Blue Zones: The New Heart Healthy Buzzword

Have you been hearing the phrase ‘blue zones’ lately? Dave Munro of the Heart Foundation unpacks what it means and how it relates to a heart healthy lifestyle.

What can we learn from populations that live the longest? 

Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California, USA) and Nicoya (Costa Rica) have all been termed ‘Blue Zones’ and are pockets around the world where people live longer, healthier lives1.

People who live in these five locations are 10 times more likely to reach 100 years old than the general population of the United States.

About the Blue Zones Research

It all started in 2004, when National Geographic teamed up with some leading longevity researchers to identify places in the world where people had lower rates of heart disease, other lifestyle diseases and the longest life span. They eventually identified these five places where people lived measurably longer than almost everywhere else on earth.

The next task was to identify which lifestyle factors set these people apart from the rest of us. What was the secret to their longer, happier lives?

Lifestyle factors that set the Blue Zones populations apart

Six shared characteristics were found to lead to a longer, happier life in these populations:

  • Families are put ahead of other concerns.
  • They are all semi-vegetarian, with the exception of Sardinians.
  • The inhabitants are moderately physically active throughout their day.
  • Smoking rates are low.
  • People of all ages are socially active.
  • Legumes like lentils and kidney beans are commonly eaten.

Healthy diet a key aspect of the Blue Zones approach

What the Blue Zones research shows is that there isn’t one specific way of eating that is best, instead, there are range of dietary patterns that can be beneficial for both our heart and overall health2.

These different dietary patterns, while being from completely different parts of the world, have some common themes which are the key ingredients to making them healthy. These include:

  • a high intake of fruits and vegetables that are fresh, seasonal and locally sourced, which ensures a high nutritional quality 
  • legumes and beans consumed regularly, as are nuts and seeds 
  • alcohol consumed in moderate quantities of one to two drinks per day 
  • meat makes up a small part of the diets in some of these areas, but is absent in others 
  • simple diets that consist of whole foods that are close to how they are found in nature.

Applying the Blue Zones concept to our modern lifestyle

It should be remembered that Blue Zones are traditional cultures and are very different from the way many New Zealanders live today, and in fact the lifestyles of many western countries.

Our modern lifestyles consist of less active jobs, eating on the run, a high intake of processed foods and a lot of screen time. These factors have led to higher rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes across many western countries.

There are however some great learnings we can take away from the Blue Zones concept and apply to our living situations to make them healthier. These may be taking some small steps to integrate more activity into our day, increasing our consumption of plant foods, reducing our red meat consumption, or simply increasing our social connection by gathering more frequently with friends or family to enjoy food together each week.

References

Chief Advisor Food and Nutrition, Heart Foundation

David Monro

Dave is a New Zealand Registered Dietitian who also completed chef training while studying nutrition. He enjoys combining a knowledge of nutrition together with the practical aspects of food to support people to eat healthier. As a father of three youngish children Dave’s food philosophy is very much built around keeping things real when it comes to food choices, remembering that food is so much more than the nutrients it gives us, food is also about taste, tradition, connection, family, friends and fun. Dave is a fan of almost all foods, but loves the burst of flavour that fresh lime, coriander and chilli gives to dishes.

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