Blue Zones “Plant-Based” Baloney | The Healthy Home Economist

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My father was a well-respected Geriatrician (aka, MD for elderly people) for many decades. His patients were from all over the world, and a few were centenarians. Many more were in their nineties doing very youthful things like playing golf every day and driving around town in red convertibles with the top down (true story)!

So many years as a primary care doctor for the elderly definitely resulted in Dad having some strong opinions about what does/does not produce super longevity.

Hence, it was with great interest that I investigated the popular book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest to analyze whether the author’s dietary “lessons” were valid or totally off the mark based on my Dad’s clinical experiences.

One thing my Dad did NOT believe conferred any benefit to longevity based on his years treating the elderly and conversing with them at length about their diets as children and adults was …. wait for it … being vegetarian! In fact, not a single one of his super elderly patients abstained from meat.

What is a Longevity Blue Zone (LBZ)?

The term “Blue Zone” first appeared in a 2005 National Geographic article that investigated the secrets to a long life. Author Dan Buettner further popularized and trademarked the term as a result of the New York Times bestselling success of his 2008 book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

A half dozen additional Blue Zone themed books quickly followed including a Blue Zones recipe book and menu planner.

Buettner asserts that there are 5 Longevity Blue Zones around the world where people live much longer than average. These areas are:

  1. Okinawa (Japan)
  2. Sardinia (Italy)
  3. Nicoya (Costa Rica)
  4. Ikaria (Greece)
  5. Loma Linda, California (Seventh-Day Adventists)

He bases the Blue Zones concept on first-hand observations as well as the demographic work published in 2004 in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology. (1,2)

Given that Blue Zones is at odds with the careful anthropological work of Dr. Weston A. Price early in the last century, I suspected that Blue Zones was likely an exaggerated, globalist agenda-driven book on par with the error-ridden book The China Study.

Below are the important facts and shocking omissions in Blue Zones that contradict Buettner’s premise that a low-fat, plant-based diet is best for conferring the best shot at super longevity. Specifically, the Blue Zones dietary “lessons” consist of 6-9 servings of plant foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains) per day. Any meat consumed should be in small amounts and as lean as possible.

Okinawa Japan

Buettner’s chapter title on Okinawa is about as misleading as they come: “Sunshine, Spirituality, and Sweet Potatoes”.

Together with scientist Dr. Greg Plotnikoff, Buettner asserts that Okinawans eat mostly fresh vegetables with little canned meat and salt. While admitting that Okinawans eat pigs nose-to-tail, he suggests that pork is nonetheless only consumed for festivals.

He’s wrong on virtually all counts. Here’s the reality of the Okinawan Diet that he conveniently omitted or outright contradicted according to other credible sources, some of which, not surprisingly, have disappeared from the Internet since they don’t support the elitist push for plant-based diet indoctrination. (3)

  • The Okinawan diet that contained high amounts of sweet potatoes only occurred during periods of famine such as during World War II.
  • Okinawans are not as influenced by the dietary restrictions of Buddhism unlike Honshu, the main island of Japan. Hence, the intake of meat is higher there than the rest of Japan. Notably, they eat a lot of fatty canned pork in the form of SPAM (14 cans per person per year on average). This is in addition to the fresh pork consumed from their own pigs.
  • None of the centenarians in Okinawa were found to be vegetarian let alone vegan in a 1992 study.
  • Okinawans eat as much if not more fish and hamburger than other Japanese.
  • Okinawans average about 100 grams of meat consumption per day (primarily pork) plus another 100-200 grams of fish. Americans eat roughly the same amount of animal protein as Okinawans on average (280 grams per day).
  • The true Okinawan diet is not low-fat as evidenced by their high per capita consumption of SPAM. Further evidence comes from a 1996 article in Health Magazine by gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, who described it as “very healthy-and very, very greasy.” Traditional lard is used…not factory-processed vegetable oil like in the West.

Sardinia Italy

The mountainous Barbagia region on the island of Sardinia is another Blue Zone identified by Buettner. Studies confirm it as such. In 1999, 7 people over the age of 100 lived in a Sardinian village of only 2500. By comparison, only one man in 20,000 reaches the age of 100 in the United States.

Buettner writes that “The Sardinian diet was lean and largely plant-based with an emphasis on beans, whole wheat and garden vegetables, wine, goat milk, mastic nut oil.”

This directly contradicts a 2014 study on incredible male longevity of the shepherds of mountainous Sardinia published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Up to a short time ago, the LBZ [Longevity Blue Zone] population depended mostly upon livestock rearing, and consumption of animal-derived foods was relatively higher than in the rest of the island [with lower male longevity]. (4)

Interestingly, the study points to recent changes adding more fruits and vegetables in the diet of shepherd’s already of a mature age as the likely cause of their longevity, not the “monotonous”, primarily animal-foods traditional diet of their growing years, youth, and middle age.

