Your next meal is the perfect place to start building hope (and living longer!)

Image: “Blue Zone” is a non-scientific term given to geographic regions that are home to some of the world’s oldest people.

March 17, 2023


Project Drawdown Senior scientist for ecosystems and agriculture Paul West

Where are you sitting/located as you are writing down these answers? (Please describe as detailed as you wish)

I’m making notes at a coffee shop up the street. It has excellent espresso. Not all the staff know my name, but they all know my drink.

In your own words please introduce yourself and your work.

I’m an ecologist working to create a better world for people and nature. To do that, I work with researchers and practitioners worldwide to find solutions for some of humanity’s biggest challenges—climate change, food security, and biodiversity loss. That’s only knowledge, however, so I share what I have learned and work with others to effect change on the ground in my role as a senior scientist at Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions.

What is your most memorable experience with/related to food?

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to eat food from around the world while traveling for work or pleasure. But the smell of rising dough and fresh-baked bread that was ever-present at my grandma’s house remains the most memorable to me. My mom said it was the same when she was growing up. So for me, the smell of bread means love and family. When I was in high school, my dad saw a recipe for bread in the newspaper. We made it that same day, and he has been making bread every week since then.

What do you understand by sustainability and the concepts of responsibility and justice in relation to food and food culture?

our goal should be that everyone has easy access to healthy food that reflects our culture, is affordable, and is produced sustainably by people earning a fair wage

Broadly, our goal should be that everyone has easy access to healthy food that reflects our culture, is affordable, and is produced sustainably by people earning a fair wage. What that looks like and the path to get there varies from place to place, and from culture to culture.

How would you characterize / describe our contemporary food culture?

It is essential to recognize that we don’t have a food culture. We have many. But that doesn’t at all represent life for 8 billion people that today inhabit our planet. So rather than focus on a single food culture, my work focuses on the big factors that drive our food system, including population growth, increasing meat consumption, the 828 million people living in hunger, and the 1 billion people who are overweight.

What problem(s) do you see as the most pressing in today’s food culture?

Sticking with the global context, meeting the needs of those four groups I mentioned above is an enormous challenge. Adding to that challenge, the global food system accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, consumes 70 percent of all water used by people, is the most significant cause of tropical deforestation, and results in roughly one-third of food either being wasted or lost (meaning it rots on the field, in transportation, or in storage).

In the light of these problems, what do you do to keep from falling into (often paralyzing) despair and hopelessness / what keeps you actively engaged? – And what has brought you to this specific practice?

Food security and climate change are both enormous challenges. We can’t solve one without the other. People say “knowledge is power.” But knowledge without action can lead to feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. I stay engaged by working on solutions. My coworkers at Project Drawdown and a global network of colleagues inspire me every day and make me want to stay active.

the global food system accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, consumes 70 percent of all water used by people, is the most significant cause of tropical deforestation, and results in roughly one-third of food either being wasted or lost

Where would you encourage readers to start, if finding themselves at the brink of paralysation/in a state of hopelessness?

Your next meal is the perfect place to start. Make a tasty, healthy meal of mostly plants and share it with family and friends. Save the leftovers. It’s simple, but shifting to a diet of mainly plants and reducing food waste are two of the most impactful climate solutions. And they are steps we can all take.

What do you envision/dream/imagine for a more sustainable, responsible, and just food culture?

I’m trying to help create a future where we value healthy food—that’s tasty, affordable, and accessible to everyone—that reflects their local or regional culture. There are places, sometimes called the “blue zones,” where healthy eating and an active lifestyle are integral to their culture. It turns out that a healthy diet leads to a healthier planet too. How do we expand those blue zones to other places?

In your experience, where and how does the work to grow this vision begin?

Research that colleagues and I have done shows that we can’t “grow our way out” of any of the long list of problems I mentioned before. The good news is that we know the solutions and their potential impact.

Our food system needs three essential ingredients to solve problems like climate change: shifting to a plant-focused diet, eliminating food waste, and stopping tropical deforestation related to the expansion of agricultural lands.

(How) is your work connected to this vision?

Three main paths connect my work at Project Drawdown to this vision. First, developing a science-based roadmap for reducing emissions in half each decade. To help develop this roadmap, my focus areas are agriculture and ecosystems. Second, we are shifting the conversation from doom and gloom to solutions that give people hope and cause them to act. A key part of that work is passing the mic to underrepresented people in the climate movement. And third, working with partners to shape priorities and funding for action.

Where else and with whom else would you encourage and recommend people to go and learn more?

