What I've learned from 'The Blue Zones'
The secret to longevity, I thought, is all about what we eat. It's actually much more.
I took this photo almost two years ago, on a visit to the Sparta, Ga., farm where my father’s cousins lived for nearly all their lives. They’re in their eighties now, and decided to sell after realizing they couldn’t manage it anymore. A neighbor offered to buy the land from them, but gave us one last weekend to get together for a reunion and say goodbye.
That’s my little T on the left, walking with his cousin that weekend along one of the farm’s many dirt roads. My son hasn’t had the chance to spend a lot of time there like I did when I was his age, so I wanted to make sure he got the chance to see it when he was old enough to (hopefully!) remember it.
At least once a year, sometimes twice, we’d visit there for family reunions. We would fish, walk around the farm, and eat (lots of) southern food we knew we shouldn’t, but was just too good to resist. What I remember most, though, is that there were always lots of people around — the many members of my extended family, plus at least a few of their friends and neighbors.
My father’s uncle, who was the father of the cousins who lived there until recently, was a farmer on that land for decades. He lived until he was in his late 90s, and I have a hard time remembering him without a plug of smokeless tobacco in his lip. He worked outside in the sun every day; the back of his neck looked like a leather-bound book. He ate bacon most days. The Mediterranean diet wasn’t exactly a thing in rural Georgia then… or now!
And yet he lived a life free of disease and in mostly good health for nearly a century. How was this even possible?
He, and the rest of my family, keep popping in my mind as I’ve been reading Dan Buettner’s amazing book The Blue Zones over the past few weeks. (Which I wrote to you about back in May.) And not in the way I expected.
What I thought I would learn from the book was how to adopt the kind of diet the people living in what Buettner calls the “Blue Zones” — special places around the world in Italy, Greece, Costa Rica, Japan and southern California — eat all their lives. The kind of diet that helps them avoid the chronic diseases that afflict so many of us in the developed western world, like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
I thought I’d learn about nuts and wild greens and tomatoes and vegetables and olive oil. That I ought to radically cut back on my meat consumption, and eat fish only here and there. (To be sure, many of the people living the Blue Zones base their diet on all those things; I know I need to — and want to — adopt a much more plant-based diet.)
But that’s not all that’s going on.
In the book, Buettner describes a visit to Okinawa, Japan, where he meets a woman named Kamada Nakazato. She was 102 years old at the time they met, having outlived her husband, who had died a decade earlier at age 96.
Kamada, alongside her daughter, told him all about how she — and the many friends she kept in close touch with on the Mobutu Peninsula — ate:
“Have you ever eaten a hamburger or had a Coke?” I asked. I knew that [now] Okinawa had more fast-food restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Japan; what may be the biggest A&W restaurant in the world was just 30 miles south of here. Perhaps she had visited one?
Kamada’s forehead wrinkled. She leaned over to her daughter, for interpretation. “She never drank a Coke in her life,” the daughter answered. When she first saw a hamburger a few years ago, Kamada had asked, “What do you do with that?”
“My mother eats in the tradition of women her age,” the daughter continued. “They are not used to rich foods, but rather the foods they ate as young women, before the war. She mostly eats vegetables from her garden — daikon, bitter melon, garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes — and some fish and tofu. All day long she nurses a pot of hot, green tea. Before each meal she takes a moment to say hara hachi bu, and that keeps her from eating too much.”
“Hara hachi bu?” I repeated.
“It’s a Confucian-inspired adage,” [Buettner’s research partner] Craig chimed in. “All of the old folks say it before they eat. It means ‘Eat until you are 80 percent full.’ … ‘Okinawa may be the only human population that purposefully restricts how many calories they eat, and they do it by reminding themselves to eat until they’re 80 percent full. That’s because it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to tell the brain it is full. Undereating, as the theory goes, slows down the body’s metabolism in a way such that it produces less damaging oxidants — agents that rust the body from within.”
Now, all that is fascinating, and I can certainly get on board with the 80 percent full thing. (Why didn’t I learn about that earlier in life?!) But it’s not what interests me the most about Kamada’s story.
A few days later, Buettner returned to her house. He writes that he timed his visit for the late afternoon, right at the time she would gather with her moai, the Japanese word for the group of lifelong friends who come by her house every day.
Roughly translated, the word means “meeting for a common purpose.” It originated as a way for people living in Japanese villages like hers to support one another financially, especially in the case of emergencies. Today, it has broadened to mean social support, and intentional, ritualized friendship.
