What is the Blue Zone diet?

I was recently asked to talk about the Blue Zones on a local Seattle news station, King 5 for their New Day NW segment. You can find the clip here. The Blue Zones are 5 identified areas in the world where people tend to live the longest. These areas have the highest numbers of 90 and 100 year olds.


As a non-diet dietitian, I thought it would be smart to point out the obvious! Here I am, on TV, talking about a diet. There are a few reasons I agreed to do it. Firstly, being on TV is an incredible experience, why would I say no? Most importantly however, I don't view the Blue Zone diet as a diet - it is a dietary pattern, much like the Mediterranean diet is a dietary pattern. Is is a way you can choose to eat that tends to support longer life. It also doesn't talk about restriction, supports a variety of foods, eating until you are 80% full, pleasure, satiety and it has a whole lifestyle component that I can support. So am I suddenly recommending this to everyone? Heck no. Why? Because I don't recommend one specific diet or dietary pattern to anyone. We are all unique individuals. Listening and learning what your body needs is what finding your authentic health is all about! Do I think that the Blue Zone dietary pattern is a nutritious way to eat? If you don't feel restricted eating this way, if you enjoy eating this way and if you want to eat this way? Yes!


The Blue Zone dietary pattern is comprehensive and Dan Buettner has made it a fairly concise 9 points. I'm going to give you my overview and my top 5 points. I'm also going to talk about how the approach has some major fat phobic flaws and from the non-diet/HAES perspective, point out a few areas I think could be broadened, loosened up or removed entirely. Of course, I don't get to mention any of these on my TV segment, it was too short for time!


1. The Blue Zone Dietary pattern is much higher carbohydrate (carbs) than most other diets and especially much higher than low carb, keto and paleo diets. Most people in the Blue Zones eat about 50-80% of their energy as carbohydrates. These are consumed as rice, whole grains, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, fruits and corn. Takeaway? Carbs are healthy, support normal energy levels and are included in the diets of the people who live the longest!


2. Plant Slant. 95% of the foods that folks in the Blue Zones eat is plants. This looks like meat 5-7 times a month, eggs 2-3 times a week and most dairy style products actually comes from goats and sheep. Beans, lentils, tofu and the protein naturally found in grains, vegetables and fruits tend to make up the majority of their protein. Takeaway? Plants have lots of antioxidants and fiber, so they can help support health and a longer life. At the same time, we all have different needs and feel better with different combinations of food. I recognize for example that I feel better when I have some form of animal protein 1x a day or so. I mix it up with meat, eggs and dairy and I've learned that about myself. I'm okay with it!


3. Eat until about 80% full. I was asked about this on a panel on King 5 after my segment, you can see the link here. (CW: One of the other panelists does liposuction, fat 'replacement' etc. Lots of diet culture stuff and lots of beauty culture stuff. I did not get to choose who else was on the panel with me.) In hindsight, my answer was only about 50% of what it really is and how you find out what that means. It takes practice to learn where you are about 80% full. It takes turning off the calorie counter, the portion control and listening what your body is saying. It takes learning what hunger and fullness look like to you. Takeaway? 80% is NOT a hard and fast rule. You aren't going to eat to 80% every meal, because you are human. 80% is about 8 on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes you may eat less and sometimes you may eat more. Intuitive eating also talks about eating to about 7 or 8 out of 10 on a hunger/fullness scale. The real goal is to be aware enough when you are eating and enjoying the food so that you feel pleasant and satisfied.


4. Beverages tend to be water, tea, coffee and red wine. This one is definitely the opposite of non-diet. Why do I still talk about it? It is part of the dietary pattern of the Blue Zones. Does this mean other beverages can't be part of your diet? No. I am all about your dietary pattern being your own and containing what makes you feel good. Intuitive Eating is the dynamic interplay of instinct. emotion and thought. This includes sodas, juices, other alcoholic beverages besides wine and just about any other beverage you want it to. Takeaway? Enjoy your beverages! Savor whatever it is that you choose to sip on. Recognize how the drinks make you feel. Notice that you drink more water with lemon? Have more water with lemon. Feel like juice gives you a burst of energy if you are feeling low? Have some juice. Don't sweat the beverages. Life is too short for that.


5. The reason folks in the Blue Zones live so long isn't just about what they eat! It is also how they are moving, their social and community components, how they have dedicated de-stressing moments and a purpose for their life. What does this say to me? Exactly what HAES says - health is so much more about what we eat and how much we move. It really involves the health promoting behaviors we choose to engage in. Takeaway? Health is so much more than what you eat and what exercise you engage in. You can eat a "perfect" (no such thing!) diet and exercise daily and if you don't have many of these other components, what are you living for?


Areas where the Blue Zones books and focus need to do better:

1. They are pretty blatantly fat-phobic. They call out that if you choose to socialize with people in thinner bodies, you too will be thin or engage in your friends similar behaviors. I call B.S. on this. Body shape and size has nothing to do with who you hang out with. Perhaps people choose to socialize with similar body types because it feels safe, it protects their fat-phobia (I'm talking to my fellow thins) and people in larger bodies feel less stigma if they hang out with folks who understand their lived experiences. Do I have research to back this up? No. Do the Blue Zones? I'm going to say no on this also. Perhaps they claim they have correlation. Correlation does not equal causation! I vote to remove this and have Dan take a hard look at his own fat-phobia.


2. The Blue Zones focus on BMI - although interestingly (and tellingly!) they only mention it for the one Blue Zone in the USA and for "obesity prevention". I found it very interesting that there isn't a mention of body size in the four other Blue Zones. I vote to remove this!


3. There is no real mention of hunger and fullness. Yes, they talk about eating till about 80% full but in general, the book focuses on ways to 'reduce your portion sizes' or 'trick yourself' in to eating less. Our bodies are great at getting as much energy as it needs, no amount of tricking or portion control will help long term, if you are actually hungry and not getting enough food.


Have you read the books? What do you agree or disagree with?


Photo by Aaron Andrew Ang on Unsplash


© 2019 by Erica Mouch, RDN, CD.