Blue Zones: What They Are and What They Tell Us

In November 2005, writer Dan Buettner published groundbreaking research highlighting five specific areas of the world where people live significantly longer than in other parts of the world. He termed these geographical areas “Blue Zones.”

These Blue Zones – the areas with the highest concentration of centenarians are:

1. Okinawa, Japan
2. Sardinia, Italy
3. Nicoya, Costa Rica
4. Icaria, Greece
5. Loma Linda, California (among a large population of Seventh-Day Adventists)

One of the most common questions about the people who live in these geographical reasons is what they eat. While foods eaten vary from region to region, there is still very much that Blue Zone diets have in common.

What People in the Blue Zones Eat

Those who live in the Blue Zones have primarily plant-based diets, with as much as 95% of daily food intake coming from vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. Foods they eat on an almost daily basis are:

• Beans
• Dark Green Leafy Vegetables (Spinach, Kale, Chards, Collards)
• Sweet Potatoes
• Olive Oil (Extra Virgin, Cold-Pressed)
• Nuts of all Kinds
• Whole Wheat Flour
• Barley
• Fruits, Including Blueberries
• Green Tea or Herbal Teas
• Oats
• Fish

What People in the Blue Zones Limit in Their Diets

• Dairy (Except Milk and Cheeses in Sardinia, and Yogurt in Greece)
• Meat (2 or 3 Times per Week at Most)
• Eggs
• Processed Grains (Bleached Flour)
• Sugar

What People in the Blue Zones Never Eat

• Packaged Sweets
• Salty Snacks
• Processed Meats
• Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Getting Started
So, how do you begin to bring the art and science of the Blue Zones into your kitchen? Well, you have everything you need. Here are a few recipes to try. Just do all you can to use fresh, local ingredients. You’ll find these recipes are as tasty as they are healthy.

Five-Minute Tasty Beans and Squash
This recipe comes right out of Nicoya, Costa Rica, and makes use of beans, rice, squash, and avocado – all staples of that geographical area.

1 cup Black Beans
1 cup Brown Rice (can be bought pre-cooked at Trader Joe’s)
1 large Squash or Bag (seeded peeled and cubed)
1 Avocado
4 T Olive Oil

Toss squash in olive oil. Microwave all ingredients in a separate bowl until hot. Serve together. Top with sliced avocado with a dash of hot sauce.

Spiced Chickpeas & Sweet Potatoes with Brown Rice
This dish is right out of Okinawa. Enjoy!

1½ cups Frozen Brown Rice
2 Sweet Potatoes
3 Cloves of Garlic
1 tbsp Fresh Ginger
1 can no-salt Canned Chickpeas
½ tsp Cinnamon
2 tsp Cumin
4 cups Baby Kale

Reheat the frozen brown rice according to the directions on the package.

Produce Prep: Wash and chop the sweet potatoes (see step #3 for sweet potato preparation options). Peel and mince the garlic and fresh ginger. Rinse and drain the canned chickpeas.

The sweet potatoes can be prepared in two ways: If you have extra time, you can bake them in the oven. Cut the sweet potatoes into 1/2-inch-wide round medallions and bake them at 400 for 25-30 minutes, flipping at around 15 minutes. If you’re looking for an option that takes less than 10 minutes, you’ll be preparing mashed sweet potatoes in the microwave. Poke holes all over the sweet potato with a fork. Microwave for about 5-9 minutes or until soft throughout. (Larger sweet potatoes may take up to twice as long to cook.) Once cooked, mash the sweet potatoes with a fork.

In a saucepan, heat the beans on medium heat with the cinnamon, cumin, garlic, fresh ginger, and a few tablespoons of water until the beans are warm and soft.

Add the baby kale (or any other leafy greens) to the pan, and put the lid on to lightly steam the baby kale leaves. The baby kale is done when the leaves are limp (at about 3 minutes). Stir occasionally. Mash the sweet potatoes in a bowl. Add them to the beans and baby kale mix.

To plate, top the brown rice with the veggie and chickpea mixture. Season to taste.

Colorful Caponata with Lentils
A beautiful, tasty dish from the islands off Italy. Often served with pita.

1 Eggplant
1 Zucchini
½ Red Pepper
4 Garlic Cloves
2 Celery Stalks
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
1 can no-salt Diced Tomatoes
2 teaspoons Dried Oregano
½ cup Green Lentils
2 teaspoons Capers
2 teaspoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Package Store-Bought Pita Bread

Produce Prep: Wash all the veggies. Remove the tough ends and stems from the eggplant and zucchini. Chop each into bite-sized chunks. Remove the stem and seeds from the red pepper and chop into bite-sized chunks. Peel and roughly chop the garlic. Dice the celery stalks.

You will need 3 cooking dishes for this recipe: 1 baking dish that can be covered with a lid or aluminum foil, 1 large frying pan or cast-iron skillet, and 1 soup pot with a cover.

Lay the eggplant, zucchini, and red pepper pieces on a baking dish or pan. Choose a pan that can hold the rest of the veggies later, and can be covered with a top or aluminum foil. Line the pan with olive oil or parchment paper to prevent sticking. Broil the vegetables for 5 minutes or until lightly browned.

In a large skillet with a little bit of olive oil or water, sautée the diced celery stalks for about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the garlic, canned diced tomatoes, dried oregano, and chili powder. Stir and heat for about 1 minute. Then, stir in the broiled eggplant, zucchini, and red pepper. Transfer the veggie mixture to the back into a baking dish with the parchment paper and bake the veggie mixture (covered) at 400°F/200°C.

Bring water and green lentils to a boil in a pot with a lid. (Your water measurement should be 2.5 times the lentil measurement.) Once boiling, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until water is absorbed and green lentils have softened. Add more water if needed.

After 10 minutes of the green lentils cooking, add capers or olives and balsamic vinegar to the veggie mixture in the oven. Stir and return the pan to the oven. The veggies are done when they are soft throughout.

When the green lentils and veggies are almost done, warm the pitas by wrapping them in aluminum foil and putting them in the oven. Pull them out when you’re ready to eat.

Season the green lentils and veggies with salt and pepper to taste. Add optional ingredients like chili pepper flakes now as well. Stuff the pita with the green lentils and veggies and enjoy!

About the Author: Bob LeFavi

Bob LeFavi, PhD, is a professor of sports medicine and Dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. He has been department head of health sciences and sports medicine at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA. Bob won the bantamweight class at the IFBB NorthAmerican Bodybuilding Championship and was runner-up at both the USA and National Championships. He also competed in the CrossFit Games as a Master’s athlete and has written over 750 articles in the popular press on training, diet, and fitness.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.