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Dan Buettner (right) with a Blue Zones' centenarian Image Credit: Supplied

Beans, says Dan Buettner. ‘Beans represent the consummate superfood. All the long-lived populations in the Blue Zones eat at least four times as many beans as the [average Westerner] does.’

Dan should know. The New York Times bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow and explorer has been busy for some two decades deciphering what makes residents of a handful of places – called Blue Zones- live happily and healthily for over a hundred years.

His findings are as fascinating as they are insightful, and are shared widely not only via his bestselling books on the subject but also on podcasts, articles in print media, and interviews on TV and radio.

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Dan Buettner

Most recently, in a four-part Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of Blue Zones, he took viewers on a tour of the five unique communities in the Blue Zones - in Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica - offering a peek into how the people there live, while also helping us glean lessons on how to live a healthier, longer, more purposeful and meaningful life.

While how to live longer is perhaps on a lot of people’s minds, a more purposeful and healthier life (and how to get rid of that stubborn tummy fat) is what is on my mind, and eager to find out how that could be achieved, I contacted Dan for an exclusive interview. The longevity expert who looks much younger than the 63 years he is, very kindly agreed.

Since diet is key to health, one of the first questions I asked him was to list one key food item that could help us live longer, healthier lives. His answer surprised me. It wasn’t kale. Or broccoli. Or chia seeds. Or sweet potatoes. It was the unassuming, common and relatively easily available ingredient beans.

‘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,’ says the much travelled man.

Surprised? Get this: beans, on average, are made up of 21 per cent protein, 77 per cent complex carbohydrates (the kind that deliver a slow and steady energy, rather than the spike you get from refined carbohydrates like white flour), and only a few per cent fat. ‘They are also an excellent source of fibre, are cheap and versatile, come in a variety of textures, and are packed with more nutrients per gram than any other food on Earth,’ vouches Dan.

Surely, there must be a reason humans have eaten beans for at least 8,000 years. ‘They’re part of our culinary DNA,’ he says. ‘The Blue Zones dietary average– at least half a cup a day– provides most of the vitamins and minerals you need. And because beans are so hearty and satisfying, they’ll likely push less healthy foods out of your diet.’


For the record, Dan did not coin the phrase Blue Zones. European demographers Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes did that. But the Guinness World Record holder for long-distance cycling is responsible for making it a household term after he wrote a series of articles on the places and his findings in National Geographic in 2004.

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Dan found that among the main factors for longevity were diet and a lifestyle that was rooted in simplicity and friendship, with a strong sense of togetherness and thriving relationships

To rewind a bit, Dan, after more than a decade of research and exploration, discovered that the above-mentioned five places across the globe had an extremely high number of people who were over 100 years old. That was not all. He found that a large population of these centenarians did not suffer from obesity, cancer or many of the lifestyle diseases including heart conditions or diabetes. (Dan has since added a sixth nation to the list- Singapore- calling it an ‘engineered blue zone’. The island nation has seen life expectancy grow by 20 years over the years since 1960 to now touch 85.)

Dan did not just list the places that had the most centenarians. He also detailed the possible reasons for the people in the areas enjoying a happy, healthy and long life. And, not surprisingly, he found that among the main factors for longevity were diet and a lifestyle that was rooted in simplicity and friendship, with a strong sense of togetherness and thriving relationships.

(Incidentally, he had earlier discovered that Costa Rica was one of the happiest places on earth. Their recipe for happiness? ‘A perfect mix of generosity, enjoying the moment, social interaction, family bonding, equality and faith,’ he says.)

Dan, whose documentary, Live to 100, now streaming on Netflix and fast becoming one of the most watched documentaries on the platform, makes it clear that social interaction, regular movement, choice of diet, and a positive and fulfilling lifestyle, among others, make up the large wedges in the longevity pie chart of Blue Zoners.

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102 Year old Kamada Nakazato, shares tea and laughter at her home with a group of friends who have known each other their entire lives. Kamada lives alone in the small seaside village of Motobu on the island of Okinawa. She was the host for the group of women who get together most days. Studies have clearly shown that strong social connections and community ties contribute to successful ageing.

Dan also makes another interesting point in his most recent work on the Blue Zone diet: Few centenarians, he says, consume supplements. ‘In fact, we didn’t see any centenarian take supplements in the Blue Zones. They got everything they needed from the food and the environment that they lived in.’ Which is why there are so full of, um, beans, I thought to myself after seeing the Netflix docu and images from Dan’s latest book The Blue Zones- Secrets for living longer.

Dan believes that people often take supplements believing it would help balance out an unhealthy diet or lifestyle. ‘Instead of taking supplements, look at how to get these things through food, sunlight, hard water, etc.,’ he says.

But can those who are far from the Blue Zones and who might not be sharing the same geographical environment follow the same or similar diet plans that people in Blue Zones do? I ask.

‘People anywhere in the world can replicate the Blue Zones way of eating,’ he makes is clear. The Blue Zones diet, at its foundation, has four main pillars: beans, greens, 100% whole grains, and nuts and seeds.

‘Blue zone inhabitants live longer because they’ve eaten the right foods– and avoided the wrong ones– for most of their lives. They ate foods that were available to them, in season, and easy to make.’

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85 year old Nakamu Zenei uses a glass bottomed barrel to spot fish on a coral reef in Okinawa

The Blue Zones diet, he say, is not about one or two specific ingredients; centenarians in Costa Rica, Okinawa, Japan, and Loma Linda, CA use– and like– different seasonings and have access to different ingredients. But the foundation is the same.

