On April 7th, the book “Blue Zones Solutions” will hit the shelves. In it, Dan Buettner, CEO of the eponymous organization describes his work over the last decade visiting and studying populations throughout the world where people live extraordinarily long, healthy, and happy lives. Dubbed “blue zones,” these pockets of longevity feature a number of common characteristics that Buettner tries to delineate in Blue Zones Solutions, offering readers a menu of habits, healthy food suggestions, life tweaks, recipes, and anecdotes that support health and longevity. This follow up to his 2008 “The Blue Zones” also describes his ongoing work incorporating many of these features into a number of communities across the U.S.
Most people living in the Blue Zones enjoy physical activity incorporated naturally into their daily lives (like gardening or walking); a sense of purpose (like caring for grandchildren or civic volunteering); low stress levels and a slower pace of life; strong family and community connections; and a diet characterized by moderate caloric intake, mostly from plant sources.
That these people are living long and happy lives should not be surprising. For a while now we’ve known, generally, the lifestyle factors that contribute to unhealthier, shorter lives: sedentary jobs and transportation; increased screen time; reduced active recreation; a diet of highly processed, calorically dense and nutritionally deficient foods and growing portion sizes; social isolation; chronic stress; income inequality and social immobility—basically all features of a modern, consumer society. For decades, public health professionals and advocates have pointed to these things as appropriate targets for policies and actions meant to improve health and well being.
Even so, controversy persists, especially when it comes to recommendations about diet. This is in part due to the inherent complexity and difficulties in performing human nutrition research (for more on that read Catherine Price’s Vitamania and Mary Roach’s Gulp). But probably more detrimental to getting straight answers about nutrition is the money that’s at stake any time changes come up that might shift people away from the Standard American Diet.
Currently, most Americans eat excessive amounts of cheap, low-quality calories. Also, mindless eating is encouraged, and available at every possible opportunity—in schools, at our jobs, in the grocery store, at the gas station, even parks—wherever we live, work and play, we are encouraged to consume foods that do not contribute to our health. This pattern of eating is highly profitable, so any deviation away from it is inevitably met with stiff resistance from those who make their living from hawking low-quality food.
Case in point: Recently, the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) released its 2015 Scientific Report. The committee recommended (among other things) a higher intake of plants, and a lower percentage of calories coming from red and processed meats and saturated animal fats than Americans currently consume on average (paraphrasing and emphasis mine). Public comments responding to the report ranged from supportive to apoplectic. Much of the negativity was the inevitable knee-jerk anger at anything involving science, tax dollars, and/or the government. However, a good portion of the feedback came from a growing contingent determined to rescue animal fats and proteins from their denigration over the previous decades.
These bedfellows include low-carb enthusiasts, paleo devotees, meat producers, and opportunistic writers and diet gurus seemingly eager to stoke the false dichotomy of low-fat versus low-carb. One such critique came in the form of a New York Times op-ed from Nina Teicholz, author of the book “Big Fat Surprise,” attacking the guidelines as relying too much on epidemiological evidence that supports reductions in red and processed meat consumption. Contrast that with a more recent op-ed from The Times from Dr. Dean Ornish, who decried both the pro-meat objections to the DGAC report, but also the report’s own reversal on previous recommendations against dietary cholesterol from sources like egg yolks.
So what’s the average consumer supposed to do with this? For every pro-[insert nutrient here] report, there seems to be an anti-[insert nutrient here] response. Part of the problem may be that we’re obsessing over the details of individual nutrients in the first place. We would do well to take a deep breath and zoom out a bit. And that’s where holistic, multifaceted approaches like Blue Zones could be useful.
“At the end of the day,” Buettner said in a phone call, "I’m not trying to take a scientific stance on whether fat or protein or carbs are better. I will tell you though, that the longest-lived people ate a high complex-carb diet with medium levels of fat and medium-to-low levels of protein. My stance is simply: 'Here’s what the longest-lived people ate over the last century on average, and if you’re interested in health outcomes similar to theirs, you might pay attention to this.'”
Granted, it’s likely so much more than what people in the Blue Zones eat that contributes to their longevity, and Buettner’s examination acknowledges this. Registered dietician Andy Bellatti of Dietitians for Professional Integrity agreed, and told me over the phone that people debating the virtues of one way of eating versus another often suffer from a form of tunnel vision.
“One of the things I really like about the Blue Zones is that it looks at health holistically, not just nutrition--it’s the way these people are socially connected, the way physical activity is incorporated into their daily lives, and how their environment contributes to their health, not just their nutritional choices.”
That said, let’s go back to the question of meat consumption. Is it bad? Well, the way we eat meat could use some improvement. In 2014 I attended the Menus of Change conference, co-hosted by the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America. The purpose of the conference was to bring together chefs, public health researchers, and food industry representatives to work together to find sustainable, healthy and delicious solutions to some of the most serious problems resulting from the way we eat. One of their principal conclusions? We need to find creative solutions to eat less meat, for health and environmental purposes (meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses, and leads to degradation of fresh water and arable land).
Andy Bellatti again:
“When you consider the fact that the average American falls very short of fiber intake, along with other nutrients, then we have a good opportunity to encourage other protein sources that provide those, whereas meat does not.”
If we were to reject the lower-meat recommendations from the USDA, from the Blue Zones, from Menus of Change, from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and really any reputable public health and nutrition organization, said Bellatti, then what we’re likely to see is a perceived green light to eat as much meat as possible, and in the context of the Standard American Diet, that’s probably a bad idea, he said.
At the end of the day a person’s health is determined by an infinitely complex interaction of innumerable factors. What that person eats is probably one of the more important factors, but certainly not the only one. One thing folks in the Blue Zones have going for them is that they’re not as obsessed as we are with what they eat and how they live. It just sort of happens. Maybe we should look into setting up our lives in a similar way.
One thing I can be pretty sure of: The buffalo chicken sandwich I ate for lunch today is not going to kill me. Conversely, if I never ate chicken (or any other meat) ever again, I’d probably also be ok. In fact, the evidence seems to support the idea that I’d probably be better off. Either way, I’d certainly be doing our planet a favor.