage, borage, and wild rosemary are some delicious options one might not expect.

Other produce perhaps obscure to outsiders may be Kolokasi, a rare variety of sweet potato, toxic when raw, featured in soups and salads. Of the islands 100 plus varieties of greens, kale, silverbeet, and collards find their way into a multitude of dishes and are very popular in savoury cornmeal or filo pies. Greek yogurt, oranges or orange zest, and Ikarian pine honey are the core ingredients to two of the island’s most popular desserts. Portokalopita is made with filo pastry and homemade orange syrup, and Bobota is a cornmeal pie filled with raisins or dried figs.

Get A Taste

Visit Karimalis Winery, an Ikarian vineyard and agrotourism operation, that produces “the ancient ‘Pramnios’ wine of Homer’s time,” honouring a five-century long family tradition. Cooking courses, foraging excursions, artisan visits and workshops are found on Ikaria-based tours offered by Diane Kochilas (dianekochilas.com/ikaria-classes) and Meni Valle (menivalle.com.au), both of whom have authored cookbooks on Ikaria’s culinary role as a Blue Zone.

 

Zone 2:

Loma Linda, California, U.S.A

 

Blue Zones: The Secret To Eating To Live Longer

The Adventists were acolytes of plant-based eating long before it became a food fad around the world. Photo by: Lowe Llaguno/Shutterstock

The Seventh Day Adventists, who established a church community in southern California well over a century ago, believe in eating ‘clean foods’. Typically, members of the church movement are stalwart proponents of ‘your body is temple’, and many look to scripture as an influence of their, mostly, plant-based diet; some in the community sometimes supplement their diet with small portions of fish and certain kosher meats. Unlike the four other identified Blue Zones, you aren’t going to find hallowed soba shops or ancient corn tortilla-makers among the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda. What you will find are lots of Adventist cookbooks that draw upon the merits of nutritious, vegetarian dishes.

The Loma Linda University—a professed Christ-centered Seventh-day Adventist university, “dedicated to mission-focused learning through the integration of health, science and faith”—offers online recipes and cooking tips, showcasing vegetarian and vegan dishes such as Vegan Meatballs in Thai Curry, Cauliflowers Steaks, and Gluten Free Quinoa Burgers. The University’s uReach Cafe’s entirely vegetarian menu offers a daily-changing menu serving the likes of cashew burgers, veggie burritos, and strawberry and pecan salads. Loma Linda features farmers’ markets on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, and several reputed, local health food stores.

Get a taste

There are several popular cookbooks that underscore the Adventist diet. The Healthiest People on Earth: Your Guide to Living 10 Years Longer with Adventist Family Secrets and Plant-Based Recipes was written by John Howard Weeks, the great-great-grandson of Adventist founder Ellen G. White. Sue Radd’s Food as Medicine, published by the Australia-based and Adventist Signs Publishing, also received ample accolades.

 

Zone 3:

Nicoya, Costa Rica

 

Blue Zones: The Secret To Eating To Live Longer

Simple but wholesome dishes such as gallo pinto (black beans and rice) have remained Nicoya’s staples for generations. Photo by: Bryce Jackson/Shutterstock

 

Nicoya’s natural treasures make it a fruitful culinary paradise. In this Eden, you are encouraged to eat the apple—specifically, the cashew apple, or marañon, which reportedly holds five times the vitamin C levels of an orange. Over a quarter of the local diet is made up of fruit, from papaya, mango, pineapples, and bananas to the more obscure chico zapote, a tropical ellipsoid berry that aids digestion. Soaked chan seeds and juanilama (lemon verbena) also aid digestion, part of the many veggies, roots, herbs, and seeds that make up an even large portion of the diet. Fine varieties of taro, cassava, and hearts of palm also have their place on the table, as do the bright culantro coyote leaves topping soups and Cassia grandis honey, a natural syrup from the Carao tree.

The gallo pinto (black beans and rice) is the cornerstone of Nicoya’s diet. It is often upgraded to a Casado, which means, “married man,” a lunch plate of gallo pinto, corn tortillas, plantains, sautéed cabbage salad, and perhaps a few slices of the local cheese (queso fresco)—topped off by a small amount of protein, either beef, chicken, fish or egg. Researchers have highlighted the local water as being rich in calcium and magnesium. Similarly, the corn tortillas are traditionally prepared with ash and lye, a method that is found to increase their calcium content.

Get a taste

Nicoya’s many surfing camps and schools typically offer healthy meals that show off the region’s rich produce. Check out Blue Surf Sanctuary, San Teresa (bluesurfsanctuary.com); Safari Surf School, Nosara (safarisurfschool.com); Surf Simply, Playa Guiones (surfsimply.com); and Peaks ‘n Swells, Montezuma (surfcamppeaksnswells.com). Visit Curu Wildlife Refuge National Park (curuwildliferefuge.com) to learn about Nicoya’s edible plants, fruits and wildlife.

