SALT LAKE CITY — What is the secret to a long, healthy and happy life? Is it the way you eat or the way you move? Perhaps it’s your attitude and outlook on life. Ask two people and they may give you very different answers.
However, ask someone who lives in a Blue Zone and you might find a common theme.
What is a Blue Zone?
In 2004, a team of researchers set out around the world to identify places where people lived measurably better and longer. They soon identified five "Blue Zones": Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
Within these Blue Zones, the researchers found there are 10 times more centenarians (people living to age 100 or more) than in the United States, and the people have lower chronic disease rates.
"People who live longer are inherently healthier, so researchers have studied the health behaviors of these populations in order to understand how others may benefit from lifestyle changes to improve health," says registered dietitian Diane Norwood, owner of www.thewanderingrd.com, an easy, real-food resource, who lives in Okinawa, Japan.
The Power 9
People in Blue Zones tend to follow common lifestyle behaviors that promote long-term health and well-being. Dan Buettner, who discovered the Blue Zones, describes these lifestyle habits as "The Power 9."
"Many positive lifestyle habits have been observed in all five Blue Zone areas that researchers believe are contributing to longevity," states Norwood.
Such habits include minimal smoking, a focus on family, belonging to a faith-based community, eating mindfully and mostly plant-based, knowing your sense of purpose, stress reduction, and including natural moderate physical activity as a part of everyday life.
In addition, Norwood notes that eating fewer calories in an intentional way is thought to contribute to longevity.
"While living in Okinawa, Japan, I have observed the cultural practice of 'hara-hachi-bu,' which means eating until you are 80 percent full," Norwood said. "In practice, this means eating just until you are no longer hungry, and stopping before you feel full. And it is no accident that a variety of plant-based Japanese foods are typically served in various small serving dishes, which is a great method for managing portions."
Registered dietitian Lexi Endicott, a culinary nutrition specialist at To Taste, participated in the Blue Zones Project in Fort Worth, Texas. She notes that three of the Power 9 principles revolve around diet: Plant slant, the 80% rule and for those who drink, wine at 5.
"Plant Slant means that individuals consume the majority of their calories from plant-based sources: fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and healthy oils. Wine at 5 encourages people to enjoy a moderate amount of wine (less than 1 drink for women, less than 2 drinks for men per day) in a social setting," Endicott said.
Following a Blue Zone diet
Focusing on what to add to your diet rather than what to remove can be helpful when trying to adopt a healthful eating pattern. Endicott recommends aiming to make at least half of your plate fruits and vegetables and opting for natural and whole foods whenever possible.
"Choose foods that come from actual plants – not processing plants!" she said.
Norwood recommends cooking more simply from scratch and eating together with family or friends at the table as often as possible.
"Meals don’t need to be elaborate — real food can be easy to prepare if you adjust your mindset, keep meals simple and use a variety of seasonal produce as inspiration."
Some recipes to prepare and enjoy at home for family night include:
- Green veggie pesto pizza
- Stir-fried Thai chicken with noodles and peanut sauce
- Sheet pan chicken fajitas
- Mediterranean salmon with spring vegetables
There are so many family-friendly recipes out there that are also healthy and delicious.
Are any of the Power 9 characteristics more important than another?
While it’s hard to say that one thing is more important than the others, the effects of a plant-based diet cannot be understated, according to Endicott.
"Plant-forward diets have repeatedly been shown to decrease disease risk, are easy to prepare, and are generally more accessible and affordable for all," she said.
As a nutrition and diabetes expert, Norwood points out that it may be as important to note what these populations don’t include a lot of in their usual diets: highly processed convenience foods that are much more prevalent in other cultures of the world with lower life expectancies.
"Instead, a traditional Okinawan diet includes an abundance of mostly plant-based real foods that are grown on the island or caught from the sea: sweet potatoes, rice, soy products, pineapples, mangoes, and fish (often as sashimi) to name a few," Norwood said.
"However, there is some concern among experts that a long-life advantage in Okinawa may not prevail in younger generations," Norwood added, "Especially if dietary habits evolve to include more highly processed, convenient foods."
Overall, it appears that there isn’t one single habit that Blue Zone centenarians follow that make or break their long lives. It’s a combination and balance of the Power 9 characteristics. Practicing a more simple lifestyle and going back to basics when it comes to diet, movement and outlook on life seem like a good place to start.
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