An Exploration of the World’s Blue Zones

Tim Crowe Associate Professor in Nutrition at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne and Australian Blue Zone expert takes us through the science and evidence behind Blue Zones and a plant based diet.

What is a Blue Zone you may ask?

Well sit back, relax, and let us take you on a journey throughout the five regions of the world that experts have identified as Blue Zones, Ikaria  – Greece, Okinawa – Japan, Sardinia – Italy, Nicoya Peninsula – Costa Rica and a seventh day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.

Blue Zones are, in simple terms, hot spots in the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives. It is common for people in these areas to live to 100 with the number of centenarians almost 5-times higher than in Australia.

So why are people in Blue Zones living so much longer than us?

We recently invited one of Australia’s leading Blue Zone experts, Associate Professor Tim Crowe, to educate us.

A lot of the work in Blue Zones has been based on observations on the ground, so what does current research say to support the common habits of Blue Zones which are linked to longevity? There are 9 key elements they have in common.

  • Incorporating movement naturally as part of their daily routine – Blue Zone residents move every 10-15 minutes.
  • Have a sense of purpose each day.
  • Down shift and maintain a routine that helps keep them relaxed. Stress can lead to chronic inflammation in the body.
  • Stop eating when they are 80% full.
  • They eat a more plant based diet and minimal red meat.
  • They enjoy a glass of wine with friends and family.
  • They live as part of a community – whether this is faith based or meeting up once a week for a knitting class.
  • Engagement with family is key to a Blue Zone way of life.
  • Blue Zone residents enjoy an active social life.

Key Dietary Patterns for Health

One of the key elements of the Blue Zones is eating a plant based diet, and this major review from 2014 looked at the diet and chronic disease links from 304 meta-analyses and systematic reviews published in the last 63 years – the biggest analysis of its kind. The key findings showed that plant-based foods were more protective against the risk of developing chronic disease compared to animal-based foods. Amongst plant foods, grain-based foods seemed to have a small edge over fruits and vegetables.

For animal-based foods, the effects of dairy products on health were considered neutral overall and fish was considered protective. Red and processed meats were linked to a higher disease risk. This research mirrors the type of diets eaten in Blue Zone.

Plant Foods and Health

A recently published review in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the health of over 131,000 people and how it was related to the amounts of protein they ate from plant and animal based foods. Animal protein was linked to higher mortality from heart disease while plant protein was linked to lower mortality. There was a stronger link between the benefits of plant foods in people with at least one lifestyle risk factor (e.g. smoking, overweight, inactive, heavy drinking). The research team estimated that replacing processed red meat protein with the equivalent amount of plant protein would result in a 34% drop in earlier mortality and 12% if fresh red meat was replaced. Again, the dietary patterns studied in this work parallel with a Blue Zone diet.

Fruits, Vegetables and Happiness

Can eating more vegetables make you happy? In the first research of its kind, the answer seems to be ‘yes’. This study tracked the diet and mental health of a large sample of more than 12,000 randomly selected people in Australia. From the results, it was estimated that someone going from eating no fruits and vegetables to eating eight portions a day could experience an increase in life satisfaction which is equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment. Happiness is a key aspect of Blue Zones.

Diet and telomeres

So how exactly could the diets eaten by people in the Blue Zones lead to a longer life? One idea is that it may be linked to telomeres. Telomeres are the protective cap on the end of chromosomes which are linked to ageing and potentially a longer lifespan. The length of these telomeres shortens with age, leading scientists to begin looking into how much diet can influence telomere length. In the first study of its kind, researchers looked at studies that had previously collected information on both dietary patterns and telomere length of participants. From a pool of 17 studies, two clear themes emerged. Both a Mediterranean style dietary pattern and diets high in fruits and vegetables were linked to longer telomere length. Diets high in significantly refined grains, processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages point towards a shorter telomere length.

Sitting is the New Smoking

Recent research has looked at the benefit of small amounts of regular physical activity as opposed to a block of exercise each day, finding that standing or moving for several hours over the course of the day is better than just dedicated exercise with long periods of sedentary activity around it. This fits with the Blue Zone finding of people undertaking regular purposeful activity throughout their day, in contrast to our Western lifestyles which typically feature long periods of sedentary activity, especially in white collar occupations.

For Australians wanting to adopt a more ‘Blue Zone’ lifestyle, the first place to start is to embrace the variety of wonderful plant foods available to us and to shut out the voices of those suggesting you should exclude and ban foods from your diet. Enjoy a wide variety of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits and eat according to your tastes and preferences. The typical Australian diet is too high in highly processed discretionary foods so these are the food swaps we need to make to get more of those Blue Zone foods in our diet.

Less than half of Australians meet the minimum recommendations for physical activity, but this doesn’t mean you need to join a gym or running club. Being active throughout your day, be it enjoying your coffee whilst walking with friends rather than sitting in the café, spending more time in the garden, using the car less and giving the dog more exercise will all contribute to great health benefits.

And finally, social media has its place, but nothing beats human connection as this is inscribed in our DNA – follow your interests and join a local community group, do some volunteering or make meeting up with friends a regular activity.

To watch Tim Crowe’s talk on the science behind Blue Zones, please follow this link.

For a range of delicious whole grain and legume rich recipes take a look at the GLNC recipe section and for more information on the health benefits of grains and legumes visit our website here!

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