I just loved Buettner’s description of the group:
For over an hour I sat in the corner and observed, with [his fellow researcher] Rice whispering translations into my ear. The women gossiped and cracked jokes. Conversation ranged from romantic intrigue (“She stopped seeing him after she found him with someone else. Big surprise, eh?”) to chatty news (“She got in a fight with her son-in-law because he is treating her daughter badly”) to job postings (“My son needs some help with his market stall so if any of you have a hardworking grandson…”)
“Is this all about gossip?” I interrupted.
“No,” replied 95-year-old Matsse Manna after a long pause. “If someone passes away, the village knows to come here for help. If we hear someone is depressed we will go visit them.”
“But how about you? How does this moai help you?”
“Chatting like this is my ikigai,” said Klazuko Manna after a long pause. At 77, she was the youngest of the group. “In the morning I do the wash, so in the afternoon, I get to come here. Each member knows that her friends count on her as much as she counts on her friends. If you get sick or a spouse dies or if you run out of money, we know someone will step in and help.” Klazuko fanned her arm toward the other women. “It’s much easier to go through life knowing there is a safety net.”
The word ikigai — one’s purpose, or reason for living — is also very important in Buettner’s examination of the Blue Zones. For the women in Kamada’s moai, being a part of the group itself, contributing to it and helping cultivate it, was their purpose. For Kamada herself, it was being an everyday part of her great-granddaughter’s life, seeing her grow up right in front of her eyes.
The more I read stories like hers, the more I realized that I’d been looking for one thing to pull out of Buettner’s book, like a fish from the water, that I could say to myself, “Aha! This is it!” That once I’d found the one thing about their lives that I could adopt in my own, I’d put myself on the same path, without having to change anything else.
But more and more, I’ve come to see it’s not just one thing. The people Buettner meets who are living long, healthy, fulfilled lives embrace a whole constellation of things that make their lives better. Yes, they eat a better diet than most of us in the West do; but they also see each other more often, and relate to one another in supportive ways that mutually nourish each other, emotionally and psychologically.
When I was about the age my son is now, I remember spending the weekend in Sparta with my father’s uncle and aunt, on the farm pictured above. We spent most of Saturday fishing, but on Sunday that wasn’t permitted.
Because Sunday was for church, a little Baptist church less than half a mile down the road from their house. I remember going to a Sunday school class before the service, then a regular service itself — I was terrified by the preacher’s yelling! — and then more Sunday school class, followed by what was called “lunch on the grounds.”
I don’t remember anything we learned in those classes. And I don’t remember anything that was said from the pulpit that day. But I do remember this: there was a lot of togetherness there. People meeting, seeing each other, talking, being with one another.
Of course, none of this was set up as intentionally as an Okinawan moai — which, as Buettner notes in this New York Times article, can involve parents placing their children into moai when they’re young, “[so] they take a lifelong journey together.”
But it served the same function, I think, in my relatives’ lives in Sparta — and in my own. Years ago, as you may remember me telling you, I was a part of a running group here in Atlanta, made up of a few friends I’ve known for years and others I had only recently met.
After every Saturday morning run — which could be anywhere from 3 miles to 12 or more — we gathered at a coffee shop. That often lasted longer than our run, for an hour and a half or more. We caught up on everything; from the latest episode of “LOST” to what was going on in our love lives, to what was happening with friends and parents.
It was something I looked forward to every week. And it lasted for years, which probably is rare. Since then, we’ve split apart; several of our group have moved away from Atlanta, others have divorced. As life goes, you know.
Still, it gave me a glimpse of what I think Buettner is talking about in The Blue Zones, and it’s something we can add to our lives now if we want to — even if we don’t live in a “real” blue zone:
[Buettner] recently spent time in Fort Worth, Tex., where several residents have formed walking moais — groups of people who meet regularly to walk and socialize.
“We’re finding that in some of these cities, you can just put people together who want to change health behaviors and organize them around walking or a plant-based potluck,” he said. “We nudge them into hanging out together for 10 weeks. We have created moais that are now several years old, and they are still exerting a healthy influence on members’ lives.”
I’ve gone on long enough now, so I’ll stop 😃 But I’m fascinated with what I’m learning from Buettner’s book, and how pulling on one string (intending to learn about the food they eat) has shown me a lot more than I imagined at first.
What do you think? Do you have a moai in your life, a group that helps you connect, and maybe which nudges you to better behaviors that you might not adopt otherwise? One that helps you stick with running, or just with living a more healthy life?
I’d love to hear, in the comments or in reply back.