This month I thought I would write about a topical issue.
There has been a lot of interest in the Netflix series on the blue Zones called ‘Live to 100’ which shares the secrets of longevity from the five identified ‘Blue Zone’ unique communities where people live extraordinarily long and vibrant lives. There are five Blue Zones which are specific areas including the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California in the US, the Ogliastra Region of Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan and Ikaria in Greece.
There are some truly impressive lifestyle factors that I am sure contribute to good health in these community but unfortunately the science has been left a little bit in the rear-view mirror. These areas have been cherry picked as there are many other areas in the world that have as long lived populations, in fact other researchers looking at the identified blue zones found that in many cases the dates of birth of residents could not be confirmed which means that we can’t be sure that they were actually centenarians. But there is also a problem with some of the other science, in particular on the nutrition front.
The Blue Zones have been portrayed as plant-based societies and as a result this dietary approach was promoted for longevity. There are a few issues with this. Firstly other researchers who have visited these communities found that often the population eats a lot of meat and fish, in fact a large part of their diet consists of animal based produce, so it is certainly not all plant based. That does not mean they do not eat plants, they definitely do, but it is very much an omnivorous diet. You can check out Dr Anthony Chaffee’s recent podcast ‘The Blue Zones: What They Really Eat!’ with Professor Bill Schindler (a retired professor of archaeology and anthropology) who visited the Blue Zone in Sardinia and found that they ate meat as a staple part of their diet every day and once a week had a large meat fest!
A group of researchers who looked at a variety of factors, including the diet, of the Blue Zones and compared them with the rest of the country in which they are located, found that it was possible that it was the “not the quantity of food itself but rather the quality of food might have played an important role in maintaining a high standard of health in these populations.” I would tend to think this is highly likely that they were eating real whole foods and perhaps avoiding more of the highly processed foods. This would make sense as most of the Blue Zones are in rural areas with a lot of home grown food being consumed.
Lets take a look at this from a different perspective altogether. Telomeres are regions on the very ends of our chromosomes that protect them from damage and degradation, but they do slowly wear down over our life as we age. Measuring telomeres is therefore a good indication of health and how we are aging. Research looking at diet and telomeres found that only red meat intake was positively associated with a longer telomere length, something that was a surprise to the researchers themselves!
As already mentioned the ages of people in the Blue Zones are disputed because records were not always well kept in these areas. Let’s look at the longest-lived population in the world with good records which is Hong Kong, perhaps it should be a Blue Zone! In 2020 men lived on average to 81.9 whilst women lived to 87.6. And what about the diet there? Well in 2022 Hong Kong had the highest consumption of beef, poultry and pork in a survey of selected Asian countries.
Going back to the Blue Zones lets take a look at an interesting piece of research that compared self-reported diets between Okinawa (the Blue Zone region) and the rest of Japan. They looked at the data from 94 centenarians and they found that in the Okinawa area there was more consumption of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the 10 years. They found that the intake of some key vitamins and minerals plus the proportion of proteins an fats consumed was higher in the Okinawa area plus intakes of carbohydrates were lower.
Dietary recall is not the gold standard for nutrition research and these are not randomised control trials but overall when you gather the evidence it does provide an indication of what makes for good health.
Lets balance this out a little. What about if we look at the mortality rate of people who eat plant- based and people who eat more animal based diets. Well a study in the UK in 2015 found that vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians have similar all-cause mortality. So perhaps it isn’t just what they are eating! This points to other factors playing a role in longevity too.
I think some of the best evidence of Blue Zones comes from the other aspects of their lifestyle which is perhaps borne out when we look at some of the other longest lived populations in the world. These are high income countries with great health services and because of their relative wealth the populations in general can afford to eat more meat too.
Taken from https://www.worldometers.info/demographics/life-expectancy/
The Blue Zones are a great model for promoting quality of food as well as other lifestyle factors like getting plenty of exercise and avoiding being sedentary, getting sunlight exposure, having a meaning or purpose to our lives and being part of a happy and sociable community. All of these things also contribute to quality of life and likely longevity.
Many years ago now I read the book ‘The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lesson From the Worlds’ Happiest People’ by Dan Buettener. In it he talks about lesson her learned from what he calls the ‘Worlds’ Happiest People’. And I’m sure its no coincidence that happiness comes hand in hand with longevity. But I question whether happiness also comes hand in hand with wealth. There is evidence that the relationship with wealth and longevity only holds true in modern society. An interesting study looking at relative happiness found that the Hazda hunter gatherer tribal people were happier than people in Poland. And many anthropologists have found that tribal societies living in harm
ony with nature are happy both with a different mindset, one that is much more about living life in the present and less about the aspirational nature of happiness being something to seek. Here is an article about this that you may like to read.
That in itself is a very good reason to watch the Blue Zones series as well as the fact that there are beautiful vistas from around the world and you will get the strong sense of how important the sense of community is to them. Enjoy!
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Disclaimer: Before changing your diet or lifestyle and taking any supplements always seek the advice of your doctor or another suitably qualified professional such as a nutritional therapist. The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your doctor with regards to any questions you have about a medical condition.
Kasielski, M., Eusebio, MO., Pietruczuk, M. et al. The relationship between peripheral blood mononuclear cells telomere length and diet - unexpected effect of red meat. Nutr J 15, 68 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-016-0189-2
Yat-Nork Chung, R. and Marmot, M. (2020) People in Hong Kong Have the Longest Life Expectancy in the World: Some Possible Explanations. doi: 10.31478/202001d
Frackowiak T, Oleszkiewicz A, Butovskaya M, Groyecka A, Karwowski M, Kowal M, Sorokowski P. Subjective Happiness Among Polish and Hadza People. Front Psychol. 2020 Jun 9;11:1173. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01173. PMID: 32581967; PMCID: PMC7296072.