The Blue Zones Diet: A Complete Scientific Guide

Medically Reviewed
vegetables fruits grains beans blue zone diet
Plant-based diets may account for the low rates of chronic diseases in blue zones.Nadine Greeff/Stocksy

Losing or maintaining weight can be important parts of a healthy diet, but what if an eating plan did more? What if a few tweaks to your diet could help you live a longer, healthier life? That’s the premise behind the Blue Zones diet, which is based on research about the habits of some of the naturally longest-lived and healthiest people in the world.

The diet incorporates many of the same eating patterns of people who live in those regions, including limiting processed foods, added sugars, meat, and dairy, and focusing on plant-based foods.

By doing so, the Blue Zones diet is designed to help anyone enjoy a long and healthy life, regardless of where they live.

What is the Blue Zones Diet?

The Blue Zones diet is an eating plan that emulates the dietary habits of the people who live in the world’s five "blue zones," locations throughout North and Central America, Europe, and Asia where the inhabitants are 10 times more likely than Americans to live to age 100. The diet’s name comes from the blue circles researchers drew around these geographic regions on a map when they first identified them. According to research published in Nutrients in May 2018, people living in these regions also enjoy lower rates of chronic disease than those living elsewhere, and their diet is believed to be a major component of why.

Three out of the nine traits experts believe are responsible for the incredible longevity and health of people living in blue zones are related to diet, according to a study published in the September–October 2016 issue of the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.

These healthy habits are:
  1. The 80 Percent Rule?This rule reminds people in the blue zones to stop eating when they feel 80 percent full. They also eat bigger meals earlier in the day and smaller meals in the late afternoon or early evening.
  2. Plant Slant?Blue zones residents don’t eat a lot of meat, focusing instead on fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
  3. Wine at Five?Although the research on the health benefits of even moderate amounts of alcohol is controversial, most people living in blue zones enjoy one to two glasses of wine daily.

Incorporating these dietary habits into your everyday life may help you reap some of the same health benefits that people who live in blue zones enjoy.

Common Questions & Answers

What are the blue zones?

The blue zones are five places in the world where researchers discovered that people live longer, healthier lives: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

Do people in the blue zones drink coffee?

Yes, some of them do. People in Sardinia, Nicoya, and Icaria often drink coffee, typically black or lightly sweetened, without cream.

Can the Blue Zones diet help you lose weight?

The Blue Zones diet isn’t designed to help you lose weight. It’s designed to help you live a longer and healthier life. That said, eating until you’re 80 percent full and choosing a diet that’s primarily plants may lead to weight loss.

Will the Blue Zones diet help you live longer?

Possibly. The Blue Zones diet is linked with positive health benefits that can reduce your risk of age-related disease and conditions.

How many meals a day do you eat on the Blue Zones diet?

It’s typical for people who follow the Blue Zones diet to eat three meals a day and maybe a snack or two. Focusing on how hungry or full you feel and making healthy food choices is more important than timing your meals and snacks.

How Does the Blue Zones Diet Work?

Unlike a lot of weight loss plans, which are often intended only for a temporary period of time, this diet outlines a way of eating for life. It essentially emulates the diets of people who live in one of the world’s five blue zones, which are geographic regions where the inhabitants tend to live longer than average and have a lower incidence of chronic diseases. The Blue Zones diet includes mostly whole, plant-based foods, and limited meat and animal products. “That means fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Within those categories, you get the key nutrients your body needs — protein, fat, carbohydrates, and all of the vitamins and minerals,” says Selvi Rajagopal, MD, MPH, an internal medicine and obesity specialist with Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

The Blue Zones diet focuses on how you eat as well as what you eat. “One of the principles is to eat until you’re satisfied rather than completely full,” said Samantha Cassetty, RD, the New York City–based coauthor of Sugar Shock. “We have a tendency to eat quickly and not be so in touch with our bodies’ hunger and fullness cues. It takes practice and getting used to, but you come to see that [eating until you’re satisfied] fuels your body with the right amount of food, so you maintain good digestion and energy balance.”

What Are the Types of Blue Zones?

There are five blue zones throughout the world where people tend to live long and healthy lives. While they share some common lifestyle habits, they are all unique.

  • Okinawa, Japan?Older Okinawans grow (or used to grow) gardens, so they get exercise, stress relief, and fresh produce built into their lifestyle.
  • Sardinia, Italy?Sardinians typically eat meat only on Sundays and special occasions, focusing on whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit for most of their meals. They also drink a glass or two of red wine daily.
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica?Nicoyans eat a light, early dinner, and many older Nicoyans’ diets center around squash, corn, and beans.
  • Ikaria, Greece?Ikarians generally follow the Mediterranean diet, and as Greek Orthodox Christians, fasts are a standard part of their religious practices.
  • Loma Linda, California?A community of Seventh-Day Adventists lives in Loma Linda. Those who live the longest follow a vegetarian or pescatarian diet (where fish and seafood is the main protein), and overall tend to eat a diet low in sugar, salt, and refined grains.

