Tim Crowe Associate Professor in Nutrition at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne and Australian Blue Zone expert takes us through the science and evidence behind Blue Zones and a plant based diet.
What is a Blue Zone you may ask? Well sit back, relax, and let us take you on a journey throughout the five regions of the world that experts have identified as Blue Zones, Ikaria – Greece, Okinawa – Japan, Sardinia – Italy, Nicoya Peninsula – Costa Rica and a seventh day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
Blue Zones are, in simple terms, hot spots in the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives. It is common for people in these areas to live to 100 with the number of centenarians almost 5-times higher than in Australia.
So why are people in Blue Zones living so much longer than us? We recently invited one of Australia’s leading Blue Zone experts, Associate Professor Tim Crowe, to educate us.
Over to you Tim,
A lot of the work in Blue Zones has been based on observations on the ground, so what does current research say to support the common habits of Blue Zones that are linked to longevity? There are 9 key elements they have in common.
1. Incorporating movement naturally as part of their daily routine – Blue Zone residents move every 10- 15 minutes
2. Have a sense of purpose each day
3. Down shift and maintain a routine that helps keep them relaxed. Stress can lead to chronic inflammation in the body.
4. Stop eating when they are 80% full
5. They eat a more plant based diet and minimal red meat
6. They enjoy a glass of wine with friends and family
7. They live as part of a community – whether it be faith based of meeting up once a week for a knitting class
8. Engagement with family is key to a Blue Zone way of life
9. Enjoy an active social life
Key Dietary Patterns for Health
One of the key elements of the Blue Zones is eating a plant based diet, and this major review from 2014 looked at the diet and chronic disease links from 304 meta-analyses and systematic reviews published in the last 63 years – the biggest analysis of its kind. The key findings showed that plant-based foods were more protective against the risk of developing chronic disease compared to animal-based foods. Amongst plant foods, grain-based foods seemed to have a small edge over fruits and vegetables.
For animal-based foods, dairy products overall were considered neutral on health and fish was considered protective. Red and processed meats were linked to a higher disease risk. This research mirrors the type of diets eaten in Blue Zone.
Plant Foods and Health
A just published review in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the health of over 131,000 people and how it was related to how much protein they ate from plant and animal based foods. Animal protein was linked to higher mortality from heart disease while plant protein was linked to lower mortality. There was a stronger link between the benefits of plant foods in people with at least one lifestyle risk factor (e.g. smoking, overweight, inactive, heavy drinking). The research team estimated that replacing processed red meat protein with the equivalent amount of plant protein would result in 34% drop in earlier mortality and 12% if fresh red meat replaced. The dietary patterns studied in this work parallel with a Blue Zone diet.
Fruit and Vegetables and happiness
Can eating more vegetables make you happy? In the first research of its kind, the answer seems to be ‘yes’. The study tracked the diet and mental health of a large sample of more than 12,000 randomly selected people in Australia. From the results, it was estimated that someone going from eating no fruits and vegetables to eating eight portions a day could experience an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment. Happiness is a key aspect of Blue Zones.
Diet and telomeres
So how exactly could the diets eaten by people in the Blue Zones lead to a longer life? One ideas is that it may be linked to their telomeres. Telomeres are the protective cap on the end of chromosomes which are linked to ageing, and even potentially a longer lifespan. The length of these telomeres shorten with age, leading scientists to begin looking into how much diet can influence telomere length. In the first study of its kind, researchers looked at studies that had previously collected information on both dietary patterns and telomere length of participants. From a pool of 17 studies, two clear themes emerged. Both a Mediterranean style dietary pattern and diets high in fruits and vegetables were linked to longer telomere length. Diets high in highly refined grains, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages were pointing towards a shorter telomere length.
Sitting is the new smoking
Recent research has looked at the benefit of regular small amounts of physical activity over just a block of exercise each day and found that standing or moving for several hours over the course of the day is better than just dedicated exercise with long periods of sedentary activity around it. This fits with the Blue Zone finding of people undertaking regular purposeful activity throughout their day contrasted to our Western lifestyle that has long periods of sedentary activity, especially in white collar occupations.
For Australians wanting to adopt a more ‘Blue Zone’ lifestyle, the first place to start is to embrace the variety of wonderful plant foods available to us and turning your ears off to the loud noise of those wanting you to cut, exclude and ban foods. Enjoy a wide variety of wholegrains, legumes, vegetables and fruits and eat according to your tastes and preferences. The typical Australian diet is too high in highly processed discretionary foods so here is where to make food swaps to get more of the Blue Zone foods in your diet.
Less than half of Australians meet the minimum recommendations for physical activity, but this doesn’t mean you need to join a gym or running club. Being active throughout your day be it walking with friends drinking your coffee rather than sitting in the café, spending more time in the garden, using the car less and even giving the dog more exercise all will give you great health benefits. And finally social media has its place, but nothing beats human connection as that’s inscribed in our DNA – follow your interests and join a local community group and do some volunteering.
If you want to get summary of all this, then please follow the link to watch my talk on the science behind Blue Zones.