Each Blue Zone region has its own unique cultural customs, cuisines, and environmental influences, but the five regions share a few characteristics in common. For instance, those that reside in the Blue Zones tend to maintain a strong sense of inner purpose, connection to their community, and enriching social relationships. Their natural surroundings conveniently nudge them to make healthful choices, such as moving frequently. And finally, those in the Blue Zones regions typically follow a largely plant-based, anti-inflammatory meal regime—and a plenty of science-backed research shows that anti-inflammatory foods are linked to longevity.
Anti-inflammatory foods are nutrient-dense foods that contain a high amount of antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods—like fruits and vegetables, beans, olive oil, and fish—helps combat symptoms of chronic inflammation by neutralizing free radicals in the body. Inflammation is complex, but chronic inflammation can be caused (or exacerbated) by a variety of factors, from diet to stress levels and other lifestyle factors, including allergies, toxins, and aging.
Generally speaking, processed foods that are high in saturated fat, alcohol, and/or added sugars can exacerbate inflammation, while plant-based eating promotes healthy aging by fighting it. Research shows that loading up on antioxidant-rich plant foods can help stave off cognitive decline, prevent cancer, and lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
In sum, anti-inflammatory foods are a key component in the diets of all five Blue Zones: Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. And it’s not just the nutrient-rich food ingredients that are commonly consumed; it’s how they’re grown, prepared, and served within the customs of each location’s rich culinary history.
Rounded up below are 10 anti-inflammatory foods for longevity eaten every day by world’s longest-living people in the Blue Zones.
Anti-inflammatory foods for longevity
Beans are one of Buetter’s most widely-lauded foods for longevity, and for good reason. “Beans and legumes are super rich in plant-based protein and can take the place of meat on your plate,” says nutrition expert Sharon Palmer, MS, RDN, author of The Plant-Powered Diet. “They also pack vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which is what gives them their anti-inflammatory superpowers. Beans are also one of the richest sources of fiber in the plant world.”
Beans, pulses, and legumes are a key part of the meals consumed in all five Blue Zones regions, and there are tens of thousands of varieties to choose from on earth. For instance, in Sardinia, white beans, chickpeas, and fava beans are eaten on a daily basis. In Okinawa, you’ll often find edamame on the table; and in Nicoya, black beans are prized for their delicious flavor and nutritional value. Not sure where to start? Try Buettner’s super simple recipe for ‘longevity stew.’
2. Whole grains
Whole grains, such as barley, brown rice, farro, millet, and oats, are consumed daily in all Blue Zones, too. “In addition to high fiber, protein, vitamin, and minerals, whole grains are slow-digesting carbs that provide good sources of energy,” says Palmer. One whole wheat bread study found that the fiber and phenolic acids in whole grains help to prevent chronic inflammation. Palmer says that whole grains get absorbed more slowly than refined grains like white flour and are more nutrient-dense.
According to Erica Mouch, RDN, CD, whole grains fall into two main categories: grasses (wheats, oats, and corn) and pseudo-grains (amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat). “They’re all super nutrient-dense, but each one varies in its own unique benefits,” she says. “Barley, for instance, supports healthy gut bacteria that can also reduce inflammation.”
3. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are abundant in the Blue Zones, especially Okinawa, where both orange and purple sweet potatoes (called imo) are widely consumed. Both are extremely rich in antioxidants. “The purple sweet potato has slightly higher levels of beneficial potassium, but both varieties contain high levels of anthocyanins. This type of antioxidant is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, improved vision, and reduced inflammation,” says Mouch. Sweet potatoes are also high in fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and they’re great in traditional sweet side dishes and savory soups.
Another one of the foods many Okinawan people consume daily is tofu, which is made from soybeans. “Soy foods, like tofu, have heart-health benefits and are packed with plant-based protein,” Palmer says. “Soy has also been shown to help protect from breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
Mouch adds that tofu can act as a potent anti-inflammatory agent. “The isoflavones and lectin found in soybeans are incredibly beneficial in reducing joint pain, supporting normal digestion, and have many anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says. Same goes for other foods made from soy, like tempeh.
5. Olive oil
Most meals in Ikaria, Greene include local olive oils as an ingredient. “Extra virgin olive oil has been linked to multiple heart health benefits thanks to its antioxidants and unsaturated fatty acids,” says Palmer. “Research studies show that adding olive oil to meals helps combat chronic inflammation and lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes.”
For even bigger benefits (and delicious flavor), try infusing your olive oil with herbs—like rosemary and oregano—or garlic or onion. “Garlic and onion are known as alliums, which have compounds linked with heart health and cancer protection,” Palmer adds.
Lemon peel-infused EVOO is another brilliant way to zhuzh meals. “Lemon peel actually contains more folate, calcium, and magnesium than the juice,” says Mouch. “It also has more limonene, another antioxidant.”
Tomatoes are another staple ingredient in Ikarian cuisine. “Tomatoes are packed with vitamins and minerals, especially the antioxidant lycopene. But when you combine tomatoes with olive oil, you’ll reap even more anti-inflammatory benefits,” Palmer says. This, she explains, is what’s known as a food synergy: the interaction between nutrients in foods that result in even more health benefits when they’re consumed together. Try using tomatoes in one of these 10 delicious recipes, and don’t forget the extra drizzle of EVOO to reap the most nutritional value from each.
7. Fresh fruit
Local fruits—like papayas, bananas, guavas, maranon, chico, zapote, Inca berries, and jobo—are a key part of everyday meals in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. These tropical fruits (and all fruits, for that matter) have high levels of antioxidants, but berries are particularly rich in anti-inflammatory properties. “Berries, like blueberries and strawberries, have anthocyanin compounds that act as potent anti-inflammatory agents. They have multiple health benefits for the brain, heart health, and can help stave off chronic illness.”
Squash is also important in Nicoyan cooking, and is especially delicious when served in a dish known as “three sisters” that calls for winter squash, corn infused with lime, and black beans. “Squash is a great ingredient to support reduced inflammation in the gut and cardiovascular system. Not only does it contain omega-3 fatty acids, but also contains the antioxidants beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin,” says Mouch.
9. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
Palmer grew up in the Blue Zone region of Loma Linda, California and studied nutrition at Loma Linda University. She explains that families in her hometown were encouraged to grow gardens and canned the fresh foods too when they could. “The community eats plenty of green vegetables—especially leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts—which have all sulfur compounds linked with cancer protection,” Palmer says.
Growing a garden yourself, if you have the means, offers its own unique benefits that have nothing to do with phytonutrients or flavonols. “Gardening encourages us to eat more produce, helps reduce stress, and leaves a positive impact on the soil and environment,” says Palmer.
10. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are consumed daily in many Blue Zones, particularly Loma Linda. “Nuts and seeds offer heart-healthy fats that have been linked to lower risk of heart disease. All nuts are nutrient-rich, but some superstars are walnuts for omega-3s, almonds for healthy fats and fiber, and pistachios for protein and healthy fats,” says Palmer.
She remembers that savory nut loaves were often baked and served at social outing growing up. “They looked more like a meatloaf than bread,” she muses. “Nut loaves were often brought to celebrations and gatherings to be shared. Think vegetarian-friendly potlucks with foods that pretty much everyone could eat.”
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