Potential Health Benefits of a Blue Zones Diet

Several foundational principles of the Blues Zones diet are validated by research including:

  • A diet higher in plant-based foods was associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease general population, according to research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in August 2019.

  • A diet higher in whole grains may lower your risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition in March 2021.

    The Blue Zones diet cites the U.S. dietary guidelines for whole grains, which recommends at least three servings a day.

    And, a diet high in beans may reduce your risk of certain types of cancer.

  • A Mediterranean-style diet like the Blue Zones diet may also alter your microbiome in ways that could make you less frail and could improve your cognitive function as you age.

  • Eating more nuts, as the Blue Zones diet recommends, may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, according to research

  • A diet centered around plants and whole foods could significantly reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, according to an umbrella review published in the journal Nutrients in July 2020. Diets high in processed meat and sugar or artificial sugar-sweetened beverages, meanwhile, significantly increased risk of the metabolic disease.

  • Eating fiber, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables may help you sleep better and longer, with less insomnia.

  • The polyphenols, or healthful compounds found in plant-based foods, may help increase longevity by slowing the onset of age-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in Antioxidants in March 2021.

Weight Loss Effect of a Blue Zones Diet

The goal of the Blue Zones diet isn’t to help you lose weight, it’s to help you live a healthier life. But weight loss could be a byproduct of this healthy way of eating. The diet is built on a foundation of whole foods, which “tend to have fewer calories than processed forms of carbohydrates, protein, or fats,” says Dr. Rajagopal. “So [this diet] tends to help people maintain a healthier weight because overall, calorically, they’re not taking in as much.”

The Blue Zones diet is also high in fiber, a nutrient that promotes satiety, and may help with weight loss by keeping you full for fewer calories, according to research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in January 2019. Fiber is the indigestible part of plant-based foods, so it fills you up but ultimately passes through your digestive system without being fully absorbed.

Following the Blue Zones diet’s 80 percent rule may also lead you to eat less. “When you learn to be in touch with your hunger and fullness cues, you’re eating more in line with your body’s needs, so you’re not in a calorie surplus above what you need to be healthy, active, and thriving,” Cassetty says.

Learn More About the Health and Weight Loss Benefits of the Blue Zones Diet

Pros and Cons of the Blue Zones Diet

The Blue Zones diet is part of an overall lifestyle that also focuses on natural movement, following your purpose, reducing stress, and connecting with loved ones and your community. The Blue Zones diet brings you all the heart-healthy, cancer-fighting, and other health benefits outlined above. Plus, our experts pointed out:

  • You don’t have to buy any special products or services with the Blue Zones diet — you can find these foods at grocery stores and farmers markets.
  • There’s no time-consuming measuring or counting. You eat based on how hungry you feel and stop when you are 80 percent full. You don’t have to track calories or macros.

So, are there any downsides to the Blue Zones diet? Nutritionally, our experts didn’t find any flaws, however, it could take time and effort to transition from what you are currently eating, especially if you tend to grab quick, convenient foods. Cooking could be more burdensome than what you’re used to.

“It could be a big change from how you are used to eating, and that’s an adjustment,” Cassetty says. You have to give yourself time to explore new foods and new ways of preparing foods.

“It takes time to educate yourself about the different elements and how to fit them into your lifestyle,” Rajagopal says. She recommends building on the foods you already eat that are part of the Blue Zones diet, and making one or two other changes at a time, rather than overhauling your diet all at once.

Foods to Eat and Avoid on a Blue Zones Diet

People who live in blue zones don’t all eat the same diet, but there are a lot of similarities in what they eat. In general, this diet focuses on nonprocessed whole foods such as leafy greens, in-season fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and limits processed foods and added sugars (including artificial sweeteners). Here are some foods to include if you’re trying this eating plan:

  • Fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes should make up 95 to 100 percent of what you eat. You can include meat on special occasions if you like.
  • The plan recommends up to 3 ounces of fish such as sardines, anchovies, or cod at least three times a week.
  • The plan suggests at least ? cup of cooked beans a day. Black beans, garbanzos, white beans and soy beans?are some good varieties.
  • Two handfuls, or about 2 ounces, of nuts such as almonds and pistachios per day
  • Whole grains — farro, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, bulger, and cornmeal are top choices. You can also try whole-grain pasta and bread.
  • Unsweetened beverages — water, coffee, tea, and moderate amounts of red wine are all on the diet (though if you don’t drink alcohol, this doesn’t mean you should start).

While there aren’t strict rules to follow with the Blue Zones diet, there are a few foods you should avoid:

  • Sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Snacks loaded with salt and preservatives
  • Packaged sweets like donuts, cookies, and candy
  • Processed meat such as bacon, sausage, and cold cuts

A 7-Day Sample Menu for a Blue Zones Diet

To get an idea of what following the Blue Zones diet looks like, check out this week’s worth of sample menus to get started. There aren’t portion sizes on this diet — tune into what your body is telling you and eat when you feel the need. Pause as you eat and evaluate your fullness so you can stop eating when you are 80 percent full. For more mealtime inspiration, check out some other Blue Zones recipes.

