Blue Zones: Why You Should Visit These Health Hotspots

Reaching 100 years old is aspirational, but for Blue Zone residents, it’s nothing new. From the depths of Costa Rica to the south of Japan, bestselling author Dan Buettner has identified five areas in the world where life expectancy is particularly high. It’s a niche topic on the rise, but we cannot help but wonder what nutrients are inside these superfoods. Should you find yourself on a remote Greek island, this guide might come in handy.

Research for this article has been supported by Netflix documentary “Live to 100 Secrets of the Blue Zones” (2023).

Okinawa, Japan

Closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo, Okinawa is Japan’s very own tropical paradise. It’s tourism-friendly these days, but historically it’s one of Japan’s poorest prefectures. Against all odds, the island’s legacy is longevity.

The secret lies in the Okinawa countryside diet. 67% of the diet is represented by purple sweet potatoes: formally known as beni-imo. The humble root vegetable has complex carbohydrates and fibre, as well as potent antioxidants.

Traditional Okinawan cuisine is centred around the medicinal power of food. Mulberry leaves can treat colds, while seaweed can help to release heat from the body — a much-welcomed refreshment on this hot island. Tofu is another staple of the diet, but Okinawa’s take on the dish has a higher concentration of protein and healthy fat.

What to order: Higher in volume but lower in calories, ordering a few different dishes is encouraged. The island’s representative dish is Goya Chanpurū: a stir fry containing bitter melon, tofu, pork belly and egg with vegetables. Okinawa knows how to make the most out of its readily available ingredients — as even the leaves of the beni-imo are cooked with rice. Practicing the simple but effective rule of “hara hachi bu” (eating until you are 80% full) is the locals’ trick to feeling satiated and not stuffed.

Beach in Okinawa, Japan.

Ikaria, Greece

Greece itself can be considered a health hotspot as the posterchild for the Mediterranean diet. But the remote island of Ikaria, which up until 1980 was self-sufficient, stands above the rest.

The urgency has gone, but old habits are held onto firmly. It’s believed that Dionysus, the God of Wine, was born on this very island. Naturally, the centuries-old tradition of preserving wines under the earth is still carried out today.

Ikaria’s beekeepers share a similar sentiment. The harvested honey is sweet and packed with micronutrients that are best enjoyed raw, or stirred into drinkable tea.

What to order: Good things take time and effort on Ikaria; it comes as no surprise then that its representative dish reflects this principle. Comparable to ratatouille, soufico requires vegetables to slow roast for hours until they reach a soft and almost caramelised texture. Vegetarian dishes are nutritionally complete, but cravings for meat and fish are met quite easily.

Icaria beach, Greece, at sunset.

Sardinia, Italy

Women are estimated to live longer than men, but in rural Sardinia, it’s one to one. On the slopes of Monte Ortobene you’ll find steep villages, subterranean caverns, and deserted beaches. If you want to experience Sardinia off-the-beaten-track, go to the Province of Nuoro.

You’ll be walking several thousand steps here without even trying — and there’s no better way to fuel the activity than with whole carbohydrates. Bread and pasta gets a bad reputation in the U.S., but in Italy they’re customary. Fresh sourdough can help to lower sugar absorption, while wholegrains and beans can have a filling effect. Combine it with an evening glass of wine and you’ll find that basics just might be better.

What to order: Embrace a hearty bowl of minestrone: a soup containing beans, tiny pasta pieces and vegetables. You’ll find each part of Sardinia has its own take on traditions, but there’s a few shared qualities. 1. any food group is great in moderation, 2. bring on the pasta, and 3. starting the evening with an aperitivo (pre-meal drink) makes us merrier.

Birdseye view of Cala Goloritzé, Baunei, Nuoro Province of Sardinia, Italy.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

The centenarians of northern Costa are determined to keep moving. 100 year olds riding horses and chopping wood in the early hours of the morning sounds absurd — but Nicoya is a rare exception to the phrase “it’s too ridiculous to be true”.

Just like Okinawa and Ikaria, Nicoya is relatively self-sufficient in diet. The outstanding results can be attributed to a simple but effective combination of plant based ingredients. It’s a holy trinity of corn (to make tortillas), squash, and beans. When paired together, you’re eating all nine essential proteins.

What to order: Don’t underestimate the power of a varied plate. A combination of yams, papayas, pejibayes alongside all other traditional ingredients is exciting and fulfilling. “Girl dinner” fans will find this type of meal delightful.

A glimpse of sunrise through a tree on Samara Beach, Nicoya, Costa Rica.

Loma Linda, California (U.S.)

With four out of five of the world’s blue zones being rural communities, this next one might come as a surprise. America has its very own blue zone in California — and it’s not Los Angeles or the Napa Valley.

Home to a sizeable community of Seventh-day Adventists, good health is motivated by faith in Loma Linda. A balanced diet is widely encouraged within the religion, with many adopting vegetarianism. The average diet here is around 60% fruits and nuts and only 5% meat — compared to the rest of America where meat is at least triple times that amount.

What to order: California’s restaurant scene caters to global tastes, and Loma Linda is no exception to this either. You’ll find a similar variety of flavours and plant-based options at any supermarket. Loma Linda has embraced its health-conscious reputation with its own collection of vegan-friendly food that reinvent all the meaty classics.

Loma Linda, California, United States of America.
Header image is of Okinawa.
Starting from Skratch? Here are some links to help you get started:
Expanding your palate? Get the scoop on where to go next with our Food Guides Series.

Blue Zones — Why you should visit

🇯🇵 Okinawa

Tropical island hopping in Japan? It’s more likely than you think.

🇬🇷 Ikaria

Visit a low-profile Greek island and indulge in authentic wine tastings.

🇮🇹 Nuoro Province of Sardinia

Enjoy the simple pleasure of pasta and wine in a lesser-known part of this sunny island.

🇨🇷 Nicoya

Explore rainforests and beaches in the Costa Rican wilderness.

🇺🇸 Loma Linda, California

Experience the less flashy side of the Golden State.

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Hannah Douch
January 24, 2024

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