National Geographic's Blue Zone Philosophy: Science or Common Sense?

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The 2021 annual conference of U.S. Mayors adopted a resolution to create community “Blue Zones,” as part of the Well-Being Initiative to Combat Disease and Comorbidities. The Blue Zones program is derived from the work of Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, who identifies regions around the world where people purportedly live extraordinarily long and happy lives.

Now there is no argument for the need of communities to improve their public space infrastructure to allow for the availability of parks, bike lanes, walking paths, smoking policies, faith-based organizations, improved educational efforts, etc., as proactive measures to improve the health practices and lifestyles of its population to help stem the rising health care costs, reduced productivity, and the deterioration of the general health of its residents. I would consider this common sense. However, the Blue Zone Philosophy comes with a dietary protocol based upon a very skewed interpretation of the nutritional habits of the Blue Zone population groups.

Okinawa, Japan, is one of the five communities used by the Blue Zones to establish their proposed dietary protocols. Longevity is a complex trait and is a mixture of several variables, as pointed out by the Okinawa Centenarian Study (OCS), established in 1975 with over 1000 participants and funded, in part, by the Japan Ministry of Health.

The OCS looks for underlying commonalities in their diets, exercise habits, genetics, psychological and spiritual practices, and social and behavioral patterns. By studying exceptionally-aged individuals in a multidisciplinary biological, social, and cultural context, the OCS seeks insight into processes promoting disease prevention and healthy life extension.”

My longevity interest is optimizing my physical and mental function as I age, not just whether I am still breathing and taking on oxygen. This is captured in the concept of a healthy lifespan or health span.

The OCS provides more insight on the Okinawa population group the Blue Zones apparently forgot to mention in popularizing their dietary program.  According to the OCS report,

“The OCS has found that cigar-smoking, whiskey-swilling hundred-year-olds who effortlessly trek across mountain ranges to be myth. Rather population-based research demonstrates wide differences in the centenarian population from functional independence to high levels of disease and disability. In Okinawa, about one third of centenarians were found to be functionally independent, about one third needed major assistance with activities of daily living (ADL), and about one third were very ill and disabled.”

Okinawan centenarians seem to be healthier than the average person throughout their lives, which can be readily attributed to some obvious factors such as far lower rates of obesity, exceptionally higher levels of daily physical activity, dietary habits very similar to the Mediterranean diet, social practices for the stress reduction, and, of course, genetics.

Let’s consider some claims of Dan Buettner’s  Blue Zones Diet: Food Secrets of the World’s Longest-Lived People. The diet purports to

“capture the way of eating that yielded the statistically longest-lived people and explains, in some detail, why that food has enabled populations to elude the chronic disease scourge that has befallen Americans.”

However, Buettner makes a comment within the text which completely contradicts the whole concept of a Blue Zone diet. “The particular foods important to blue zones centenarians vary from one culture to the next [my emphasis]. So, there is no specific homogenous longevity diet per se, but more of a smorgasbord to choose from.  Buettner claims his group “distilled” the dietary studies conducted in blue zones over the past century to develop these guidelines for North Americans. I am not sure what he was distilling, but here are just a few examples of the Blue Zone Diet misinformation.

Claim: Use locally sourced fruits and vegetables – largely pesticide-free and organically raised.

Okinawa relies on what it can produce locally because of its poor economy, partly attributed to the island's sheer distance from mainland Japan. Produce grown with or without pesticides has zero to do with their longevity, and locally sourced is highly impractical for most people in the U.S. due to urbanization, with the production of our food supply left to roughly 2% of the population in rural areas. Additionally, to think that just because the food we choose to consume may be grown 3,000 miles away, such as the Guatemalan bananas I purchase, are somehow inferior to something grown in my backyard is very naïve. The superiority of organic food suggestion has been dispelled many times on the ACSH website; it’s absurd that an Emmy Award-winning journalist would suggest it.

Claim: See that 95% of your food comes from a plant or a plant product.

Buettner quotes one of their advisers, Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, as stating, “meat is like radiation: We don’t know the safe level.” This is an absurd statement and should be embarrassing to anyone at Harvard. The 95% rule is based upon Buettner’s claim that “indeed, research suggests that 30-year-old vegetarian Adventists will likely outlive their meat-eating counterparts by as many as eight years.” But what does the research really illustrate? The most straightforward comparison would be between two population groups with very similar lifestyles, family, and religious practices, Mormon and Seven-Day Adventists, except Mormons do not refrain from meat in their diets. In reality, many Adventists do not either. A 24-year longitudinal study demonstrated Mormon males have an 84-year-old life expectancy and females 86 years. A longitudinal study on Adventists gave a life expectancy of 81.2 for men and 83.9 for women. According to the CDC, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is roughly 79 years old. However, the average American's dietary and lifestyle habits are the antithesis of the average Mormon’s or Adventists.

