“Blue Zones” are places in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives.
People in those regions tend to have similar diets, with few processed foods or added sugars.
Experts suggest there are health benefits to limiting foods like red meat, refined grains, and sweets.
To live a long, healthy life, it may be worth cutting back on foods like processed meat, sweets, and soda, evidence suggests.
These foods are limited in so-called Blue Zones, regions where residents tend to live longer and have fewer health problems as they age, researchers discovered.
Blue Zones vary geographically and by cuisine, spanning Greece and Italy as well as Costa Rica and Japan, but share common patterns of eating. Whole, plant-based foods like leafy veggies, fruits, beans, and grains are pervasive in Blue Zones.
In contrast, the regional diets tend to avoid processed foods, refined grains, sweet drinks, and added sugar, and incorporate red meat and animal fats like butter sparingly, if at all.
Limiting these foods may be linked to longevity and lower risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and more.
Processed foods, from snacks to pre-packaged meals, take a back seat to whole foods
From Costa Rica to Japan, one unifying trait of Blue Zones diets is that they rely primarily on whole, unprocessed foods.
Staples like rice, beans, and veggies take precedence over pre-made and convenience foods, which are full of added fat, salt, sugar, and preservatives.
Ultra-processed foods like pizza, chips, and the like have been linked to increased risk of early death from illnesses like heart disease or cancer.
It can be challenging to eliminate all processed foods from your diet, since they include everything from condiments and sauces to flavored yogurt and granola bars.
If you can’t cut back completely, aim for healthier processed foods with nutrients like fiber and protein, according to experts.
Added sugars, in everything from snacks to sauces, are limited
One of the dietary culprits sabotaging longevity is too much sugar, evidence suggests.
Sugar is ubiquitous in processed foods. While you’d expect foods like cookies, candy, and ice cream to be sugary, condiments and other pre-packaged meal ingredients are surprising sources of sugar.
Too much of the sweet stuff can lead to weight gain, mood problems, skin conditions, and higher risk of diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease.
Instead of sugary treats, Blue Zone residents tend to snack on foods like nuts, packed with fiber and healthy fats, or reach for nutritious fruits for some natural sweetness.
Refined grains like white bread, pasta, and pastries are avoided in favor of high-fiber whole grains
Blue Zones diets are famously high in carbohydrates, but with an important caveat: they favor whole grains over the refined, white, floury counterparts popular in the standard American diet.
When a grain is processed, nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals are stripped out to create a fluffy texture and a longer shelf life. Often, additives like fats and sugar are mixed in to improve flavor, too.
As a result, foods like white bread, pasta, pizza dough, and pastries provide calories but few other nutritional benefits, and may be detrimental to heart health.
The lack of fiber in refined grains also makes them less satiating than whole grains, making you more likely to overindulge and/or experience spikes in blood sugar.
Red meat, especially processed meats like sausage, are eaten in moderation.
Blue Zones diets are almost entirely plant-based, according to researcher Dan Buettner, which may in part explain their longevity benefits.
Studies have shown people who eat more meat tend to have higher rates of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
The link between meat and health risks is observational, which means the research doesn’t directly show eating more meat leads to worse health. And red meat may be a healthier alternative to processed meat, which is more closely linked to cancer, some evidence suggests
However, many experts and studies still suggest eating red meat in moderation, if at all.
Instead of meat, Blue Zones tend to incorporate high-protein foods like beans, seeds, fish, some dairy, and eggs into their diet in moderation.
Sweetened beverages, including diet drinks, aren’t as popular as water, coffee, and tea
Sugary beverages like soda, juice, energy drinks, and the like are one of the most prevalent sources of added sugar in the standard American diet. High consumption is linked to greater risk of cancer and other illness.
While some people have switched to diet sodas to avoid added sugar, and artificial sweeteners like aspartame have become more popular, experts say these alternatives aren’t much better for your health. Some evidence has linked the sweeteners to higher risk of cancer and heart disease, as well as stronger cravings and less sensitivity to sweet tastes.
People who live in Blue Zones’ stick to water, or other unsweetened beverages.
Coffee and tea have additional health benefits thanks to a wealth of antioxidants, micronutrients linked to lower risk of disease.
For a little indulgence, some Blue Zones diets include red wine with meals, small amounts of which have minimal risks and potential benefits.
Animal fats are often swapped out for olive oil
Since Blue Zone diets are mostly plant-based, they tend to rely heavily on olive oil and similar sources of fat.
There’s good evidence these unsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol and improve heart health, compared to saturated fats from animal products.
Some research has found swapping out butter for olive oil may stave off a range of health issues, including cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disease.
However, evidence also suggests butter is likely harmless in small amounts, so you may not need to cut out butter entirely — experts say it’s fine to include it and other saturated fat sources in moderation, particularly from high-quality sources.
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