Stamatis Moraitis was a Greek war veteran who came to America for medical treatment toward the end of the Second World War. He settled in America and was later diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Several doctors told him that he had less than a year to live (he was in his 60s), so Moraitis decided to go back home to Greece. He returned to his home island of Ikaria to live out the rest of his life among his people—after years of living the American dream.
But then, 25 years later, Moraitis was still alive. What? How had his doctors in America gotten it so wrong? It turns out that the island of Ikaria is one of the “Blue Zones” of the world—or places where living to 100 seems to be rather normal. Ikaria is a small island in the Aegean Sea stretching 100 square miles, about the size of Tallahassee, Florida. People there live the simple life; they eat minimal meat but consume lots of olives and vegetables. People in Ikaria also nap in the afternoon and stay up late, their social networks are strong, and communities gather in the evenings to philosophize, play dominoes, and dance.
When I researched these Blue Zones for my book, The Genetics of Health, I realized that they had many things in common. Blue Zones like Ikaria (Greece), Okinawa (Japan), and Sardinia (Italy) are all islands where people eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, minimal red meat (mostly marine-based meat), and drink red wine (in moderation). In America, we have our own Blue Zone. Guess where? Loma Linda, California, the home to many Seventh-Day Adventists. Their diet comes straight from the Bible; they eat almost no meat, supermarkets even stock more beans than meat, bread is from lactobacillus instead of yeast, and people walk a lot—which is another commonality of all the Blue Zones of the world.
And while most Blue Zones are islands, you can become an island of health yourself if you follow my favorite health tips from these regions:
1. Avoid red meat.
Stick with the basics: Eat vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, olive oil, and fermented products like yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, or kimchi. If you eat meat, have plenty of fish or seafood and limit red-meat consumption.
2. Remember that beans are good.
In most of the Blue Zones, beans make up a considerable part of the diet. In Nicoya and Ikaria they’re a staple—especially chickpeas in Ikaria.
3. Take time to contemplate.
Practice deep breathing or meditation, never stop learning, and always develop new hobbies and activities that you love.
4. Never stop dancing.
Dancing is not only aerobic, but it has been shown to improve balance and memory, especially dances like the tango, Celtic dancing, and folk dancing.
5. Eat small meals.
All the Blue Zones have this in common: People eat smaller meals. Patients who live there have told me that one must only eat until the stomach is 80 percent full, or there is still room for another helping.
6. Fish for your health.
Fish is extremely beneficial. Gary Fraser, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Loma Linda (America’s Blue Zone) and an Adventist himself, discovered those who ate a serving of fish a day actually lived longer than vegan Adventists.
7. Participate in group activities.
In Blue Zones people physically meet in the evenings to talk, play cards, and dance—in other words, they have a strong sense of community that many of our lives lack, and this is becoming worse in the internet age, when people meet in person less and less.
8. Know the value of helpfulness.
In researching for my book, I found how being generous expressed helpful genes. Half the people who were more giving were in excellent health (48 percent), as opposed to only one-third of the “ungenerous” (31 percent). In other words, there is a reason that giving and generosity exist.
9. Live the island life.
In Auckland, New Zealand, where I have a home, there is a lovely island called Waiheke, filled with olive groves, art galleries, and vineyards. Every time I take the ferry over, even if it is only 45 minutes away, I feel I am on “island time.” Everything feels more relaxed, and people have more time for each other and to live life. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured—and while we may not actually live on islands, we don’t have to become individual islands ourselves. Take time to meet your neighbors, make new friends, and touch other people’s lives.
If we can’t physically live on Blue Zone islands, we may as well pretend—and reap the benefits!