I met my first centenarian on Maui. She was 104 on the day I met her, and though her body looked conspicuously flat beneath her bedsheet, her smile spread all the way to her eyes when she saw me. She was in a good mood that day, her nurses told me. Our conversation wove in and out of sensibility as we talked about family, the decorations in her room, and the sound of the rain outside the window at night. The animation in her face seemed to be a tenuous miracle; inside her small, fragile body a curious spirit bobbed in and out of sight behind century-old eyes.
Most of us are lucky to have met one or two centenarians in our lives, but Dan Buettner – best-selling author, National Geographic explorer, and founder of the Blue Zones – has been far more fortunate. He went looking for centenarians eighteen years ago when he became interested in the mystery of longevity, and the question of which geographic areas are home to the healthiest, longest-lived populations on Earth. As Buettner and his team poured over years of population statistics, they used a blue Sharpie marker to circle potential longevity hotspots on a map, narrowing down the possibilities until they were left with five specific locations – Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece. These five regions would eventually become known as the Blue Zones. Buettner then went on to analyze the lifestyles and diets of the people who lived in these regions, rounding up the commonalities, and offering them up to the rest of the world as a guide for best-health practices.
Having successfully pinned down the issue of longevity, Buettner then turned his attention to the even larger enigma of happiness. Using the same statistical approach, he’s combed the world over once more, this time looking for areas where people are not only steadily surviving, but positively thriving. His latest book, The Blue Zones of Happiness, profiles Denmark, Costa Rica and Singapore as three of the happiest places on Earth and elucidates the lessons to be learned from these flourishing countries.
THE BLUE ZONES PROJECT
Buettner has taken this research the extra mile with the advent of the Blue Zones Project. In this program he partners with Sharecare, an integrative health app, to help revitalize communities by spreading the knowledge of the world’s happiest and healthiest places. One of the leading principles behind the project is that people in the original Blue Zones, “…did not try to be healthy through behavior-change, but health ensued because their environment supported living longer, better.” (Blue Zones Project Hawaii Promotional Material.) Ashley Leahey, the Hawaii Statewide Engagement Lead for the Blue Zones Project describes the program as, “…a community-led well-being initiative that focuses on making small changes in our environment that nudge [us towards] healthier decisions. With that goal in mind, we work with restaurants, grocery stores, worksites, faith-based organizations, schools and individuals to make the healthy choice the easy, or inevitable choice.”
Blue Zones Project has now worked with communities in nine different states, including Hawaii, which signed on with the program in 2014. Hawaii currently has eight communities enrolled in the program; four on Oahu, three on Hawaii Island, and one on Maui. Hawaii Island’s three communities encompass the whole island; once West Hawaii (the most recently added community) completes certification, Hawaii County will become the first entire county in the nation to achieve Blue Zones Approval.
Blue Zones Project always operates within communities with the support of a local sponsor; Hawaii has the Hawaii Medical Service Association (HMSA) to thank for introducing Blue Zones Project to the state. Elisa Yadao, Senior Vice President, Chief Communications and Community Engagement Officer at HMSA, explains that the Blue Zones Project involves, “…reengineering the way work places are laid out, incorporating health considerations in food policies for schools, prioritizing health when deciding about zoning policies. This approach really only works when it is community driven so in bringing Blue Zones Project to Hawaii we really wanted to make sure we focused on community priorities.”
With that in mind, the project doesn’t pop up just anywhere; communities must apply and be selected to become a part of the initiative. “Blue Zones Project needs to see that the community is excited, ready and that Blue Zones Project can make a difference in your community,” says Leahey who helped spearhead Central Maui’s application. She brought together local business owners, politicians, and community organization representatives to give a winning presentation on why Central Maui was a good fit for the program.
Endeavoring to lead by example, HMSA was the first workplace in Hawaii to receive Blue Zones Approval. The health care insurer, with close to 2000 employees, enacted many changes as part of their certification process. At their Honolulu headquarters, for example, they installed filtered water coolers on every floor, got rid of vending machines, established a rooftop garden, encouraged the use of stairs over elevators, became a smoke-free campus, and began hosting a farmers’ market outside the building every Friday.
Leahey explains the logic behind Blue Zones Project implementation at worksites, “You spend the majority of your day at work, so if you have healthy snacks in the office and if your company is supporting well-being…and letting you go walking during the day, that’s what’s really going to impact the person.”
The same theory can be applied to children at school. Many schools on Hawaii Island have gone through the approval process, including Kua O Ka Lā New Century Public Charter School in Puna. The Hawaiian-focused K-12 school is located at an ancient Hawaiian village and is guided by cultural principles that encourage respect and connectivity with the environment and each other. Many of the school’s practices were already in line with the Blue Zones Project, such as their greenhouse and gardening program, their culinary arts program, and their morning protocol. Jane Howard, a Special Services teacher on the Health and Wellness Committee at the school, describes the morning ritual saying, “Every morning… we gather all the grades together and do wehena, which is a chant asking for permission to come in, asking for permission to learn, it’s based on traditional Hawaiian values…It gives kids a great sense of community and connection and that’s part of the Blue Zones, feeling like you’re connected to your ancestors.” The school has also offered a class on the Blue Zones Project, and one senior was inspired to make a Blue Zones Cookbook for kids as a senior project. The school is now working on becoming an approved worksite as well.
Blue Zones Project also leads volunteer programs in the communities. They organize cooking and gardening demos, hold Purpose Workshops designed to help attendees recognize their natural gifts and articulate a life purpose, coordinate “walking school-buses” where adult volunteers are paired with groups of children to walk to school, and organize walking groups called moais, which encourage gentle movement and socializing.
