What to know about the Blue Zone diet and other healthy habits for longevity

The question of how to live a long, healthy life is increasingly at the forefront of medical research. While centuries ago some may have turned to finding mythical immortality-granting items like the Holy Grail, scientists now say that achieving longevity may rely on eating the right foods, adopting healthy habits, and remaining socially active.

Reaching your hundredth birthday means you become a member of a “special club” of centenariansTrusted Source. While researchers believe the number of centenarians was very low before 1900, today many more people are able to reach this ripe old age.

As of 2021, there were an estimated 573,000 centenarians globally. The United Nations expects that number to jump rapidly, with a reported estimate of 3.7 million by 2050.

What do centenarians do to help them reach triple-digit birthdays — what is their secret? Medical News Today spoke with six experts to find out what the “secret sauce” behind longevity is.


Blue zones: what are they?


In 2016, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner and his team published a studyTrusted Source on what they found to be the secrets to longevity.

Dubbed the Blue Zones, Buettner identified five specific areas of the world where people consistently live over 100 years of age. These areas are:

“These are places where human beings have lived manifestly longest,” Buettner explained to Medical News Today. “They’ve achieved the health outcomes we want: long lives largely free of chronic diseaseTrusted Source. Since only 80% of how long we live is dictated by disease, these people’s lifestyles and environments offer us instructions and clues for how we can set up our lives to live longer.”

Within these five areas, Buettner discovered there were nine common practices that people followed that might explain their slower aging process. Called the Power 9, they include:

Loneliness, said Buettner, is a top risk factor for a shorter life, so preventing that as much as we can could help add years to our lives:

“We know that lonely people are expected to live 8 fewer years than well-connected people and that health behaviors [are] measurably contagious. People in Blue Zones are in socially connected villages with strong social ties, which gives them a longevity edge from the very beginning.”

“There’s no short-term fix [or] supplement for longevity,” he added. “Learn plant-based dishes that you like and cook at home. Curate a social circle of three to five healthy friends [who] will care about you on a bad day. Health behaviors are contagious, and friends tend to be long-term adventures.”


What is the best diet for longevity?


As diet makes up a few of the Power 9 learned from Blue Zones, Buettner has also launched the Blue Zone Food Guidelines that feature 11 recommendations reflecting how the world’s longest-living people ate for most of their lives.

“If you want to know what a centenarian [did to live] to be 100, you have to know what they ate during their whole [life],” he said. “Working with Harvard for my book The Blue Zones Kitchen, we collected 155 dietary studies done in all Blue Zones over the past 80 years and averaged them.”

“It was clear that over 90% of their traditional dietary intake came from whole food, plant-based sources [and] was about 65% complex carbs,” noted Buettner. “The pillars of every longevity diet in the world are whole grains, nuts, greens, and other garden vegetables, tubersTrusted Source, and beans.”

Dr. Valter Longo, Edna M. Jones Chair in Gerontology and professor of gerontology and biological sciences at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, developed the Longevity DietTrusted Source after years of research into aging, nutrition, and disease.

“The Longevity Diet, based on [the] five pillars of longevity, entails all of the everyday and periodic dietary habits that are associated with increased longevity and healthspan,” he explained to MNT.

The main facets of the Longevity Diet include:

  • eating a low-protein pescatarian diet until the age of 65–70 years, followed by moderate proteins later in life
  • fasting for 12 hours every night
  • doing, on average, three cycles of a fasting-mimicking diet per year, each lasting 5 days.

“Because diet [is] intended as ‘how and what we eat’ and not as a method to lose weight, [it] can regulate the genes that regulate the aging process, but also those that regulate the removal of damaged components of cells and the regeneration of parts of various tissues and organs,” Dr. Longo added.

Additionally, previous research suggests that the Mediterranean diet can also provide benefits when it comes to longevity.

A review published in January 2020 concluded that the Mediterranean diet helps slow downTrusted Source the progression of aging and the onset of frailtyTrusted Source in older age.

And research published in March 2021 says adhering to the Mediterranean diet may add yearsTrusted Source to a person’s life.


Why is diet so important for longevity?


According to Monique Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of Nutrition-In-Sight in Johnson City, TN, and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when it comes to eating for longevity, diets like the Blue Zone Diet, Longevity Diet, and Mediterranean diet stand out because of the lifestyle components they share.

“Examples of commonalities observed within these populations include more families and individuals growingTrusted Source and consuming their food [and] eating more whole foods, as in closest to what Mother Nature has made versus derived from a manufacturing plant, industrial farm, or fast food chain,” she explained to MNT.

“Overall intake and composition of these diets include less highly-processed foods, therefore often automatically decreasing levels of sodium, artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives, fats or added sugar.” Richard noted.

“These dietary patterns often include foods lower in saturated fats, cholesterol, and calories, including more foods that are richer in nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants like vitamin C, E, A, [and] B, and higher in minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and iodine.” – Monique Richard


how to change dietary habits to improve quality of life


When looking to make diet changes to increase longevity, Richard said it is not just about extending life, but also about increasing its quality.

She suggested:

  • take inventory of what food you have on hand and what should be added or subtracted
  • reassess your sugary beverageTrusted Source intake
  • examine how much animal-derived meats and other foods you are eating and consider alternatives
  • cook more at home
  • take the time to shop for groceries rather than using a delivery system
  • plant herbs in pots or cartons on a window sill or small deck if you do not have a garden space to cultivate them
  • shop at the farmer’s market
  • experiment with “new to you” foods
  • brighten up dishes with herbs and spices
  • add more greens, beans, lentils, and vegetables into your daily diet
  • take time to celebrate food.

“The emphasis is not on restriction or negative consequences, but leaning into true quality, consistency, and overall health with a pillar of foundational pure, wholesome factors,” Richard said.

“Don’t forget to slow down with eating, with chewing, with making or creating a meal, with making time to stop and smell the flowers, [and] with making long-lasting meaningful changes,” she added.


can positive thinking promote longevity?


The “power of positive thinking” is known to be beneficial to a person’s overall mental health. However, previous research shows that a positive attitude may even help a person live longer.

A study published in August 2019 found that being optimistic was associated with a person living 11-15% longer and having a stronger likelihood of living to age 85 or older.

Research published in October 2022 suggested that positive-thinking women in an ethnically diverse United States population lived an average of 4.4 years moreTrusted Source than those who did not think positively.

“Having a positive, optimistic outlook reduces our risk for developing chronic diseases and gives us a greater chance of living past 85,” Dr. Karen D. Sullivan, a board-certified neuropsychologist and owner of I CARE FOR YOUR BRAIN in Pinehurst, NC explained to MNT.

“The mechanism behind these benefits is thought to be related to the protection optimism offers against the inflammatory damage of stress. Studies on negative emotions show a weakening effectTrusted Source on the immune system.” – Dr. Karen D. Sullivan

Additionally, Dr. Karen Miller, a neuropsychologist, geropsychologist, and senior director of the Brain Wellness and Lifestyle Programs at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA, noted that inflammation caused by stress is one of the culprits leading to more rapid aging, more physical difficulties, and more cognitive difficultiesTrusted Source.

“So when we’re thinking positive and engaging in positive behaviors, such as […] meditation, yoga, participating in our own personal religious practicesTrusted Source, getting out and walking, exercising, [or] enjoying the fresh airTrusted Source, all those things are bringing down our stress and bringing down our level of inflammation,” she continued.

“If we’re under a lot of stress we’re going to have higher inflammation and higher inflammation actually can cause cellular damage to our bodies, particularly our brains,” Dr. Miller noted.

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