Day 1

Breakfast: Granola with dried berries and nuts

Lunch: Squash, radicchio, and chickpea salad

Dinner: Tofu, spinach, and herb-stuffed shells

Snack: Banana nut oatmeal

Day 2

Breakfast: Quinoa breakfast bowl with berries, banana, and almonds

Lunch: Zucchini soup

Dinner: Coconut curry tofu

Snack: Roasted chickpeas

Day 3

Breakfast: Whole-wheat banana nut bread

Lunch: Quinoa tabbouleh

Dinner: Pumpkin marinara pasta

Snack: Berry protein smoothie

Day 4

Breakfast: Black bean breakfast burritos on whole-grain tortillas

Lunch: Stuffed eggplant

Dinner: Baked salmon and vegetables

Snack: Peaches in raspberry yogurt sauce with almonds

Day 5

Breakfast: Green smoothie with almond milk

Lunch: Mediterranean grain bowl

Dinner: Vegetable lo mein with crushed peanuts

Snack: Strawberry mango salsa with corn tortilla chips

Day 6

Breakfast: Blueberry corn cakes

Lunch: Lentil soup with lemony greens

Dinner: Pasta with tomatoes and basil

Snack: Handful of mixed nuts

Day 7

Breakfast: Savory oatmeal with pecans

Lunch: Bean salad with vinaigrette

Dinner: Paella with vegetables

Snack: Banana with nut butter

Learn More About the Blue Zones Diet Food List and See a Complete 7-Day Meal Plan

Resources We Love

Blue Zones

Find articles, recipes, communities, and more about the Blue Zones diet and lifestyle at this site.

Blue Zones 4-Week Plan

This plan can get you started on the Blue Zones lifestyle.

Blue Zones Online App

Calculate your life expectancy and the length of time you can expect to be healthy, and get recommendations for improving your numbers.

Blue Zones Meal Planner

Customize your planner by household size, food preferences, cooking skills, and the time you have available to cook.?($14/month or $99/year)

Blue Zones Cookbook

The Blue Zones Kitchen?contains 100 recipes that can help you transition to this plant-centric way of eating.?($19)

Diet Review: U.S. News, What Is the Blue Zones Diet?

U.S. News is known for its in-depth diet reviews. Here’s what they had to say about the Blue Zones diet.

Blue Zones Project

Learn how communities can make changes that help move their populations toward a healthier lifestyle.

Summary

The Blue Zones diet is based on the food choices of people who live in the blue zones, areas of the world where people tend to have long and healthy lives. It is focused on nonprocessed plant-based foods and patterns of eating that research has found are associated with lower-than-average incidence of chronic diseases.

The Blue Zones diet doesn't require any special equipment or meals, although its focus on whole foods may require a little extra time in the kitchen. If that represents a major change from your typical diet, you may want to make the transition slowly to ease into it. Ultimately, the potential payoff in a longer, healthier life make make it worthwhile.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • Food Guidelines.?Blue Zones.
  • Tsoupras A, Lordan R, Zabetakis I. Inflammation, not Cholesterol, Is a Cause of Chronic Disease.?Nutrients. May 12, 2018.
  • Buettner D, Skemp S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived.?American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. September–October 2016.
  • Kim H, Caulfield LE, Garcia‐Larsen V, Steffen LM. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults.?Journal of the American Heart Association. October 2016.
  • Schacht SR, Olsen A, Dragsted LO, et al. Whole-Grain Intake and Pancreatic Cancer Risk — The Danish, Diet, Cancer and Health Cohort.?The Journal of Nutrition. March 2021.
  • Didinger C, Foster MT, Bunning M, Thompson HJ. Chapter 19: Nutrition and Human Health Benefits of Dry Beans and Other Pulses. In: Siddiq M, Uebersax MA, Eds.?Dry Beans and Pulses: Production, Processing, and Nutrition: Second Edition. December 2021.
  • Shankar Ghosh TS, Rampell S, Jeffery IB, et al. Mediterranean Diet Intervention Alters the Gut Microbiome in Older People Reducing Frailty and Improving Health Status: The NU-AGE 1-Year Dietary Intervention Across Five European Countries.?Gut. February 2020.
  • Guasch-Ferré M, Liu X, Malik VS, et al. Nut Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease Risk.?Journal of the American College of Cardiology. November 2017.
  • Toi PL, Anothaisintawee T, Chaikledkaew U, et al. Preventive Role of Diet Interventions and Dietary Factors in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: An Umbrella Review.?Nutrients. September 2020.
  • Zuraikat FM, St-Onge MP. The Influence of Diet on Sleep.?Neurological Modulation of Sleep. 2020.
  • Meccariello R, D'Angelo S. Impact of Polyphenolic-Food on Longevity: An Elixir of Life. An Overview.?Antioxidants. March 24, 2021.
  • Hervik A, Svihus B. The Role of Fiber in Energy Balance.?Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. January 21, 2019.
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