EAT LIKE A BLUE ZONER
While the Blue Zones Project doesn’t promote a specific diet per say, the five original Blue Zones display significant dietary overlap, and also share key behaviors and attitudes towards food.
-PLANT SLANT: While most aren’t vegetarian, all five cultures eat meat sparingly, usually only a few times a month at a serving size of 3-4 ounces.
-“BREAKFAST LIKE A KING, LUNCH LIKE A PRINCE, DINNER LIKE A PAUPER:” While Americans often consume overly large portions of food and tend to eat their largest meal at dinnertime, most of the Blue Zones enjoy a large breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a small dinner.
-FOCUSED EATING: The absence of TVs and other distractions at meal times generally encourage more conscious eating and reduce the risk of over-eating. Meals are often prefaced by expressions of gratitude.
-A TOUCH OF ALCOHOL: All of the Blue Zones (except for the Loma Linda population which is largely made up of strict Adventists) feature moderate alcohol consumption, usually wine drunk alongside a meal.
What’s actually on the menu? Legumes are the true common denominator, featuring prominently in all five Zones. Black beans, soy beans, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and black-eyed peas are some of the staple legumes that make an appearance in the daily diets of Blue Zoners. Other foods that appear frequently throughout the Blue Zones include: sweet potatoes, fresh fruit, leafy greens, whole grain or sourdough breads, sheep or goat cheese/ milk, nuts, and herbal and green teas.
All of this is good news for those of us who live in Hawaii with year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In The Blue Zones of Happiness, Buettner suggests emulating the Costa Rican habit of eating six servings of fruits and vegetables a day. He warns that this will likely affect happiness levels as well as health, “Research shows that people who go from no fruit or produce in their diets to eight servings a day experience a bump in their well-being equivalent to getting a new job.” He also suggests taking a page from Denmark’s book and opting for quality food over large quantities, “Design your menu based on the quality of the food you are eating. Choose fresh and local, fruits and vegetables. Eat out less often, but when you do, make it special.”
With the Blue Zones Project working with many restaurants in our communities, it’s easier than ever to choose a “special” place to eat out at. Laulima Food Patch in Kailua-Kona, the first Blue Zones Project approved restaurant in the West Hawaii community, felt immediate kinship to the project. “Our restaurant was almost designed for the Blue Zones Project,” says owner Bonita Lao, referring to the restaurant’s focus on fresh, local ingredients, including lots of produce, legumes and healthy grains. When asked why she was interested in becoming an approved restaurant, Lao says, “Working alongside the Blue Zones Project gives me confidence to encourage and promote better eating habits leading to a better future that will challenge, motivate, and inspire our younger and older generations towards positive, healthy change.” She says going through the certification process had a positive impact on Laulima’s staff as well; it led them to reevaluate lifestyle choices and serves as a good reminder of best health practices.
These sentiments are echoed by Lane Muraoka, owner of Big City Diner’s six locations on Oahu. “It was the way I was brought up, the way I was raised,” says the Kailua local. Growing up, Muraoka’s mother was always testing out new vegetarian dishes on her kids; his grandmother grew all sorts of tropical fruits and his grandfather took them foraging for fern and bamboo shoots. Muraoka always wanted to offer more than your standard diner food. He wanted there to be healthy options – fresh fish, tofu, brown rice, green tea – alongside the burgers and fries. “I’m not a diet guy,” he says. “You just make healthy choices. So I thought Blue Zones was great, we can partner together, we can help spread the word, because a lot of diseases and illnesses are caused by poor diet or eating habits.” The two Big City Diner locations in the Koolaupoko Community were some of the first restaurants to achieve Blue Zones approval on Oahu.
Restaurants aren’t the only part of the food supply chain that Blue Zones works with; they also have a certification process for grocery stores. The Foodland stores starting joining the project after their main office became a certified worksite and they saw what a positive impact the program had on their employees. Participating Foodlands now have clear signage labeling Blue Zones foods and highlighting locally grown produce, they distribute recipe brochures that inspire customers to cook truly nutritious meals, and offer Blue Zones Project check-out lanes, where customers will find water, fresh-cut fruit, and granola bars instead of the usual candy and soda. Monica McLaren, Foodland’s Director of Instructional Design, describes the feedback from their involvement with Blue Zones Project as, “Overwhelmingly positive; customers often thank our employees and management in our Blue Zones Project approved grocery stores, and sales of specific Blue Zones items in those stores has increased.” They currently have eleven approved stores throughout the islands, with three more in the works.
MORE THAN THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
The beauty of the Blue Zones is that, rather than worshipping an image of enduring youth, it puts the emphasis on honoring the aging process. The centenarians in the original Blue Zones are highly respected members of their communities, valued for their wisdom and experience. They hold active roles in their families and communities right up until the end of their long lives. They experience far less chronic disease then other cultures, not because they exercise and engage in trendy diets, but because their lifestyles require them to keep their bodies moving, and their minds engaged. They have a strong sense of connection to the people around them and approach the world with a sense of purpose and knowledge of their own self-worth.
It’s fitting that the Blue Zones story began with an interest in longevity, because everyone involved with the Blue Zones Project seems to have an eye trained towards the future. These people know that change will not happen overnight. They realize that increased well-being for the individual is rooted in the decisions and policies of the larger systems they belong to. The Blue Zones Project is not about quick fixes and instant gratification; it’s the gradual work of restructuring environments and mindsets so that community members find themselves living healthier lives by default, no special discipline or self-restraint required. It may take a generation or two before these well-being practices are fully incorporated, but as any centenarian can surely attest, there’s no shortcut to 100, you get there one day at a time.