Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author, discovered the five places in the world—dubbed Blue Zones™—where people live the longest, healthiest lives. A plant-forward dietary pattern, that includes plenty of beans, is one important factor. I asked Dan more about the diet and lifestyle of individuals in the Blue Zones™ and the important steps individuals can take to enhance health and longevity.
What are the most common plant-based foods people consume in the Blue Zones™?
95% of the diets in the Blue Zones are whole food plant based. The most common foods are beans, greens, tubers, fruits, nuts of any kind and seeds.
Beans are the cornerstone of every Blue Zones diet in the world: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa. The long-lived populations in these blue zones eat at least four times as many beans as we do, on average. One five-country study, financed by the World Health Organization, found that eating 20 grams of beans daily reduced a person’s risk of dying in any given year by about 8%.
What are some of the ways that people in the Blue Zones™ include beans in their meals and recipes?
You can include beans in so many different types of meals from sprinkling them on a salad, including them in a burrito bowl, using them in soups or stews or just eating them as a side. Centenarians in the blue zones know how to make beans taste good which is a big factor. If you don’t have a favorite bean recipe yet you can find 27 easy creative recipes here.
There has been some research around better mental health and eating more fruits and veggies. Also, your latest book is The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People refers to this. How does diet affect happiness?
To put it simply, it’s hard to be healthy if you’re not happy and it’s hard to be happy if you’re not healthy, they really go hand in hand.
There are also studies that show greater fruits and vegetable consumption is positively associated with reduced depression, less psychological distress, fewer mood and anxiety problems and improved perceived mental health.
I also think it’s important to point out the connection between the centenarians’ lifestyles and their diet. Many of them grow their own food in their backyard garden which gives them daily physical activity, vitamin D and access to foods they like. They also tend to eat these plant-based meals with friends and families in a very social setting. We all know the benefits of exercise and social connectedness on mental health.
Many people are now following all sorts of different dietary patterns to try to lose weight and get healthy (low carb for example). What cautions can you share about fad diets?
Diets as we think of them don’t work. Their short-term success is occasional, but they never, on a population, deliver long-term results. It just doesn’t work long enough. It will give you aesthetic results in the short run, I think, as long as you stay committed, but our brains are hardwired for novelty and we get bored, we get distracted – it’s just too easy to get derailed from it.
The key is to find a few easy plant-based recipes you love and include them a few times a week in your meal rotation. Also set up your personal environment for healthier eating, hide junk food in a cabinet (or better yet, don’t bring it into your house), leave out a bowl of fruit on the counter, befriend a vegetarian, host health potlucks with your friends. All of these small nudges will change your eating habits for the long run instead of jumping from one unsustainable fad diet to the next.
What are your favorite ways to include beans in your meals?
I always ensure that I have plenty of dried and canned beans in my cabinets so that I can include them in meals whenever possible. My absolute favorite dish is the Sardinian Minestrone, I was given the recipe from the Melis family who holds the Guinness World Record as the oldest family in history. They are nine siblings whose collective age was 851. I make a huge Instant Pot of the Minestrone on Sunday afternoons and then put it in the fridge and have it for breakfast throughout the week. This means I start every day with garbanzo beans, white beans, pinto beans, and tons of veggies.
Still wondering if you should increase your bean intake?
Check out Dan’s TikTok video – The #1 Supplement to live to 100