Wow. I could create a long list of awesome people. Here are a few. On Twitter, follow Richard Waite and Jonathan Foley. Sophie Eagan’s book, How to be a Conscious Eater, is an excellent source of clear and practical advice on the impact of the food choices we make. ReFED is an amazing NGO focused on reducing food waste. Instagram is a fun source of inspiration and recipes for cooking at home; my favorites are Nisha Vora’s rainbowplantlife, Jenné Clairborne’s sweetpotatosoul, Ashley Hankins’s eat_figs_not_pigs, and Maria Fernanda’s thealmondlane.

Where and how can people learn more about your work and engage with it?

You can learn more about me on Project Drawdown’s website. It’s the best, most comprehensive library of climate solutions available today. I share my views on Twitter and LinkedIn, and I’m compiling my longer essays on Medium. An earlier project, Food Matters, is an excellent source for primers on big issues in the global food system. Want to dive in deep? You can find my articles in science journals here.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to Preserve and share my perspectives with your community. Let’s continue to work together to create a healthier, more

“Blue Zone” is a non-scientific term given to geographic regions that are home to some of the world’s oldest people.

article in Healthline

It was first used by the author Dan Buettner, who was studying areas of the world in which people live exceptionally long lives.

They are called Blue Zones because when Buettner and his colleagues were searching for these areas, they drew blue circles around them on a map.

In his book called The Blue Zones, Buettner described five known Blue Zones:

  • Icaria (Greece): Icaria is an island in Greece where people eat a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, red wine and homegrown vegetables.
  • Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy): The Ogliastra region of Sardinia is home to some of the oldest men in the world. They live in mountainous regions where they typically work on farms and drink lots of red wine.
  • Okinawa (Japan): Okinawa is home to the world’s oldest women, who eat a lot of soy-based foods and practice tai chi, a meditative form of exercise.
  • Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica): The Nicoyan diet is based around beans and corn tortillas. The people of this area regularly perform physical jobs into old age and have a sense of life purpose known as “plan de vida.”
  • The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California (USA): The Seventh-day Adventists are a very religious group of people. They’re strict vegetarians and live in tight-knit communities.

Although these are the only areas discussed in Buettner’s book, there may be unidentified areas in the world that could also be Blue Zones.

A number of studies have found that these areas contain extremely high rates of nonagenarians and centenarians, which are people who live over 90 and 100, respectively (1Trusted Source2Trusted Source3Trusted Source).

Interestingly, genetics probably only account for 20–30% of longevity. Therefore, environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle, play a huge role in determining your lifespan (4Trusted Source5Trusted Source6Trusted Source).

Below are some of the diet and lifestyle factors that are common to people who live in Blue Zones.

SUMMARY:Blue Zones are areas of the world in which people live exceptionally long lives. Studies have found that genetics only play a 20–30% role in longevity.

People Who Live in Blue Zones Eat a Diet Full of Whole Plant Foods

One thing common to Blue Zones is that those who live there primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet.

Although most groups are not strict vegetarians, they only tend to eat meat around five times per month (7Trusted Source8Trusted Source).

A number of studies, including one in over half a million people, have shown that avoiding meat can significantly reduce the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and a number of other different causes (9Trusted Source10Trusted Source).

Instead, diets in the Blue Zones are typically rich in the following:

  • Vegetables: They’re a great source of fiber and many different vitamins and minerals. Eating more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and death (11Trusted Source).
  • Legumes: Legumes include beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, and they are all rich in fiber and protein. A number of studies have shown that eating legumes is associated with lower mortality (12Trusted Source13Trusted Source14Trusted Source).
  • Whole grains: Whole grains are also rich in fiber. A high intake of whole grains can reduce blood pressure and is associated with reduced colorectal cancer and death from heart disease (15Trusted Source16Trusted Source17Trusted Source).
  • Nuts: Nuts are great sources of fiber, protein and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Combined with a healthy diet, they’re associated with reduced mortality and may even help reverse metabolic syndrome (18Trusted Source19Trusted Source20Trusted Source).

There are some other dietary factors that define each of the Blue Zones.

For example, fish is often eaten in Icaria and Sardinia. It is a good source of omega-3 fats, which are important for heart and brain health (21Trusted Source).

Eating fish is associated with slower brain decline in old age and reduced heart disease (22Trusted Source23Trusted Source24Trusted Source).

SUMMARY:People in Blue Zones typically eat a 95% plant-based diet that’s rich in legumes, whole grains, vegetables and nuts, all of which can help reduce the risk of death.

They Fast and Follow the 80% Rule

Other habits common to the Blue Zones are a reduced calorie intake and fasting.

Calorie Restriction

Long-term calorie restriction may help longevity.

