- Plant-based diets are common in Blue Zones, regions where people live long, healthy lives.
- For protein, many Blue Zone cuisines rely on carb-rich staples like legumes and whole grains.
- Nuts, with some fish, dairy, and eggs, round out the moderate protein intake in Blue Zones diets.
If you want to eat like some of the healthiest people on the planet, consider swapping out that steak for a plate of beans and rice.
Eating high-carb diets rich in plant protein is a defining feature of the “Blue Zones,” the five places in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives — typically reaching, or surpassing, 100 years old in good health.
The so-called Blue Zones represent a wide variety of cuisines, like Japanese, Greek, Italian, and Costa Rican. While the specific foods vary, foods groups like beans, nuts, whole grains, herbs, and green veggies make up the backbone of Blue Zones diets.
People seeking to imitate the Blue Zones dietary patterns should aim to make plant-based foods about 95% of their diet and limit their intake of red meat, according to author Dan Buettner, who popularized the Blue Zones diet. Regardless of region, the diets also tend to be low-fat, with plenty of carbohydrates.
There are other ways to get protein in your diet, though.
Dietitians typically recommend aiming to get between half to three-quarters of a gram of protein per pound of body weight — about 60-90 grams a day for a 120 pound person, for example. Protein is an important nutrient for helping repair tissue and build muscle (although Blue Zone residents often skip the gym).
To eat enough protein on a Blue Zones diet, focus on nutrient-dense sources like legumes, with occasional servings of fish, dairy, and eggs.
Legumes like beans, peas, and lentils
Beans are the cornerstone of the Blue Zones diet, alongside their fellow legumes, lentils and peas.
They play a starring role in Blue Zones meals around the world, from black beans in Costa Rica to lentils and chickpeas in the Mediterranean.
In Japan, soybeans are a popular protein source, either processed into tofu for soup and stir-fry or steamed in the pod as edamame.
Buettner’s Blue Zones diet guidelines recommend eating at least half a cup of beans daily.
In addition to protein, legumes are also packed with fiber, a key nutrient in the Blue Zone diets.
Grains are typically considered primarily a source of carbohydrates, but certain unprocessed varieties can also add protein to your diet, too.
Whole wheat, buckwheat, and couscous contain five to six grams of protein per cup.
Quinoa, an ancient grain that originated in South America, packs in eight grams of protein per cup.
Whole grains also contain essential amino acids, which combined with nutrients in beans can make up a complete protein source.
Dishes based on rice and beans are extremely common staples around the world, including the Blue Zones.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are the foundational Blue Zones snack food, despite a bad reputation in the diet world for having a high caloric density, with just a handful packing up to 200 calories.
They contain a wealth of nutrients like omega 3 fatty acids, linked to health benefits like less inflammation and lower risk of heart disease .
Nuts and seeds that contain the highest amount of protein per serving include:
- Pumpkin seeds: 9 grams per ounce
- Peanuts: 7 grams per ounce
- Almonds: 6 grams per ounce
- Hemp seeds: 6 grams per ounce
- Flax seeds: 5 grams per ounce
Fish in moderation
Many Blue Zones are in close proximity to the ocean, making fish a popular protein source.
Fish isn’t a daily staple, but appears in moderate portions of no more than three ounces, about three times a week.
Small fish like sardines and anchovies, popular in the Mediterranean, are a good option because they’re not exposed to toxins at the same rate as fish higher on the food chain, like tuna.
Cod is another popular fish with a mild flavor and lots of protein, as well as B vitamins and important minerals like phosphorus.
Small amounts of dairy, typically from sheep and goats
You may have been told to drink milk every day for your health, but dairy is relatively rare in the Blue Zones diet.
Traditional cheeses made of sheep or goat’s milk do feature in some Blue Zones regions of Italy and Greece, as well as other fermented products like yogurt.
These low-sugar, high-protein options can be a healthy part of the Blue Zones diet in moderation, included a few times per week.
Full-fat versions of dairy are encouraged, since low-fat dairy is often processed with more additives like sugar to make up for the flavor lost in reducing fat.
Eggs are a nutrient-packed, readily accessible protein source, with six to seven grams of protein per serving, as well as B vitamins.
They are included in moderation in Blue Zone diets, eaten about four to six times a week as part of the minority of animal-based foods.
Typically, eggs are featured as a side dish in Blue Zones cuisines, accompanied by hearty plant foods.
In Costa Rica, for instance, a fried egg will be served atop corn tortillas and black beans. In Japan, a boiled egg will often be included as part of a flavorful soup.