Blue Zones have been getting a lot of attention lately. If you are unfamiliar with this term, the Blue Zones were discovered through the research of best-selling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner. He identified the five areas of the world that boast the greatest percentage of centenarians – people who live past the age of 100. After researching this concept, I thought about growing my very own backyard Blue Zone.
Buettner’s research and experiences with the people living in these communities led him to theories about what causes the amazing longevity of people living in these areas. Unsurprisingly, diet plays a significant role in all Blue Zones, and most of the diets are largely plant-based.
Being the avid gardeners that we are here at Epic, we get pretty excited whenever we hear proof that gardening contributes to healthy living. We did some diving into the diets of people living in these zones and have compiled a list of foods you can grow to create your own backyard Blue Zone.
Principles of the Blue Zones
Blue zones encompass a quality of life that has been lost or overlooked over time but has fortunately started to grow in popularity.
A big part of life in all of the Blue Zones is the treatment of food. This includes growing, preparing, and eating it as well. The simplicity of growing one’s own foods to nourish the body is a great stress reliever.
Time spent in the garden accounts for natural movement, which is more effective at increasing longevity than planned exercise. Gardening also gives the gardener a purpose and a goal to work toward. Many people living in Blue Zones continue gardening well into their 80s and 90s.
Blue Zone cultures also focus on food preparation, with residents using time-honored recipes and methods to create beautiful and nutritious foods for themselves and their loved ones. These communities focus on togetherness and celebration around food, both growing it and preparing it.
Let’s look at the five Blue Zones and the type of foods that are dietary staples in those cultures. Many of these foods are well-known and highly renowned for their health benefits, while others may not be on your radar. Most of them can be grown easily in the backyard garden.
The people of Okinawa have understood the benefits that gardening has on the mind, body, and soul for centuries.
In the early 2000s, Okinawa, Japan, was home to the greatest percentage of centenarian women in the world. This culture strongly focuses on their friendships and family relationships and the concept of having a purpose or ‘ikigai’ to keep their aging population vital and active.
Many aging Okinawans are gardeners and spend some time most days tending to their gardens. This regular, natural movement is a great form of purposeful exercise that provides great stress relief. We know the benefits of gardening on the mind and body, and the Okinawans share that passion.
The Okinawan people eat a roughly 97% plant-based diet, with over 60% of their diet consisting exclusively of one food. That food is the purple sweet potato. Some other foods that are part of the Okinawan diet are garlic, turmeric, and mushrooms. All of these are foods that you can grow in your own garden.
Purple Sweet Potatoes
Purple sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamin C and a natural antioxidant.
The Okinawan purple sweet potato is thought to have been brought to Japan from Central and South America in the 1600s. These potatoes are a great source of vitamin C and are filled with a group of powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are the same antioxidants that give a pretty purple hue to other nutrient-rich foods like berries. These sweet potatoes contain many anthocyanins, making them a great staple to add to your garden and diet. Sweet potatoes are easy to grow and cure for storage to be enjoyed year-round.
This bulb provides wonderful flavors and amazing health benefits.
Garlic is a staple in more than one of the Blue Zones. The list of health benefits from eating garlic is rather impressive. This heart-healthy, immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, and anti-biotic powerhouse is easy to grow, and the flavor it adds to many dishes is irreplaceable.
My great-grandmother, who lived well into her late 90s, swore to the efficacy of eating a clove of raw garlic daily. That is a little hardcore for my taste, but this giant ‘Elephant Hardneck’ garlic has a mild flavor, making it delicious, raw or cooked.
This rhizome is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and can aid in relieving ailments like arthritis.
Turmeric is a root, or actually a rhizome, in the ginger family. With many of the same health benefits as its spicy cousin, turmeric has incredible anti-inflammatory properties. As someone with a touch of arthritis in my hands, I can’t get enough of this healthy food in my diet.
Turmeric is easy to grow and does great in containers. Being a tropical plant might deter some gardeners in northern climates from growing it. Still, the great thing about this plant is that after harvesting the rhizomes for consumption, the remaining portions can be stored for the winter and planted again in the spring.
One of the healthiest mushrooms, Shiitakes are a great source of iron, potassium, and Vitamin D.
Another prevalent food source consumed regularly by Okinawans is the shiitake mushroom. Widely considered to be the healthiest of the mushrooms, Shiitakes are full of iron, potassium, and Vitamin D. They are also a great natural source of copper, which supports the immune system, blood vessels, and bones.
This island is self-sufficient, mainly because it has little access to commercial food products.