 

Zone 4

Okinawa, Japan

 

Blue Zones: The Secret To Eating To Live Longer

Okinawans also exhibit a strong sense of ‘ikigai’ or purpose, late into their lives. Photo by: Beeboys/Shutterstock

 

In Okinawa organic vegetables, often grown by locals in garden plots, are the islands’ staples. Expect to find loads of fresh carrots, bitter melon (goya), sweet potatoes, soy beans, shiitake mushrooms, turmeric, radishes, and mugwort, often served alongside each other in traditional dishes. Okinawan brown rice, soba noodles, and tofu are also typically found on the region’s daily menu, frequently accompanied by a dash of local soy sauce. Small amounts of fish are spread out in the diet, as is, surprisingly, stewed pork—cooked for days and skimmed of fat—sometimes braised with Awamori (‘Okinawa’s traditional rice spirit), resulting in small servings of a collagen-rich stew. Other must-trys are the region’s purple sweet potatoes and squash, umibudo (sea grapes), ryukyu kaiseki (traditional Japanese cuisine featuring courses of sashimi and tea), jushi (rice porridge), and turmeric tea.

Get a taste

Try goya chanpuru (bitter melon and tofu stir fry) at Shimagohan Kokoro Hokkori Okinawa Meshi or Yunangi. For soba noodles in a refined pork and bonito broth full of pickled ginger, scallions, seaweed, and fish cake, and served with slender cuts of pork belly, spare ribs, or collagen-rich boiled pigs feet, head to Kishimoto Shokudo, Shuri Soba, Miyazato Soba, and Yae Shokudo. Yushi dofu (unset, fluffy Okinawan tofu) is served in a miso or soy and fish soup, topped with scallions: try it at Tofuno Higa, Nanahoshi Shokudo, or Tofuya Beans. It is best enjoyed with local sides such as Okara Irichi (a patty of soybean pulp and diced root vegetables). Zenzai, a shaved ice dessert, is often served in Okinawa with warm, handmade rice flour dumplings of red kidney beans boiled in black sugar, topped with sweet potato powder or ginger syrup. Sample it at Nakayukui Market Onnanoeki, Ryūpin Onnanoeki, Fujiya Tomari Honten, or Tsurukamedou Zenzai.

 

Zone 5

Ogliastra, Barbagia, And Seulo of Sardinia, Italy

Blue Zones: The Secret To Eating To Live Longer

Pecorino cheese, made from goat’s milk, features prominently in Sardinian cuisine. Photo by: Alessio Orru/Shutterstock

Sardinia is known for its high percentage of shepherds (and three million sheep), underlining how important this livestock is to the local way of life. Fresh goat’s milk, pecorino cheeses, sheep broth, and Agnello coi carciofi (lamb and artichoke stew) are all staples. These stews are eaten with local breads, using su framentu (natural yeast) and semolina, like crisp and well-crusted coccoi and scivagiuu. Such grains make up nearly 50 per cent of the diet, according to Blue Zones’ research. Also comprising a small but important part of the diet is seafood; think grilled eel followed up by unctuous sea urchin pasta, or the vermentino wine-based soup, Cassola, made with mussels, clams and octopus. Pork is a treasured delicacy, their feet and pork belly found in favata (a stew of fava beans, cabbage and fennel).

The island also holds a trove of lush gardens and farms. From above, apple, lemon, pear, pomegranate, and fig trees shade gardens and line orchards, while below, melons, zucchini, and cabbages poke up
from the rich soil. The boughs of walnut, pine, almond, and olive trees are equally prized. Desserts, perhaps, best demonstrate how fresh produce is incorporated into diet here. Pabassinas, typically served as pastry-like cookies or biscuits, feature raisins, lemon rind, and cinnamon in a flour mixed with pine nuts, walnuts, toasted almonds; and seadas, or sebadas, are pastry pockets filled with fresh pecorino, bitter arbutus flower honey, and lemon rind. Though, the most prized fruits are the grapevines of cannonau, used to make the famed cannonau wine, which, in moderate amounts of a glass or two a day, plays a vital role in this Blue Zone’s diet.

Get a taste

Enjoy custom food and wine tours through Tasting Sardinia  (tastingsardinia.com). Ciclo Posse organises cycling tours, from day trips to week-long escapades, centered around cooking (cicloposse.com/cycling-cooking-sardinia). Agriturismos, working farms or traditional homes that often offer accommodation, are an ideal way of exploring the island (agriturismo.it/en/farmhouse/sardinia) and (sardinianatour.com/farmhouses-sardinia).

 

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India May-June 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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