The Ultimate Guide to Increasing Your Life Expectancy with a Blue Zones Diet
By Francesca Alfano, (MS, CDN, CNS, IFNCP) / board certified functional medicine Dietitian-Nutritionist
US Average Life Expectancy Falls to Historic Levels
The US average life expectancy is on the decline. Surprisingly, the life expectancy data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that life expectancy in America has reached the lowest level since 1996. Between 2020 and 2021, American life expectancy decreased 0.9 years and in 2020 it decreased by 1.8 years. This unprecedented two year decline is something we haven’t seen in over 100 years!
The declines in the US average life expectancy are largely contributed to the pandemic and COVID-19 deaths. However, heart disease, stroke, and chronic liver disease are all major causes of mortality in the United States. This concerning data inspired us to look into other regions of the world where life expectancy is greater in effort to adopt some of these healthy practices.
What Are Blue Zones?
The blue zones of the world are areas where people live exceptionally long healthy lives. In the blue zones, people are expected to live 10 years longer than the average human and these regions include the most centenarians in the world. Imagine living to 100 with your brain and body still working well!
The term blue zones was first described by the author Dan Buettner, who was studying areas of the world where people lived long lives. The five known Blue Zones include:
The people residing in the blue zones are living an active, healthy lifestyle, free of chronic disease. Each blue zone differs, but there are similar main principles that have been seen across each environment. These principles include daily movement and exercise that is built into daily life, incorporating rituals to decrease stress, having life purpose and meaning, having strong personal connections through community, and following a mostly plant-based Blue Zones diet.
Adopting Blue Zone Principles
So how do we adopt the blue zone fundamentals into our own busy life? The first way is to adopt some of the dietary principles. What is most interesting is that in the Blue Zones diet, they don’t count calories, take vitamins, track their macros, or even read labels. Instead, they focus on locally sourced and organic produce and incorporate food that is largely unprocessed.
Here are the essential dietary guidelines for the Blue Zones diet:
1. Aim to eat 95-100% plant based: Focus on eating plenty of organic plant-based foods with an emphasis on whole food ingredients. Limit animal protein to one serving per day. Increase beans, seeds, sweet potatoes, fruits, and nuts. ALOHA is a great option because it is 100% plant-based, USDA organic, non-GMO project-verified, and only uses whole food ingredients.
2. Go Nuts: Incorporate 1-2 handfuls of nuts daily. Choose optimal nuts like almonds, peanuts, and cashews. We love ALOHA'S Coconut Almond Protein Bar to meet our daily nut intake.
3. Reduce added sugars: Limiting your added sugar intake will do wonders for your health. The blue zones recommend no more than 28g of added sugar per day. Instead focus on incorporating naturally occurring sugar from fruit. ALOHA products are low sugar, with as low as 2g of added sugar in our protein bars.
4. Choose High Fiber Food: Fiber may help beneficial bacteria in your gut thrive. Foods like leafy greens, beans, fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are excellent sources of fiber. ALOHA products are all high fiber, including up to 10g of fiber in our protein bars in the Best Seller Protein Bar Pack.
5. Incorporate Healthy Fats: The blue zone areas have a very high intake of healthy fats. Blue zone residents consume up to 6 tablespoons of olive oil daily, which may reduce the risk of mortality by 50%. Evidence shows that olive oil consumption may also increase good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol. Extra-virgin olive oil is your best choice. Other sources of healthy fats include nuts, seeds, and avocado. ALOHA products are loaded with healthy fats.
6. Caffeinate with Coffee: There are plenty of benefits for keeping your morning cup of joe. Research finds that coffee may lower rates of Parkinson's disease, dementia, and lower risk of total mortality. When we look to the blue zones, Sardinians, Ikarians, and Nicoyans all drink plentiful amounts of coffee. 2-3 cups of black coffee daily may help provide your daily antioxidants and may lower inflammation. ALOHA recently made our caffeine protein bar a permanent flavor with 85 mg of caffeine, as much as a cup of coffee!
Blue Zones Lifestyle
Food is not the only critical component for longevity. The people in the blue zones have common lifestyle habits to support their health as well. These include:
1. Follow The 80% rule: The 80% rule is a strategy to prevent overeating. It's simple, stop eating when you feel 80 percent full rather than 100 percent full. Strategies like slowing down and avoiding eating while watching TV or on your phone can help the brain register that you are full. People in the blue zones eat their largest meal in the morning and smallest meal in early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
2. Tap into Your Sense of Purpose: Research has found that people who can articulate their sense of purpose may have a lower risk of dying and may live longer. In Nicoya, Costa Ricans call it "plan de vida” which translates to “why I wake up in the morning." Having a sense of purpose can extend life expectancy up to 7 years!
3. Take Time to Practice Daily Stress Relief: People living in the blue zone have daily practices to reduce stress. These practices include prayer, napping, and happy hour. Reducing stress may help reverse inflammation and increase longevity.
4. Prioritize Sleep: Getting quality sleep is essential for your health. Research has shown that 7.5 hours a night may help the immune system function and people who sleep 6 hours a night may be 30 percent less happy than people who sleep more.
5. Move Naturally: Surprising, those living in the blue zones do not “exercise” by going to the gym. Instead movement is built into their lifestyle. Daily movement is fused into daily chores like gardening, cooking, and walking. Moving every 20 minutes is best to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
6. Have A Strong Social Circle: Centenarians spend a lot of time and effort cultivating strong relationships with their spouses and children. Additionally, it has been found that the health behaviors of your friends are contagious, so surround yourself with people who practice healthy behaviors.
7. Sense of Belonging: Those who belong to a faith based community and attend faith-based services may live 4 to 14 years longer than their counterparts who do not. Having faith may lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and may improve immune system function.
Hawaii Initiates a Blue Zone Project
Inspired by the blue zones, the Blue Zones Project has taken initiative in Hawaii to enhance the well being of Hawaii’s people. This community-led, well-being initiative is designed to make healthy choices easier through changes to lifestyle, environment, policy, and social networks. There are currently 7 certified blue zone communities in Hawaii:
- East Hawaii
- North Hawaii
- West Hawaii
- Central Maui
In these communities they encourage adopting the blue zone principles and have seen quite impressive results such as decreased adult obesity, decreased smoking rate, and decreased depression. Moving naturally, choosing locally sourced food, and creating strong communities are a few strategies used in these Hawaiian communities.
Live Your Longest Life
Living a long life is possible with a few dietary and lifestyle tweaks. The best part of adopting a blue zone lifestyle is that most of the recommendations are free and easy to get started with. Even if you can’t commit to adopting all of the blue zone principles, we recommend starting small and building upon each new habit you acquire. These simple changes will allow you to reap the benefits for years to come.
Francesca (MS, CDN, CNS, IFNCP) is a board certified functional medicine Dietitian-Nutritionist. Francesca helps women who are struggling to lose weight implement simple, sustainable food and lifestyle habits so they can support a healthy metabolism, balance hormones, increase energy levels, improve fertility, and permanently lose weight without counting calories or following restrictive diets.