The Mediterranean diet is blue

BlueZoneMapAs in “Blue Zone”.

The concept of Blue Zones grew out of a National Geographic project to identify places around the world where people lived much longer than average, with 10 times as many people reaching 100 years of age compared to the global average.  What is it about these places that fosters healthy aging and long lives?

The project identified 5 geographically and culturally diverse places;

  1. the island of Ikaria, in Greece
  2. Okinawa, a Japanese island
  3. the Ogliastra region of Sardinia in Italy
  4. Loma Linda, California
  5. the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica

Only one of the places is actually in the Mediterranean: Ikaria.  But they all have many things in common, including some basic dietary principles:

  • plant-based diet, including plenty of greens and other vegetables
  • little meat.  Maybe once a week and just a small portion
  • moderate alcohol
  • beans, as in legumes, are a significant part of the daily diet

All of which sounds a lot like a Mediterranean style diet.  Even though the specific foods might differ between, say, Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italy, the basic principle of a plant-based diet with little meat is easy to accomplish, and has the same health benefits.

Eat your hearts out, Paleo fanatics.  Meat-heavy diets did not make the cut.  Even more astonishing, these long-lived people eat plenty of foods every day that fad diets routinely describe as poison or toxic or fattening: potatoes, bread, corn, dairy, white rice.  Horrors!  Not to mention fructose from honey and fresh fruit.

Then there are the foods that Blue Zone people never eat, such as sugary junk food, soft drinks, snack foods, super-sized coffee drinks, and massive portions at meals.  Diet behaviors common in the US — counting calories, following fad diets, guzzling artificially sweetened foods or using activity trackers — are not mentioned.  No miracle super foods, no cleanses, no Paleo.

Of course, diet isn’t likely to be the only explanation for long life in these Blue Zones.  Lifestyle certainly contributes benefits: daily physical activity, close communities, low stress and religious observance.  According to study data, lifestyle pushed people to be physically active about every 20 minutes, burning an extra 500-1000 calories per day.  On the flip side, napping and restful sleep patterns may also be part of the equation.

The long-lived Blue Zone residents also stay mentally sharp.  Recent research on the impact of a Mediterranean diet on cognitive function may offer an explanation.  A group of more than 300 older people in Spain were followed for 6 years.  One group followed a Mediterranean diet plus olive oil; a second group had the same diet supplemented with walnuts; the third group followed a low fat diet.  At the end of 6 years, the two Mediterranean diet groups had improved cognitive function compared to the low fat group.

The Blue Zone Project has now morphed into a diet book and lifestyle industry.  If you want to incorporate some of the basic diet principles into your own life, a basic Mediterranean Diet is sufficient.

Here’s a lovely story about one of the Blue Zone sites — Ikaria — published in October 2012 the New York Times Magazine by Dan Buettner, the main investigator for the Blue Zone Project.

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