In 2006, the late Dr. William Jarvis, a professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University, published Why I am Not a Vegetarian. In it, he points out,

 “[A] perennial assumption among vegetarians is that vegetarianism increases longevity… I discussed this matter 25 years ago with a Seven-Day Adventist (SDA) physician who was dean of the Loma Linda University (LLU) School of Health. Although he admitted that lifelong SDA vegetarians had not exhibited spectacular longevity, he professed that longevity of the antediluvian sort might become possible over several generations of vegetarianism. SDA periodicals publicize centenarians and often attribute their longevity to the SDA lifestyle. However, of 1200 people who reached the century mark between 1932 and 1952, only four were vegetarians. I continue to ask: Where on Earth is there an exceptionally longevous population of vegetarians? Hindus have practiced vegetarianism for many generations but have not set longevity records.”

Indeed, according to this 2019 BMJ report, Hindus have a 65-year-old life expectancy.

Claim: Favor true free-range chicken and family-farmed pork or lamb instead of meats raised industrially. Avoid processed meats.

The Stars and Stripes Okinawa, a newspaper serving the U.S. military community on Okinawa, recently published “Why SPAM is a key ingredient in daily life on Okinawa.”

  • Okinawans consume an estimated 7.2 million cans of canned pork annually, more than one can for each person per week. It is an indispensable ingredient in popular local dishes and can be found in virtually every home or restaurant pantry on the island.
  • In Okinawa, (canned) pork is a kind of soul food… It is used in virtually everything that’s cooked.
  • Okinawa is one of the largest markets in the world for Danish canned pork maker, Tulip, which has been challenging Spam’s market dominance on the island for decades.

 Free-range SPAM, anyone?

Claim: Eat up to three ounces of fish daily.

Why? I could find no objective proof that the Adventists or Okinawans ate fish daily.

Claim: Diminish Dairy.

“Cow’s milk does not figure significantly in any Blue Zones diet except that of the Adventists, some of whom eat eggs and dairy product.”

This has nothing to do with the inferiority of cow’s milk but its availability. For example, living on an island such as Okinawa and relying on locally produced products for economic reasons, this population group is forced to raise more economically feasible sources of animal products such as pigs, chickens, and other farm animals such as goats.

Claim: Occasional Egg.

Buettner attempts to give this statement credibility through the misuse of various association studies, which clearly cannot show a cause-and-effect relationship. It is also absurd to suggest that economically struggling population groups avoid one of the cheapest high-quality protein sources in their diets, especially for children.

Claim: Eat at least a half cup of cooked beans daily.

“The fact is, beans represent the consummate superfood in the Blue Zones diet… Even the Bible’s book of Daniel (1:1-21) offers a two-week bean diet to make children healthier.”

There are no superfoods, and beans are economically feasible sources of nutrient-dense food, which is why they are so readily used. Then there is his misuse of Scriptures. The verses in Daniel refer to vegetables in general, not necessarily specifically beans. The original Hebrew word could mean any legume or seed type food. Additionally, Daniel's refusal to eat what he was offered was related to his Jewish heritage and his uncompromising position not to eat food that did not meet the precepts of the Mosaic Law. The healthier outcome is attributed to God blessing him and his friends for their uncompromising stance, not some magical bean dish. Lastly, it was for 10-days, not two weeks.

Claim: Snack on nuts

“Nut-eaters on average outlive non-nut-eaters by two to three years, according to the Adventist Health Study 2.”

Eating nuts daily is not going to add two years to your life. Cherry-picking one of the many common variables attributed to a healthier lifestyle and giving it a superfood classification is junk science.

The National Geographics Blue Zone Diet is a long list of daily do’s and don’ts loaded with nonexistent superfoods, half-truths, and blatant misinformation. It provides us with nothing new.  In reality, according to Statistics Japan, the average Okinawa male life expectancy is 81.3 years, and for females 87.4 years. So, outside of a small overall number of genetically prone individuals living to 100, the overall life expectancy for Okinawans is not significantly different.