I Tried to Live the Blue Zone Lifestyle for 3 Weeks—Here's What I Discovered
Early in life, there are numerous milestones as you climb the chronological calendar. When you turn 16, you are eligible to get a driver's license. At 18, you can register to vote. And when celebrating that long-awaited threshold of 21, you are (finally) legally able to drink a beer.
However, beyond that, it just seems like the years pass silently until all of a sudden, you are approaching the BIG 5-0. And no, I'm not talking about the crime drama filmed in Hawaii (the original or the reboot). I'm talking the half-a-century mark.
Prior to reaching this celebratory moment, I had my annual physical and my doctor wanted to schedule a few tests to commemorate this less-than-momentous occasion. And if any of you reading this are close to 50, or that have passed this point, you know what I'm talking about. That's right, the colonoscopy, followed by other blood tests to create baselines for future follow-ups.
Did I mention that I also received my AARP welcome packet? (Side note: How can I receive a welcome packet, when I haven't even joined?!)
With all of that said, I lead a very healthy lifestyle. I exercise regularly, try to eat healthy and, perhaps most importantly, try to get a good night's sleep.
But, not wanting to accept the status quo, I'm always looking to push the envelope and seek out new ways to make this transition a smoother ride while doing things that will increase my quality and years of life.
I'm not looking for some fad diet or gimmick, but rather a lifestyle plan that meshes with my existing game plan. Therefore, I decided to dive into this Blue Zone Lifestyle that I have been reading about for years but had so far resisted the urge to comply with. Here's what learned from trying it for just three weeks.
First, What Is the Blue Zone Diet?
Building upon research that identified the island of Sardinia as one global location in which there was the greatest concentration of male centenarians (or those over 100 years old), Dan Buettner expanded upon this work. Buettner further discovered that there are five regions in the world where people not only live the longest, but are also the healthiest. He dubbed these locations "blue zones." The five include Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.
It's long been touted that the Mediterranean diet is uniquely healthy, and two of the identified blue zones are located in that Mediterranean region.
His research also identified that within each of these zones, there were nine specific lifestyle habits that were synonymous with this concentrated longevity. We'll get to those shortly.
Blue Zone Diet Rules and Principles
Statistically speaking, the Blue Zone Diet includes:
- Fruits and vegetables (more than 5 servings a day)
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
While avoiding or limiting:
- Excess salt and preservatives
- Processed meats
- Added sugar (including sweetened beverages)
Aside from just diet, the 9 Blue Zone Lifestyle Habits include:
- Have a purpose: Waking up each day with a outlook or purpose for your life
- Move: Our bodies are machines and work best when used regularly
- Reduce stress
- Don't eat until full
- Eat more plant-based foods while limiting meat consumption
- Put your family first
- Surround yourself with the right people
- Wine in moderation
- A sense of belonging
The Changes I Made
Over the years, I have lost my affinity for beef. And while I do occasionally consume beef, it's not the norm. I tend to eat more chicken and fish, so reducing my dependency on meat was going to be relatively easy. Or so I thought, as meat provided the bulk of my protein consumption daily.
Fruits and vegetables? I was already eating what I thought was an ample amount of vegetables, but would need to implement additional fruits to reach the required daily intake.
As for nuts, that was already my go-to snack choice. At least I was doing one thing right.
And, beans. While I enjoy steamed and sautéed green beans, I wasn't consuming nearly enough other kinds beans (which could also help me bump up my plant protein).
Prior to starting this journey, my daily meals followed more of a reduced-carbohydrate-based diet. My breakfast would include a couple of eggs and bacon (another thing I needed to eliminate). Lunch typically consisted of a small piece of chicken and broccoli, with dinner being similar but usually smaller in portion. Snacks throughout the day would entail a handful of nuts or a spoonful of peanut butter. Can you see the relative absence of fruits in that itinerary?
How I Ate on the Blue Zone Diet
- Oatmeal topped with a handful of walnuts and blueberries (like this recipe)
- Hot tea (I'm not a coffee drinker, though that's fine on this diet.)
This remained relatively the same, while trying to limit the portion of the meat I consumed. I also added a small salad.
- Small salad with nuts, plus an oil-and-vinegar dressing
- 3-4 ounces of chicken with steamed broccoli
- A small portion of brown rice or quinoa
This meal was nearly the same as lunch.
- In addition to broccoli, I also supplemented green beans and peas.
- A small portion of brown rice or quinoa.
Snacks Between Meals:
I tried to be more proactive and include oranges and apples along with the nuts I was already consuming.
While I've always drunk copious amounts of water while running or biking, I quite literally abstained from it outside of exercise. Instead, I would consume the occasional diet soda or iced tea. I began by trying to offset any soda with an equal amount of water with each meal. I also started drinking a glass of red wine with dinner.
What I Discovered
Unlike the idiom, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," the truth is quite different.
Old habits are hard to break, as routines are easy and comfortable. Breaking out of our comfort zones allows us to discover new things about ourselves.
After I broke an ankle last fall in a climbing accident, my activity level was tempered for almost three months. During this physical hiatus, I put on a few extra pounds due to my lack of activity, though my diet didn't change drastically.
With three weeks, it's hard to ascertain the long-term benefits of this blue zone diet. However, it's hard to argue with the demographic research that supports the longevity of people living in these unique zones around the globe.
Here are some of the highlights from the last three weeks:
- I completely changed the way I look at and perceive my daily meals.
- Adding a glass (or two) of red wine to a meal made it less about speeding through the meal and more about enjoying the time with family and friends. Dinner became a social event rather than just filling the void.
- Increasing my intake of water has no doubt helped me stay more hydrated. I've also worked on eliminating diet sodas from my daily diet (learn more about what artificial sweeteners do to your body).
- I went from eating roughly 6-7 ounces of meat at a time to just 3-4 ounces (a USDA-recommended portion) and added in more vegetables.
- Fruits were relatively absent from my diet, but I have begun adding more over the last few weeks (and fruit does a body good).
- My daily fruit and vegetable consumption went from less than 5 servings per day to close to 10 or more daily.
Note: I'm still working on how to include beans and legumes while further reducing my meat consumption. While I don't foresee myself becoming a vegetarian in this life, it's not outside the realm of likelihood to limit meat to just a few times a week.
As for the other habits, I'm well on my way to incorporating or increasing my devotion to those as well.
The Bottom Line
While it's way too early to know whether I'm on the path to being a centenarian, at least this lifestyle (and diet) is one that I can easily incorporate into my daily life. And, most importantly, I already feel better.
While I know that I will still enjoy the occasional treat (pizza, dessert and a margarita), this is a plan that I can easily follow and sustain for the long haul.
"Not being too restrictive and making small changes to your diet helps you stick with your eating habits," adds registered dietitian and EatingWell Nutrition Editor Lisa Valente. "It's nice to see that eating more fruit and enjoying your meals are habits you can stick with. And while eating more beans is good for your health, there's no magic number of beans to eat. Focusing on upping your intake, while still eating meals you like, can happen slowly over time and still give you the benefits of eating more fiber and plant-based protein."
Perhaps, I'll share my long-term results in an updated story six months or a year from now.
Until then, here's to the next 50 years.