‘Beans are the cornerstone of every longevity diet. Any kind (that you’ll eat) will do. They’re cheap, aid in digestion, and can create a whole protein when paired with grains.’ Of course, those with health condition should consult their doctor before making any major changes to their diet.

Dan’s power of 9
I asked Dan to share five common factors that he discovered among the people of the Blue Zones that led to a healthier life. He had more. We call them the Power 9, he says. Here they are:

1. Move Naturally. Moving naturally throughout the day—walking, gardening, doing housework—is a core part of the Blue Zones lifestyle.

2. Purpose. The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida. Knowing why you wake up in the morning makes you healthier, happier, and adds up to seven years of extra life expectancy.

3. Down Shift. Stress is part of life, but Blue Zone centenarians have stress-relieving rituals built into their daily routines. Adventists pray, Ikarians nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.

4. 80 per cent Rule. People in Blue Zones areas stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full, and eat their smallest meal in the early evening.

5. Plant Slant. Beans are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Vegetables, fruit, and whole grains round out the rest of the diet; meat is eaten in small amounts.

6. Connect with friends @ 5. Get together with friends where you drink tea and eat plant-based foods, a big part of this is taking a break from the day to connect and share a laugh.

7. Belong. Being part of a faith-based community adds 4-14 years to life expectancy.

8. Loved Ones First. Having close and strong family connections (with spouses, parents, grandparents, and grandchildren) is common with Blue Zone centenarians.

9. Right Tribe. The world’s longest lived people have close friends and strong social networks.

Not unlike a dog with a bone, I quiz Dan again on how one can, to improve health and longevity, create an environment pretty much like that of a Blue Zone even if they live in a completely different geographical region?

Dan has the answer: ‘The most important conclusions that came out of my research was that people in the Blue Zones lived in environments that nudged them every day to move, connect with friends and neighbors, eat healthy food, and to nurture their faith and purpose.

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100 year old Marge starts her day with a mile long walk through the halls of her apartment building and then heads straight to the gym where she rides a stationary bike for 6-8 miles and lifts weights. "I'm for anything that has to do with health" says Jetton. "The less number of pills you take the better off. I ate tomatoes and spinach and celery and juice today. I marvel at my skin myself and don't know why it looks so good. God blessed me I guess." Other quotes from Marge Jetton -"Life is 90% attitude and 10% circumstances" -"everything that you have now we did not have then"

‘Their environment was set up so that the healthy choice is the easy choice and often the unavoidable choice. With that in mind, you should not rely on sheer will power to make this healthy change but instead make numerous small changes to your daily routine and environment for health to ensure.’

He offers several tips to create a similar environment.

First, surround yourself with other like-minded healthy friends who eat-plant-based food, whose idea of recreation is biking or playing tennis or gardening and who challenge you to keep your mind engaged. (‘If your three best friends are obese, there’s a 150% better chance you’ll be overweight. So, hang out with people who have the health you aspire to.’)

Start moving naturally. Use the stairs as often as you can (provided you do not have any health condition that prevents you from using the stairs); have standing/walking meetings at work. You can also shed some stress by doing what you love like gardening or biking or walking.

Put your snack food out of sight and a bowl of fruit on the counter.

‘As you continue to make these small changes over time, you will curate an environment that promotes your health and wellbeing,’ assures Dan.

I point out that the Mediterranean diet was touted as being an extremely healthy one by many experts. So how different is the Blue Zones diet?

‘Like the diets found in much of the Mediterranean, the Blue Zones Diet, particularly the diet of Ikarians and Sardinians, included lots of vegetables and olive oil, smaller amounts of dairy and meat products,’ he admits. ‘What set it apart from other places in the region was its emphasis on potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit, and relatively small amounts of fish.’


Having had a reasonably healthy plate of diet advice, I ask him about the other element of health: exercise.

‘Daily movement is extremely important but it’s important to remember that the world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or spend time in gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.’ Hinting that sitting is the new smoking, he suggests walking or bicycling to do daily errands; gardening; using the stairs instead of the lift (if possible). ‘In short, anything that gets you up and out of your chair and moving.’

As we come to the end of the interview I ask him about another important factor for a healthy, stress-free life: slowing down and taking time to smell the flowers, so to speak.

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Dan shares a joke with a centenarian

It’s very important, he says. ‘The modern world has given us the convenience of always being connected to work and responsibilities. This can lead to high levels of stress which is associated with all kinds of negative health factors such as hypertension, inflammation, etc.’ He suggests cultivating small stress-relieving habits into one’s daily life.

‘We saw that in Blue Zones they downshift daily: centenarians have stress-relieving rituals built into their daily routines. Adventists pray, Ikarians nap, and Sardinians set aside at least an hour to meet up with friends and like-minded individuals. You can do a hobby that relaxes you or simply read a book to take some time to slow down,’ he suggests.

Has he included any of these Blue Zone pointers in his own life?

‘I try to incorporate as many of the Power 9 (see box above) as I can in my daily life. I am plant based, I move as much as I can during that day including biking to work and doing phone calls while hiking. I also like to host my friends for healthy meals,’ says Dan. ‘It has kept me healthy and happy, and helped me to continue what I love: traveling the world uncovering mysteries.’