Sardinia is home to the greatest percentage of male centenarians, with the ratio of men to women in this age group being 1:1. With a ratio closer to 7:1 in the United States, we could stand to take some queues from this island community.
The Sardinian people are relatively isolated, so they grow most of their own food and have not had access to many commercial food products that their mainland neighbors have. They heavily focus on preparing and eating together, and nearly all of them consume a moderate amount of homemade wine made from locally grown Grenache grapes.
Many island residents are fortunate to have a genetic predisposition to longevity. Still, other factors keep Sardinians on their feet well into old age. Some of the staples in the Sardinian diet are plants that you can grow in your home garden.
Fresh sourdough bread is another dietary staple for the Sardinian people that might come as a surprise. Epic’s own Kevin and Jacques know all about making your own sourdough from scratch, and it is quite a treat. They even managed to grow their own mini wheat crop on the homestead!
Tomatoes are a great food source for heart health and blood sugar regulation.
This one is a no-brainer. The list of health benefits that come from eating fresh tomatoes is a long one. Not only are tasty tomatoes good for heart health and blood sugar regulation, but they also offer a metabolism boost.
Remember I mentioned that great-grandmother and her affinity for garlic? She came from another little island in the Mediterranean called Calabria, and she would tell you that super sweet and juicy ‘Italian Roma’ Bush tomatoes are the best variety for making her famous gravy (A wonderful recipe that I am fortunate to be privy to).
This winter crop is a great source of protein, and one cup can provide up to a third of your daily requirement.
Favas are loaded with protein and fiber. They have wonderful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties as well. Add these tasty beans to your diet for a fantastic plant-based protein boost. One cup of cooked beans contains almost a third of the daily recommendation for protein.
When picked young, these ‘Windsor’ fava beans have a delightfully tender shell. The attractive plants with pretty black and white flowers double as an ornamental in the garden. They also make a great winter crop, with cold tolerance down to 10°F.
One thing to note: if you have favism, skip fava beans. People with favism have a Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency. The lack of this enzyme means that not only can people with favism not digest fava beans, but they will experience severe health impacts from consuming them or coming into contact with the plants. People who most commonly have favism are males of African or Mediterranean descent, so if you fall into that category, check with your doctor before growing or consuming these beans.
The sweet, licorice flavor makes fennel a yummy snack with many health benefits.
Fennel is a plant in the carrot family that is another significant member of the Sardinian diet. It has a sweet flavor reminiscent of licorice and acts as an anti-inflammatory and an appetite suppressant.
Are you having a hard time waiting for dinner but don’t want to spoil your appetite altogether? Snack on some delicious ‘Romanesco’ fennel to satisfy your cravings.
Loma Linda, California
In Loma Linda, CA, a group of Seventh-Day Adventists has developed a tight-knit environment that centers around volunteering and community.
The United States has its own Blue Zone in Loma Linda, California. Here, a large population of Seventh-Day Adventists has built a community that boasts the greatest percentage of centenarians in the US. Volunteering and community are important to the group, and they enjoy outdoor physical activities.
In terms of diet, in addition to abstaining from smoking and alcohol, the Seventh Day Adventists are largely vegetarians and eat plant-based diets. This results in a population with largely healthy BMIs, less heart disease, lower cholesterol, and, of course, a reduced occurrence of type II diabetes.
Known for their “good fat” content, avocados can also be a good source of fiber for people with gut issues.
Avocados are another nutrient powerhouse. This fruit is healthy for your heart, full of gut-healthy fiber, and good fat. Not to mention, they are delicious! The sad thing about amazing hass avocados is that they only grow well in zones 9-11. They are not cold-tolerant.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a warm enough climate, having these wonderful fruits in your backyard is amazing! In Zones 7-8, some more cold-tolerant types can be grown with extra care. For those above Zone 7, this must be a supermarket buy. Fortunately, avocados have become very popular and easy to find.
Sprouted beans are easy to grow and a great source of protein and fiber.
Beans are a wonderful, easy plant to grow. Many cultures that eat a mostly plant-based diet consume a lot of beans. They are a great source of protein and fiber, meaning they lend themselves to maintaining a healthy body composition.
The effect of this on the body long term is a reduced rate of obesity and the diseases that go hand in hand with it. Heart disease and type II diabetes are much lower in this community, and it’s not difficult to see why. The people of Loma Linda have an average life expectancy rate of 10 years older than the rest of America. Sprouted beans are a great way to add these health benefits to your diet.
Nuts have been known to help increase the average life span and overall health.