At least the authors accurately described the diet of the mountainous Sardinians, much of which was conveniently omitted by Buettner.

  • Sourdough bread
  • Vegetable soup made with pork stock
  • Ham and sausages with plenty of fat made from Sarda pig, which roams freely in the mountainous areas.
  • Cultured, raw goat and sheep milk loaded with lactobacilli.
  • A variety of cheeses.

Not sure how Buettner justifies calling this diet “plant-based” when animal foods clearly play the central role!

As pointed out by author Sally Fallon Morell, the true diet of the mountainous Sardinians more closely resembles the writings of Dr. Weston A. Price from the early 1900s than the agenda-promoting diet Buettner described.

Nicoya Costa Rica

Like the other Blue Zones, Buettner provides enough facts about the diet of the long-lived Nicoya region of Costa Rica to seem credible.

Nicoyans soak their corn in lime water and ash which maximizes nutrient digestibility and releases niacin. The carefully prepared corn is combined with beans for perhaps “the best longevity diet the world has ever known” according to Buettner.

While corn and beans are definitely staples, Buettner goes completely off the rails by concluding that these two plant foods are the center of the Nicoyan diet.

“Like the people in most other Blue Zones, Nicoyans ate the emblematic low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet, rich in legumes.”

Au contraire.

Animal foods play the central and most important role in the Nicoyan diet, as evidenced by other more credible sources.

For example, Spanish settlers in the early 1500s documented that the Costa Rica natives consumed significant amounts of poultry, fish, eggs, turtles and many types of forest game. (5)

A 2013 study of the high longevity males of Nicoya found that they ate quite differently than other Costa Rican men:

Nicoya diets include significantly more plain, quotidian foods like rice, beans, beef, fish, chicken, light cheese and sodas; and significantly less of ‘fancy’ foods like aged cheese, olive oil or mayonnaise, less salad ingredients (lettuce, avocado, carrot, tomato) and less processed and fast foods such as white bread, cookies and hamburgers. (6)

The most important detail from above is that Nicoyans eat MORE animal proteins (both meat and fish) than other Costa Ricans with less longevity!

These long-lived male Nicoyans also consume lots of saturated fat from LARD, a four-letter word for plant-based disciples. This traditional fat comes from pigs as opposed to the vegetable oils consumed by less long-lived Costa Ricans.

The Nicoyan diet is also not low calorie compared to modern-living Costa Ricans.

Nicoyans eat or drink more calories, carbohydrates, proteins (mostly of animal origin) and fibre. (6)

The long-lived Nicoyan diet is also significantly higher in saturated fats (from pig lard) with total fat consumption basically the same as the shorter-lived Costa Ricans living on modern factory fats (vegetable oils). (6)

Another convenient omission by Blue Zones’ reporting of the Nicoyan diet is how it included ample amounts of animal organs. Costa Rican resident Gina Baker writes of her visits to a 109 year old woman in the village of Mansión:

The lady of the house, upon learning about my research, enthusiastically described a common local dish aptly named sustancia (the Spanish word for “substance”) consisting of pork shanks cooked with liver, kidney, ears, cheek, brain and heart, spiced with cilantro, garlic, onions and bell pepper. She also described a soup eaten daily by pregnant and nursing women, containing black or red beans cooked with a bone, lard and a type of green plantain that is very rich in potassium and magnesium, eaten along with boiled eggs. (7)

The granddaughter and son of another centenarian stated that the family ate large amounts of meat and that their ancestors consumed meat as a staple as well. They particularly prized fresh liver, with pork, lard and chicken skin principal foods in the diet. Corn, beans and other plant foods were viewed as “extras”. (7)

Mmmm. So it seems that the Nicoyan diet isn’t at all plant-based. Instead, the plant foods round out a diet high in nutrient-dense animal foods.

Ikaria Greece

The Greek island of Ikaria is claimed as another Blue Zone of super longevity. The Ikarian “Mediterranean” diet is described by Buettner as:

…rich in olive oil and vegetables, low in dairy (except goat’s milk) and meat products, and also included moderate amounts of alcohol. It emphasized homegrown potatoes, beans (garbanzo, black-eyed peas and lentils), wild greens and locally produced goat milk and honey.

In other words, Buettner claims Ikarians have a low intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy, with plants forming the central role in caloric consumption.

But, is this really true?

Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Buettner was not accurately portraying the Ikarian diet at all. One theory is that he was fed inaccurate information by the locals to promote desperately needed tourism to the island, which has experienced a drastic drop of almost 70% of its population since the early 20th century. (8)

That means that the approximately one-third of the residents of Ikaria that has reached 90 years of age isn’t actually very significant at all. That’s only 2-3% of the generation that was raised there! We have no idea about the longevity of the other two-thirds that moved away sometime during their lifetime.

Incidentally, that percentage is significantly worse than the 4.7% of the population of the United States that currently reaches age 90! In 1980, only 2.8% of Americans reached that age. Thus, the apparent super-longevity of Ikarians isn’t so remarkable. In fact, it is downright average for the late 1900s and below average for industrialized nations today. (9)

Loma Linda California (Seventh-Day Adventists)

There’s one Blue Zone left to examine, a religious sect in Loma Linda, California. This group encourages vegetarianism, although some Adventists do consume meat.

So far, Buettner is 0-4 in establishing that super longevity is due to a primarily plant-based diet low in saturated fat with small amounts of lean meat.

Unfortunately, Buettner does not do much better in providing a complete picture of the Loma Linda Adventists.

He does mention that the vegans (4%) in the group are about thirty pounds lighter than the omnivores. Lighter doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, however, and since the group as a whole doesn’t have a problem with weight, 30 pounds could definitely mean too thin.

According to Sally Fallon Morell, the California Adventists living in the 1960s and 1970s were huge advocates of raw dairy. This group, in fact, was responsible for getting raw milk legalized in the state at that time. (10)

Hence, the very elderly of that group likely grew up drinking raw dairy. Children that drink raw dairy are known to be more robust than children who don’t.

Is the group still consuming raw dairy? Buettner doesn’t say. That’s too bad because this is a huge omission!

Digging into what few details are provided, the Adventists apparently have the best longevity in the United States based on two lengthy studies.

Buettner claims that the reason is because they eat a lot of nuts, avoid meat and drink lots of water. He goes so far as to claim that this style of eating will get you about two years extra of life.

The trouble is that the studies on vegetarians living longer are highly contradictory.

For example, a huge British study in 2016 of 60,310 people involving 18,431 regular meat-eaters, 13,039 less-frequent meat eaters, 8516 fish only eaters, and 20,324 vegetarians, found NO DIFFERENCE in all-cause mortality. (11)

Another study that analyzed longevity data for Adventists found that total mortality rates decreased the more cheese, meat, milk, eggs that were consumed!  (12)

Buettner claims that Adventists that eat meat have a 65% higher rate of colon cancer. But, this directly contradicts a study published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found that vegetarians have higher rates of colon cancer. (13)

It seems that the extra years of life for the Loma Linda Adventists may well be due to their clean living lifestyle which excludes tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and junk food, not that the group has an above-average number of vegetarians.

Given Buettner’s track record of distorting the true diets of Blue Zone oldsters toward plant-based when animal foods clearly played a primary role, this seems highly likely.

Blue Zones: Plant-Based Baloney

Looking behind the covers, it becomes startlingly clear that the longevity of those living in Blue Zones is not due to a low saturated fat, plant-based diet that includes small amounts of lean meat. One of the cases (Ikaria Greece), doesn’t appear to be a hotspot for super longevity at all once you crunch the demographic numbers.

Final Score:  0-5 for Team Blue Zone.

It seems that “Blue Zones” is yet another of the dozens of health books that twist partial truths into wellness gospel. Why? While one cannot say for sure, it appears that kissing up to the plant-based globalist agenda ensures good media coverage which ups the odds considerably for a high revenue best seller.

In reality, the diets of the inhabitants of the Blue Zones identified by Buettner consist of generous amounts of animal foods and animal fats, especially lard from pigs. Plant foods are not the central or most important staple foods. These cultures consume organ meats (the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet) and their dairy is raw.

In the case of Loma Linda, the extra years of life compared with the rest of Californians appears primarily due to a healthy lifestyle that avoids processed foods and stimulants, not a vegetarian diet.

Move along omnivores. There’s nothing to see here (in Blue Zones).

References

(1) Identification of a geographic area characterized by extreme longevity
(2) Blue Zones
(3) True Blue Zones: Okinawa
(4)  Male longevity in the Mountainous Blue Zone of Sardinia
(5) Blue Zones Costa Rica
(6) The Nicoya Region of Costa Rica. A High Longevity Island for Elderly Males
(7) Costa Rica: Land of the Centenarians
(8) Ikaria Greece
(9) What Percentage of Americans Reach Age 90?
(10) Loma Linda Blue Zone?
(11) Mortality in vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians in the United Kingdom
(12) Vegetarianism: What the Science Tells Us
(13) Cancer incidence in vegetarians vs nonvegetarians



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