Blue zones are very interesting. These are regions in the world where, apparently, people live a lot longer than expected. There are blue zones in parts of Greece, Italy, Japan, South America, and even in California. Many researchers and writers study the habits of people who live in blue zones in order to understand why they live so long and even to try and replicate their behavior patterns in order to live longer. This may be fruitless but it is nevertheless interesting to take a look at some of the habits and to try and understand how they may contribute to health and long life. This post is not about blue zones and their inhabitants’ habits, but rather about health claims and how not to lose your mind when reading articles about health, nutrition and exercise.
This article describes three major “habits” of people who live in blue zones. I generally like the content on MindBodyGreen but this one really bothered me. However, we can use it as a good lesson in how to think clearly and not get confused and frustrated by “health news” and the myriad conflicting and contradictory claims that are everywhere. Rather than get confused and frustrated, we can translate the claims to useful and understandable data points. This article claims that the three major habits of blue zone inhabitants as far as health are concerned are : 1) they don’t exercise, 2) they eat a lot of carbs, and 3) they go to happy hour. According to the article, these habits are unexpected. Is this surprising, confusing and frustrating? After all, we all know that there is very little to contradict the notion that exercise is important for long life, that too many carbs are unhealthy, and you shouldn’t go to happy hour (i.e., drink alcohol) every day. Yet the people in the blue zones don’t exercise, eat a lot of carbs, and go to happy hour every day. Hm, maybe coffee is bad after all and cholesterol doesn’t give you heart disease. Or rather, cholesterol does give you heart disease. Ok, I forget where we are on that one. So, according to the MindBodyGreen article, even our most tried and true established ideas about health and longevity — that exercise is important, carbs are bad, and happy hour doesn’t make you healthy — are wrong? Whatever we’re doing now for our health (because some article told us to) will be wrong in a few weeks/days/hours/seconds?
The article was written deliberately so that it would seem that the information is surprising and confusing and goes against common health knowledge. And in fact, if you only read the list items and not the words between them, you have direct contradictions to known health facts. That makes it get noticed and remembered and discussed in casual settings. “Now they’re saying that [insert whatever common behavior] ISN’T good for you after all! I’ve been wasting my time with all this [commonly understood to be beneficial health behavior]!” It creates tension and makes you click and look for other things and get more confused and read more articles and then, maybe, eventually pay someone to help you figure it all out or tell you what to do.
But if you read the article even a little bit closely, you can see what’s really going on. For example, on the no exercise claim the article states “Contrary to what you might think, in the Blue Zones, people don’t work out. Now, that’s not to say they aren’t active … people in Blue Zones are actually so active that they don’t even need to take time out of their day for a HIIT or yoga session.” So really, what the blue zone inhabitants are doing is exercising all day long, which is the exact opposite of the claim. They just don’t call it exercise or go to a gym or put on special clothing or pay someone or use strange equipment that’s for exercise. (And by the way, these are all things that I think are key to sustainable and enjoyable exercise.) So, claim #1 is that they don’t exercise and the obvious truth is the opposite, and they do it all day long. What can we take from this? Maybe functional exercise is better than gyms and classes and sessions and equipment. And maybe if we do this exercise frequently, outside, throughout the day as often as we can then we might improve our health. So, a better claim may be that they don’t exercise in the way we think of it, and they CERTAINLY don’t get dressed up and pay money to exercise, but they DO move frequently and deliberately and strenuously and as a fundamental aspect of their lives.
The second “surprising” habit of blue zone dwellers is that they eat carbs – a LOT of carbs. WOW! Shocking! Now, if you are keto, and who isn’t (do you even know what “keto” means?) then this is exasperating. Now carbs are ok?! But what about all the progress I have made on the keto diet? I won’t live to be 100 eating keto? Ok, there are a few reasons why this claim, that they eat a lot of carbs in the blue zone and still live to a ripe old age, is misleading. The first is that, because of recent trends in diet pop culture, which are just re-configuring of old trends (Atkins is keto), the word “carbs” is loaded. Carbs are bad. All carbs. But here’s the thing. No they aren’t. That’s the thing. The calories in a Twinkie are mainly composed of carbohydrate and Twinkies are bad. But the same is true of a yam or just about any other vegetable. Now, all this is not to say that you cannot lose weight and maybe get healthier on a keto diet, depending on what your needs are. It DOES mean that you need to get out of the tunnel and think about what you are really doing and thinking. Is it just the carb-free change that is bringing all the value for you? Or maybe that you changed your diet from junk to real food while you were cutting carbs?
Second, vegans rejoice that people eat a plant based diet in the blue zone! Does this mean that meat really is the source of all heart disease and cancer? Do they choose to eat grains and legumes in the blue zone because they’re the healthiest choices? Or is it because this is what is available and can be grown locally and is inexpensive and when combined with a lot of daily movement can be perfectly fine and healthy? Would they not eat more animal products if they could? I know for a fact that they would. My Greek father-in-law has told me many times that they ate meat twice a year on the island – Easter and Christmas. That was a time for celebration and that is all they could afford. The point here is that they are largely plant based in the blue zones because they have little choice. And are you paleo? Does the fact that blue zoners eat a lot of grains and legumes ruin your day? These two food groups are vilified according to the paleo diet because they were (supposedly) unavailable in the paleolithic era and therefore off limits in terms of our genetic blueprints. We haven’t had enough time, evolutionarily, to adapt to eating them. As such they cause a lot of problems. I’m not really sure what these problems are , but grains and legumes are bad. Yet the blue zoners are making it work. Do they have a choice? Do they have different evolutionary histories? No. They move, they eat not too much, and they eat real food that’s available. They neither worry about carbs nor know what they are. Over here in the red zones (I made that up) we have plenty of time to sit around and worry about this stuff.
The least misleading but still poorly worded habit of blue zoners that is implied to be behind their great health and longevity is that they “go to happy hour”. That is meant to remind us of going out to bars with our friends at 5:00 on a work night where alcohol and appetizers are half price. Nothing else, such as, say, kale, quinoa, and green juice is half prices mind you, just mixed drinks, stuffed potato skins, and deep fried breaded mushrooms. So partaking of this as often as possible will make me live to 100, right? And this is what the Greeks do after a long day of work, right? Of course not. The point here is not the cheap alcohol and junk food. The point here is fellowship and socializing, and the incredibly healthful aspects of spending time with friends and talking and laughing and being together on this planet. So if you want to debate whether or not alcohol, per se, is healthy or not, you have to consider whether or not it’s served with a mixer of three good friends and a lively conversation. Then you can have the alcohol or forget about it. If you’ve got the friends, you’ve likely got the health.
I’d rephrase the three
surprising most important habits of blue zone dwellers as: they move frequently and deliberately and strenuously throughout the day but are not worried about how much “exercise” they get, they eat real food that is readily available, locally grown, fresh and inexpensive, and they spend a lot of time socializing with friends and family — three undeniable keys to health and long life.