The Blue Zone Diet: Diving into the facts and myths

“Blue Zones” are areas of the world where people have the longest life expectancy. Specifically, Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, GreeceĀ andĀ Loma Linda, California. The diet is essentially a whole-food, plant-based diet. And a lot of hard-core vegans and vegetarians like to use it as “proof” that meat is bad for you and will shorten your life. But will “not eating meat” really help you live longer?

Without even doing much actual scientific research, it’s pretty easy to spot some immediate concerns with the claims from the “Blue Zone” fans. Let’s take a look a few:

  1. The people in these regions also consume almost no processed sugar or carbs. And in literally all areas of the world where that’s true, life expectancy goes through the roof.
  2. In areas of the world where people eat really high protein diets (real meat), but also eat no real processed carbs / sugar, their life expectancy is ALSO significantly higher than baseline average. Which means meat isn’t the problem.
  3. We don’t actually have good birth and death records from most of those areas. In fact, in several of those regions, a lot of people don’t even know how old they are. (Or put another way, the studies on Blue Zone are based on tainted and incomplete data).

People are confusing correlation with causation, and writing books on that sell well in vegetarian and vegan circles. (Everyone loves to read something that confirms an existing bias, even if it’s based on bad science).

While it’s not worth getting into the details and statistics here, based on the totality of the data we have on population diets and life expectancy, it looks more likely that “not eating sugar” is the broader “diet-only” contributor to a long lifespan. It just so happens that vegans and vegetarians tend to consume a lot less sugar than their meat-eating counter-parts, thus leading to a correlation/causation fallacy.

However, diet doesn’t appear to be the only contributing “commonality” in these blue-zone areas. (It might even be a minor factor). Instead of looking only at what they eat, we also have some (limited) data on other factors that are likely in play.

  1. People in these blue-zone regions get significantly more exercise, on average, than others around the world. (More than just walking, they actually do real exercise).
  2. Their cortisol levels are remarkably low. Which means they are living low-stress lives and getting lots of sleep.
  3. They don’t over-eat. Their calorie intake is nearly perfect in terms of weight maintenance.
  4. They don’t drink a lot of alcohol.
  5. They report very high levels of happiness and overall satisfaction with life.
  6. They report having a very strong sense of community and support.
  7. The majority of the people “accidentally” practice intermittent fasting.

If you look at the totality of the data (not just a few poorly designed studies), it’s more likely that long life expectancy is a result of more than just eating less meat.

Whether we like it or not, you still need a high protein diet to lose weight, and a moderate protein diet to maintain it. (Regardless of whether that protein comes from plants or animals.). And just copying the diet from regions of the world with long life expectancy and expecting the same results, without also copying everything else they’re doing, is a fool’s errand.

My advice if you want to live longer?

  1. Get rid of the junk food and sugar. (Eating foods high in fat and high in sugar massively increases the odds of dying younger — more so than any other factor).
  2. Do something to get your heart-rate up for at least 30 minutes a day. Almost all people who successfully maintain a healthy weight exercise regularly.
  3. Practice intermittent fasting (8 hour eating window, 16 hours of fasting, every day). The anti-aging and health benefits are proven and irrefutable.
  4. Get stress out or your life and get more sleep
  5. Surround yourself with family and community who practice 1 through 4 on this list.