What factors contribute to a long and healthy life?

You've heard of the South Beach Diet, you're familiar with the Atkins Diet - but what do you know about the Blue Zone Diet?

The Blue Zone Diet is a way to help increase longevity within communities. National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner spent years researching cities around the world to find where people live the longest. Over time, Buettner separated the various aspects of life that contribute to longevity, from diet and exercise to socialization and sense of purpose.

Discover which lifestyle factors play a part in how long people live and how Buettner's company is striving to spread positive practices. 

"There's emphases on living a slow-paced life."

The research
Dan Buettner began delving into long-living cultures around the world with financial support from National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging. Intellectually, Buettner was backed by a team of anthropologists and epidemiologists. He was seeking out communities where residents more commonly live to be 100 and stay healthier during the last part of their lives, compared to most Americans.

Some of the blue zones that Buettner identified are slightly remote. For example, the Italian island of Sardinia - but only in the Highlands. The other four are Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and an isolated Greek island called Ikaria. 

The way these people eat is a huge aspect of their impressive longevity, but Buettner approached the blue zones with a holistic lens. Despite his focus on diet, Buettner found that living a long and healthy life involves several other factors including physical activity, emotional support networks and a sense of purpose.

There's emphases on living a slow-paced life with less stress and less isolation. Blue zones go against the norms of American life. People in the U.S. work long hours at sedentary jobs, spend more time looking at screens than going outside, bury themselves in stress and gorge on processed sugars and fats. In blue zones, people exercise, eat and volunteer their time to others as a group.

The Blue Zone Diet
Following his 2004 book "The Blue Zones," Buettner developed a series of rules and suggestions to help people make life changes that align with blue zone habits. "Blue Zone Solutions" was published earlier this year.

Rather than counting calories or doing juice cleanses, people who live in these Blue Zones stay lean with plant-based diets. Their main sources of protein is beans - roughly one cup each day - rather than red meat. Their meals are high in carbs, but whole grains are always used in place of processed white flour. Instead of ending the day with a large dinner, blue zone communities eat their most substantial meal closer to breakfast and the meal size decreases throughout the day. Finally, the overall food portions are smaller in blue zones than in most American towns. The key to maintaining a blue zone diet is putting food down before they're even full.

A portion of beans packs plenty of protein.A portion of beans packs plenty of protein.

Alcohol is a part of the blue zone diet as well, although in a slightly specific way. Residents in blue zone communities tend to drink 1 to 2 glasses of wine each day. However, this is meant to be enjoyed in a social setting following a communal meal to bolster community relationships.

The Blue Zone Project
As a result of the research gathered by Buettner, National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, an initiative called the Blue Zone Project has begun in the U.S. More than 100 health-based surveys were distributed in the original five blue zones to determine basic guidelines. The company then converts U.S. communities into blue zones with gradual steps. According to the organization website, Albert Lea, Minnesota saw lower healthcare costs, roughly three years longer life expectancy on average and a decrease of 12,000 pounds in collective body weight. The program has now begun expansion into communities throughout Iowa.