#105 Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner (@BlueZones) joined James Altucher to talk about blue zones, the right diets, and how to live – a good life – to 100. Buettner is the author of The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living like the World’s Healthiest People. It’s his attempt to “Identify pockets around the world where people live the longest.” Here’s a clip from the Today Show that explains what Buettner is working on.

Buettner says that in blue zones, older people are viewed as “repositories of wisdom” and that their social equity goes up, not down. Buettner calls this the Grandmother Effect, that they keep the smart people in their lives longer. It’s not just grandmothers we can surround ourselves with. Many other guests on the podcast have said that they are better with others. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) said that Jim Carrey made him better and vise versa. Adam Carolla (episode #25) told James he paired up with Jimmy Kimmel because “we’re funny together.” Tim Ferriss (episode #22) had a best-selling author (Jack Canfield (episode #90)) in the role of grandmother.

And these experienced advisors don’t retire, Buettner says. “In blue zones, where age is celebrated, older people feel a sense of responsibility.” They may not keep laboring, but they continue to work on something meaningful.

Buettner says that anyone can find this if they align things they do with; their values, what they want to do, what they are good at, and what you can contribute. Adam Grant (episode #73) makes a similar case in the way we give. Grant says that we should give in ways that gives back to us as well. If you have a skills, use that. Not only will you build your skill, but you won’t get burnt out as quickly as someone who gives in a way they don’t particularly enjoy.


Buettner says there are a handful of blue zones around the world; Turkey, Costa Rica, California, Italy, and Japan. James notes that a lot of these placed tend to have good weather, to which Buettner says, “you don’t have to live in a warm sunny place to live a long time, it may just make it easier.” That’s the key part to the blue zones, is that the people who live there aren’t trying to live a long time in the same way that you or I might go to the gym to workout so we become more healthy – it’s just part of their lives.

letshaveamomentofsilence_jamIn that Today Show clip, Buettner notes that people in Sardinia Italy will walk eight miles a day as part of their normal activity. And walking just may be a magical elixir. The number of people who walk is incredible. Amy Poehler wrote that she liked to just walk around New York with a friend and talk.

In Daily Rituals  Mason Currey wrote, “After a midday dinner, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much o the rest of the afternoon. He always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of music paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts.” And Soren Kierkegaard, “Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening.  The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.” Even in the interview James mentions walking in New York City.

Another environmental factor is how people in blue zones tend to eat. Buettner says that they usually eat off of smaller plates, and with the help of Brian Wansink, Buettner has found that this works for anybody. (Side note: This is some of the same research I apply in the 21 Days to a Stronger Idea Muscle.)

In one of Wansink’s studies he found that people scooped 31% more ice cream into a larger bowl than a smaller one. He concluded “As the size of our dishes increases, so does the amount we scoop into them.” That’s from the book, Mindless Eating, which applies the blue zone ethos to eating. Rather than choking down a kale salad, you could simply choose smaller plates to eat from.

Another blue zone feature is to eat a plant based diet, with beans. “The cornerstone to every longevity diet in the world is beans” Buettner tells James. But it’s not just that. Unlike the recent trend toward paleo, which followed the trend of high protein, which followed the trend of high fiber (etc), Buettner says you need to look across a wider range of what people ate. “If you want to know what a centenarian ate to live to be 100, you can’t just ask them what they’re eating today. You need to know what they were eating in their 20’s, 40’s, 60’s, and 80’s.”

Another tip Buettner has, is to be in situations where good food is to be found. If your friends go bowling and drink beer and eat cheese fries, you probably will too. Instead, if you host a potluck at your house, you’ll probably eat better. Wansink has tweaks for potlucks too:

  • Try to be the last person to start eating.
  • Pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table.
  • Avoid the ‘just one more helping’ by leaving some food on your plate.

In the interview Buettner has a lot of statistics, of which we can take with a grain of salt (if that’s okay). I don’t doubt the effort and intention to this data, just that it’s wrapped up too nicely. Saying that walking is good for you is one thing. Saying that walking makes you live 3.5 extra years is another. If we look at the trends, these numbers are probably pretty good indicators about what we should do (or not do).

  • The highest quartile of meat eaters are 4X more likely to get cancer.
  • A sense of purpose to your life lets you live 6 years longer.
  • If we got rid of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (all of which are preventable) we could expect to live to 90.
  • Air pollutants are the 5th biggest killer.
  • People in blue zones tend to drink 2 glasses of wine a day (with a meal and slowly).
  • Genetics is only about 20% of how long you live.

Besides the environment, Buettner indicates that the people in your life matter too.

“The people who tend to make it to ninety and one-hundred tend to be likeable people with a good sense of humor, they tell jokes, they listen.” – Dan Buettner

They also know their friends a long time. It made me wonder if we can digitize this part of our lives. Nicholas Megalis (episode #104) and Austin Kleon (episode #19) both mentioned that connecting with people online has never been easier. If data exists on this, let me know.

The interview ends with Buettner sharing that the Seventh Day Adventists tend to have blue zone like communities and that most blue zones are austere, though not deprived. His book sounds like a place to begin if you want to create your own blue zone, with recipes and other tips.

Here’s a 2009 TED Talk, “How to live to be 100+” here’s another from 2013, “Longevity and Happiness.”

Thanks for reading. If I was vapid, vulgar, or vandalized an idea, let me know. @mikedariano

A note on health. In 2014 I got on a kick with one of the paleo-esque programs you can find online and it worked well for the time I was on it, but eventually I found myself buying into the wrong parts of the program. I was eating a lot of meat, no beans, and no bread. It felt like something had swung too far one way and I needed to stabilize my diet. There is a lot of conversation about what to eat buzzing about today and I’ve settled on the advice of Nassim Taleb (who doesn’t have a cookbook to promote); the longer people have been eating it, the better choice it is. To me at least, blue zone diets look to pass this test.

Two food notes: If you want to try a Kale salad, this recipe from Seth Godin (episode #86) is the best. If you like hummus, trying making your own. Google a recipe and replace Tahini with Peanut Butter.

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