National Geographic writer Dan Buettner spoke at the Produce Marketing Association's Foodservice Conference and Expo. ( Tom Karst )

MONTEREY, Calif. - The “Blue Zone” spots on the earth with the longest-lived people share common characteristics, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner told attendees at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference and Expo.

In an hour-long plus presentation July 27 called “Blue Zones: Secrets of a Long Life,” Buettner shared photos from his travels around the world and distilled the lessons learned from communities that had the highest percentage of centenarians.

Those Blue Zone spots include:

  • Okinawa, Japan;
  • Sardinia, Italy;
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica;
  • Ikaria, Greece; and 
  • Loma Linda, Calif.;

In his presentation, Buettner asked the audience to raise their hands in response to nine questions that he said would help calculate the life expectancy of each of those honestly answering. Only one audience member asked every question “right,” The questions were based on nine “common denominators” shared by Blue Zones:

  • Move naturally: the environment of Blue Zones nudge people moving into moving “without thinking about it.”
  • Purpose: Researchers found that knowing the sense of purpose can add up to seven years of life expectancy;
  • Downshift: The world’s longest-lived people have routines that help them deal with stress, including praying, napping and indulging in a happy hour;
  • 80% rule: In Okinawa, a Confucian mantra reminds people to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. Buettner said people in blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening;
  • Eating plants: Beans — fava, black, soy and lentils — are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets, Buettner said. Meat is typically eaten only five times per month;
  • Wine: People in blue zones (except 7th-day Adventists on Loma Linda, Calif.) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. The key, he said, is to drink one to two glasses per day with friends and/or food;
  • Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians belong to some faith-based community; research showed that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy;
  • Loved ones first: Centenarians typically put their families first, he said. Keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home can lower disease and mortality rates of children in the home; and
  • Tribes: Buettner said those love live the longest are often a part of social circles that support healthy behaviors.


Embracing Blue Zone lessons

Buettner is now involved with an effort to encourage cities in the U.S. to become Blue Zone Certified, characterized in part by city planning to encourage walking and putting in place policies to promote healthy food accessibility. The latest such city to embrace Blue Zone principles, he said, is Monterey, Calif., supported by a grant from Taylor Farms.

“The secret to longevity is shifting the focus from the delusion that we’re going to get 320 million Americans to buck up to their inner individual responsibility and find the discipline to do the right thing for the next 50 years so they don’t get diseases,” he said. “It isn’t going to happen, and it’s never happened in the history of the world,” he said. “The secret is shifting our focus from individual responsibility to optimizing the environments we live in to set people up for success, whether it’s your employees, whether it’s people live in your community, whether it’s your own family.”

He said optimizing the home, the workplace, schools, and the places where food is purchased so that healthy choice is “the unavoidable choice” is the challenge.

“I would argue that your industry is doing more to achieve that outcome than any other business in America. And for that, I would give yourselves a round of applause.”