We talked to longevity expert Dan Buettner about his experience cooking and eating with the healthiest people in the world—and some of his findings on how to live a longer life might come as a pleasant surprise.

Lauren Wicks
December 16, 2019

Dan Buettner probably has the coolest resume in the world. He is a professional explorer for National Geographic, a New York Times bestselling author and a Guinness World Record Holder in distance cycling. The last 15 years of his life have led him on the journey of a lifetime—uncovering the healthiest regions on the planet and studying their diets, routines and behaviors to help the rest of the world live as long as they do.

"I led scientific teams for many years to solve mysteries for Nat Geo and others," Buettner says. "I stumbled upon this mystery in Okinawa, Japan, where they were concentrated with the longest-living women in the world. No one knew why, and we reasoned that if there were longevity hot spots in Okinawa, there must be others out there, too."

Teaming up with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, Buettner studied pockets of the world for the healthiest and longest-living people. He said, "We found five zones. Then we assembled another team to come up with a methodology to distill what's enabling them to live so long."

AsiaVision / Getty Images

These five "Blue Zones," or hotbeds of the longest-living people on earth, are located in Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. What these areas lack in proximity, they make up for in similar diet constitution, lifestyle behaviors and community values. Oh, and the fact that there are more centenarians (people age 100 or over) in these areas than anywhere else on the planet.

So, what's the secret to living more than 100 years, you ask? Actually, there are five.

1. They Eat a Predominantly Vegan Diet

I know, I know, this first secret likely induced a few eye rolls, but what did you expect? Buettner explained the people living in these regions follow a 90% plant-based diet, on average. The staples of their diets are whole grains, beans, greens, tubers and nuts. The other 10% looks like a little sheep or goat cheese grated over a bowl of minestrone in Sicily, an egg-topped rice dish in Okinawa or a weekly side of meat for dinner in Costa Rica. The Blue Zone of Loma Linda, California, is strictly vegetarian, but otherwise a Blue Zone diet might contain 2 ounces of meat five times a month or less.

Related: Health Benefits of the Flexitarian Diet and How to Get Started

2. They Don't Worry About Exercising

"The first and foremost thing to realize that the people in these Blue Zones don't have superior genes or have a greater sense of responsibility than Americans do, for example," Buettner says. "They live in places where the healthy choice is not only the easy choice, but also often the unavoidable one. They don't pursue this lifestyle, it ensues because they live in the right place."

One of these unavoidable choices is constantly being on the move. Everyone walks to the market, to work or to a friend's house—and most don't have an easier option. Daily movement and getting outdoors is just a part of life for people living in Blue Zones, so they maintain healthy weights and aren't concerned with hitting the gym to try to obtain a certain body type.

These people also don't rely on machines to do their housework, so they have to do things that get your heart rate up, like kneading dough for bread or sweeping the floors, on a daily basis. Plus, spending time outdoors ensures one gets enough vitamin D, which is associated with improved mental health and chronic disease prevention.

3. They Eat Lots of Carbs

As mentioned earlier, people living in Blue Zones eat mostly plants. The staple of the Okinawan diet is the sweet potato, while barley- and bean-based minestrone dominates the table in Sicily. This means the healthiest people on the planet are eating plenty of carbs every day. Buettner says the typical Blue Zone diet is comprised of at least 65% carbohydrates, with around 10% of their calories from protein and 20% from fat. One of Buettner's favorite ways to start the day is with a big bowl of brown rice, black beans, avocado and roasted squash. Yum!

Related: High-Fiber Whole-Grain Recipes

One of the key carb sources in a Blue Zone diet is beans. Whether it's chickpeas, lentils, black beans or pinto beans, Buettner says the healthiest people on the planet consume between ½ cup and 1 cup of beans every day.

"We've seen that eating a cup per day of beans probably is adding four years to their lives," Buettner says. "Beans are emerging as the ultimate longevity food because of their protein, fiber and antioxidant content."

However, he says fiber is the main reason to load up on beans, as it has a host of health benefits, and is only found in whole, plant-based foods.

"We have about 100 trillion cells in our gut all helping to modulate inflammation, fine-tune our immune systems and fight disease. They even help govern our mood. These good gut bugs love to eat fiber—something the standard American diet is almost completely devoid of."

See More: The Best & Worst Foods for Gut Health

4. They Drink Coffee and Red Wine

While water is certainly the main beverage on a Blue Zone diet (about seven glasses per day), coffee, tea and even red wine are served in some of the Blue Zone regions. People in the Mediterranean and Costa Rican Blue Zones are major coffee drinkers, while Okinawans sip on green tea throughout the day. Red wine is consumed in smaller portions than a heavy American pour, but still enjoyed among friends and in celebration nonetheless.

5. They Love a Good Party

Buettner says that being part of a strong community is one of the most important health benefits of living in a Blue Zone. The option to hide behind your smartphone doesn't exist in these regions, and people are expected to take part in festivals, religious celebrations, family gatherings and other aspects of community life regularly.

"To just talk about a Blue Zone diet misses the point because diets by themselves are unsustainable," Buettner says. "What you eat is just one dimension—you need to socialize and find purpose in your life."

Dining in community and cooking or baking for loved ones both have been shown to have some serious mental health benefits. If you're not in a healthy state of mind, it's going to be that much harder to take care of yourself. Plus, putting your phone down, turning off the TV or opting to eat lunch with a friend instead of at your desk helps you focus more on the meal and enjoy your food without distraction. You'll likely save yourself some calories, too, as your body is better able to be in tune with your hunger cues when you aren't focused on your favorite TV show, but rather on the food you're eating at the moment.

The Bottom Line

Buettner has been following a Blue Zone-style diet since he discovered the concept more than 15 years ago and has never gone back.

"It drives me nuts when people tell me they don't have time to eat healthy or eat their own food," he says. "The value proposition is probably six to eight years of extra life expectancy. If you take those eight years and average it, that gives you an hour and a half or so every day of free life to cook and live healthy. You can't afford not to."

Here at EatingWell, we understand that healthy eating isn't all that simple for some people—which is why we're here to make it easier. Simple recipes that use convenient options for these Blue Zone foods, like canned beans, quick-cooking whole grains and other healthy shortcuts can help make healthy eating happen every day of the week. Plus our easy dinner plans and meal plans map out your week of healthy eating for you, so the planning part is already done.

To learn more about Blue Zones, you can check out BlueZones.com. Try the "vitality calculator" to discover how your lifestyle could be aging you. Buettner has also just released The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to Be 100, which required three years of cooking and dining with the people of the five Blue Zones to preserve their ancestral recipes. This book sold out within days of release but is available for preorder on Amazon now.

Advertisement