How did you discover the "blue zones," the places around the world where people are most likely to live to be 100?
As a National Geographic fellow, I came across a report showing that the people who lived in Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. We organized an expedition to find out why, and then went to the National Institute on Aging for funding to look for other blue zones. In the first wave of research, we identified two more: Sardinia and a Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. Later we added the island of Ikaria in Greece and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
What makes a blue zone?
These places have the lowest rate of middle-age mortality or the highest concentration of centenarians on their continent. In places where people live the longest, they’re not being tempted to do the things that make us sick in America. They live in an environment that sets them up for success.
They’re nudged into movement every 20 minutes or so. They don’t have mechanized conveniences, and every time they work or visit friends, they walk. They also have a vocabulary for purpose.
What does that mean?
In Okinawa they don’t have a word for “retirement.” They talk about ikigai, which means “why I wake up in the morning.” People think of themselves as being useful into their 90s and even 100s. In Costa Rica the phrase is plan de vida, or life plan. In blue zones, the older you get, the more revered you are. It’s not like, “OK, Grandma, you’ve worked your whole life. Put your feet up.” It’s more like, “Grandma, we need you. We honor your decades of wisdom.”
In your new book, The Blue Zones Kitchen, you talk about the importance of eating a largely plant-based diet.
The main foods you see in every blue zone are greens, grains, tubers, nuts and beans. It’s the peasant diet.
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What’s your favorite recipe?
Sardinian minestrone. I got it from the Melises, the Guinness world record holder for the longest-living family. Every day they have the same lunch: sourdough bread, a small glass of red cannonau wine and a bowl of minestrone.
In recent years, you’ve introduced the blue zones approach to several U.S. cities. What have you learned?
Our most recent city was Fort Worth, Texas. They credit us with lowering the smoking rate 31 percent since 2014. The city also improved its overall Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index score by almost four points during the project. The way we did it was not trying to convince 1 million people in the Fort Worth area to eat their veggies, start running and socialize more. We did it by changing the environment. We said, “Here are 30 things that have worked elsewhere—such as adding sidewalks and bike lanes, creating ordinances to encourage nonsmoking. Pick eight of them and we’ll help you implement them over the next three years.” It turns out that in every community we’ve worked with, the people said, “We can do that.”
What are the broader implications of this nationwide?
We have a $3.7 trillion health care problem that ain’t going away. We need to stop beating the dead horse of individual responsibility and switch the focus to changing people’s environments. It’s completely delusional to think we’re going to get 330 million Americans to eat the right diet, do 300 minutes of physical activity a week and live a purpose-driven life. We need to improve the ecosystem we live in, one that sets Americans up for success.