The Loma Linda residents who consume nuts daily have a significantly lower occurrence of heart disease. They live, on average, two years longer than their non-nut-eating contemporaries. These healthy sources of fat and protein certainly impact longevity and good health.
The Ikarian people have adapted well to their islands’ rugged terrain.
The unique isolation of the Ikarian people may play a starring role in their longevity. Most of the modern convenience foods that we consume are not available on this little Mediterranean island. As a result, nearly all of their food is grown on the island or fished from the sea around it.
An interesting finding in the aging population of Ikarians is an almost complete lack of dementia. One in three Ikarians lives past 90 and continue to do physical tasks and spend time with their friends and families in their later years.
In each of the Blue Zones, an emphasis on staying active and maintaining relationships was a huge part of the cultures. For Ikarians, the rugged terrain of their island and the time spent eating and laughing with friends are major factors in health and quality of life.
The diet on Ikaria is a balanced one by most standards. About 11% of their diet consists of meat and fish, a higher number than the other Zones. They consume goat’s milk rather than cow’s milk and also consume a fair amount of sweets.
However, all of their sweets are made from honey produced by the bees on the island. Beekeeping is a common pastime on Ikaria, and the honey is eaten raw, preserving all of its healthy enzymes. Raw honey is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and full of antioxidant properties. As a beekeeper, I admit I’m a bit tickled by this one.
The native herbs have become a staple to many dishes and medicinal remedies in the Ikarian culture.
Ikarians grow and consume a lot of herbs. One of the primary ways they consume their herbs is by drinking herbal teas. The health benefits of herbs and herbal tea speak for themselves. So many herbs have found their way into our foods because of their medicinal properties and stick around because they contribute complexity and flavor.
Growing herbs is something all gardeners can do. Even in small spaces, a bounty of herbs can be grown in a small patch of sunlight. Many herbs can even be grown indoors. Coriander, dill, and mint are common herbs used in Ikarian cuisine, as well as oregano, rosemary, and thyme.
Actually beans, black-eyed peas provide iron and fiber to the Ikarian diet.
Black-eyed peas are another staple in the Ikarian diet. These nutritious beans contain plenty of iron, folate, manganese, and vitamins. Not to mention, they are packed with gut-healthy fiber.
These superfood legumes are so easy to grow that they nearly grow themselves. They don’t require fertilizer, and they need very little water.
Eggplant is a nutrient-dense vegetable often used as a replacement for meat.
The eggplant is another easy vegetable to grow that is prominent in the Ikarian diet. Eggplant is a great stand-in for meat in many everyday dishes and is surprisingly nutrient-dense compared to its low caloric content. Try these gorgeous ‘Black Beauty’ eggplants for a nutritious addition to the table and a beautiful, fast-growing plant.
Potatoes are a great source of energy.
The Ikarian diet is nine percent potatoes. Potatoes are complex carbohydrates, so they are a great source of energy.
They also contain a high level of vitamin C, which prevents scurvy and protects cells from free radicals. You can grow potatoes from tubers or from seeds like these pretty ‘Clancy’ potatoes.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
This plant-based diet includes corn as a significant staple.
Nicoya, Costa Rica, the last Blue Zone on the list, holds a special place in my heart. My husband and I honeymooned in this beautiful region, and its natural and lush landscape enchanted me.
On this small peninsula, one of the world’s oldest populations finds its home. The people of Nicoya are hard-working and work well into their old age. They work purposefully, spend time with their loved ones, and they laugh a lot.
The Nicoyan diet is largely plant-based. Corn and beans are significant staples for this region, with squash also playing a leading role. This ‘Glass Gem’ flint corn is not only beautiful. It is ideal for nixtimalizing to make your own tortillas.
Straight-necked summer squash is a wonderful addition to the garden, as well. This nutrient-packed vegetable can grow as a spring or fall crop as it matures quickly and typically is a great producer.
Other staples in the Nicoyan diet that you can plant in your garden are yams, which are full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Papayas are a delicious way to add extra potassium and antioxidants to your garden and are another star in the Nicoyan diet.
Bananas are another staple for this community. Banana trees are very resilient and easy to grow. They grow in zones 4-11, making them an incredibly versatile plant. You can grow dwarf varieties easily indoors as out, and they make stunning houseplants with their large, tropical leaves.
While we can’t all live in Blue Zones for obvious reasons, as gardeners, we have the resources to create a food garden that includes so many of the incredible foods that are part of the diets in each of these regions.
Gardening is also a wonderful stress reliever, which checks a second box toward living a Blue Zone lifestyle. A solid knowledge of gardening principles is a valuable skill set that can help to keep us on the path to longevity and healthy living. Happy planting!