A large, 25-year study in monkeys found that eating 30% fewer calories than normal led to a significantly longer life (25Trusted Source).

Eating fewer calories may be contributing to the longer lives in some of the Blue Zones.

For example, studies in the Okinawans suggest that before the 1960s, they were in a calorie deficit, meaning that they were eating fewer calories than they required, which may be contributing to their longevity (26Trusted Source).

Furthermore, Okinawans tend to follow the 80% rule, which they call “hara hachi bu.” This means that they stop eating when they feel 80% full, rather than 100% full.

This prevents them from eating too many calories, which can lead to weight gain and chronic disease.

A number of studies have also shown that eating slowly can reduce hunger and increase feelings of fullness, compared to eating rapidly (27Trusted Source28Trusted Source).

This may be because the hormones that make you feel full only reach their maximum blood levels 20 minutes after you eat (29Trusted Source).

Therefore, by eating slowly and only until you feel 80% full, you may eat fewer calories and feel full longer.


In addition to consistently reducing overall calorie intake, periodic fasting appears to be beneficial for health.

For example, Icarians are typically Greek Orthodox Christians, a religious group that has many periods of fasting for religious holidays throughout the year.

One study showed that during these religious holidays, fasting led to lower blood cholesterol and lower body mass index (BMI) (30Trusted Source).

Many other types of fasting have also been shown to reduce weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and many other risk factors for chronic disease in humans (31Trusted Source32Trusted Source33Trusted Source).

These include intermittent fasting, which involves fasting for certain hours of the day or certain days of the week, and fasting mimicking, which involves fasting for a few consecutive days per month.

SUMMARY:Caloric restriction and periodic fasting are common in Blue Zones. Both these practices can significantly reduce risk factors for certain diseases and prolong healthy life.

They Consume Alcohol in Moderation

Another dietary factor common to many of the Blue Zones is moderate alcohol consumption.

There is mixed evidence about whether moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of death.

Many studies have shown that drinking one to two alcoholic drinks per day can significantly reduce mortality, particularly from heart disease (34Trusted Source).

However, a very recent study suggested that there is no real effect once you take into consideration other lifestyle factors (35Trusted Source).

The beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption may depend on the type of alcohol. Red wine may be the best type of alcohol, given that it contains a number of antioxidants from grapes.

Consuming one to two glasses of red wine per day is particularly common in the Icarian and Sardinian Blue Zones.

In fact, Sardinian Cannonau wine, which is made from Grenache grapes, has been shown to have extremely high levels of antioxidants, compared to other wines (36Trusted Source).

Antioxidants help prevent damage to DNA that can contribute to aging. Therefore, antioxidants may be important for longevity (37Trusted Source).

A couple of studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of red wine is associated with a slightly longer life (38Trusted Source).

However, as with the other studies on alcohol consumption, it’s unclear whether this effect is because wine drinkers also tend to have healthier lifestyles (39Trusted Source).

Other studies have shown that people who drank a 5-ounce (150-ml) glass of wine every day for six months to two years had significantly lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, more “good” cholesterol and improved sleep quality (40Trusted Source41Trusted Source).

It is important to note that these benefits are only seen for moderate alcohol consumption. Each of these studies also showed that higher levels of consumption actually increase the risk of death (42Trusted Source).

SUMMARY:People in some Blue Zones drink one to two glasses of red wine per day, which may help prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of death.

Exercise Is Built Into Daily Life

Aside from diet, exercise is another extremely important factor in aging (43Trusted Source).

In the Blue Zones, people don’t exercise purposefully by going to the gym. Instead, it is built into their daily lives through gardening, walking, cooking and other daily chores.

A study of men in the Sardinian Blue Zone found that their longer life was associated with raising farm animals, living on steeper slopes in the mountains and walking longer distances to work (44Trusted Source).

The benefits of these habitual activities have been shown previously in a study of more than 13,000 men. The amount of distance they walked or stories of stairs they climbed each day predicted how long they would live (45Trusted Source).

Other studies have shown the benefits of exercise in reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and overall death.

The current recommendations from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest a minimum of 75 vigorous-intensity or 150 moderate-intensity minutes of aerobic activity per week.

A large study including over 600,000 people found that those doing the recommended amount of exercise had a 20% lower risk of death than those who did no physical activity (46Trusted Source).

Doing even more exercise can reduce the risk of death by up to 39%.

Another large study found that vigorous activity led to a lower risk of death than moderate activity (47Trusted Source).

SUMMARY:Moderate physical exercise that is built into daily life, such as walking and climbing stairs, may help prolong life.

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