Longevity Diet – Interview with Dan Buettner

Article written and reviewed by Cyrus Khambatta, PhD and Robby Barbaro, MPH
Published January 28, 2020

What is the Ultimate Longevity Diet?

In this exclusive interview with National Geographic author Dan Buettner, we take a deep-dive into the habits of the longest-lived people on earth to learn the answer to a simple question: How do you live to 100?

Longevity Diet Blue Zones Kitchen

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The transcript below is an approximation of the interview.

Dan Buettner: Our mantra is “If you want to get healthier, live longer, don't try to change your behavior you'll fail. Change your surroundings.”

Robby Barbaro, MPH: Boom! Here it is guys, Blue Zones Kitchen, brand new book from New York Times bestselling author, Dan Buettner, and this one is selling like wildfire. We are excited to tell you a lot more about it today.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Absolutely. So, today we're going to be talking with Dan Buettner, who we consider to be a very good friend of ours, and a force for good.

He's the genius behind The Blue Zones Way. Now, Dan has an undying dedication to helping people around the world understand the Blue Zones lifestyle. And the Blue Zones lifestyle is literally just a collection of very simple and pragmatic lifestyle choices that are known and have been proven over, and over, and over again, to add years to your life, and help you decrease your risk for many chronic diseases, including but not limited to heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, cancer, all forms of diabetes, chronic kidney disease, as well as conditions that have been historically considered incurable, including dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Today we're going to be talking with Dan about his new book, Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100, just like Robby showed you. And this book, I kid you not, has been flying off the shelves and truly making a big, big impact.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: Yes, the book is an instant New York Times bestseller, and as soon as you see it, you'll understand. It's full of beautiful photographs from National Geographic photographer. Just very, very beautiful. And you'll see Dan with people, as he goes and visits them. And you'll notice that many of the recipes include oil, and that's okay, because you want to what? If you're following the Mastering Diabetes Method, you're reducing your oil. You can use these recipes and just substitute the oil. These are beautiful, beautiful recipes, you can absolutely use and make.

I mean I could say, this specific one right here, it's called “minestrone three ways”, this is from Sardinia, and these are absolutely beautiful, beautiful recipes that are 100% Mastering Diabetes Method compliant, you just replace the oil with another form of cooking liquid, and you will be just fine.

Today we are excited to be joined by Dan Buettner. Dan is an explorer, National Geographic fellow, award winning journalist and producer, and New York Times bestselling author.

He discovered the five places in the world dubbed Blue Zone hotspots where people live the longest, healthiest lives. Buettner now works in partnership with municipal governments, large employers, and health insurance companies implement Blue Zones projects in communities, workplaces and universities.

Blue Zones projects are well-being initiatives and apply lessons from the Blue Zones to entire communities, by focusing on changes to the local environment, public policy and social networks. The program has dramatically improved the health of more than 5 million Americans today.

His books, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest Thrive: Finding Happiness, the Blue Zones Way, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People, and The Blue Zones of Happiness are all national bestsellers. And today we will be discussing his wildly popular brand new book, The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100. This book is an instant New York Times bestseller, and it's taken the world by storm. Booksellers such as Amazon Kindle, they keep it in stock. It's been a number one bestseller on Amazon for over a week. Same thing for the Wall Street Journal.

Dan has appeared on the Today show, Oprah, NBC Nightly News and Good Morning America and has keynote speeches at TED med, Bill Clinton's Health Matters initiative. And Google Zeitgeist.

Dan also holds three Guinness World Records in distance cycling. This guy can do it all. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Dan Buettner: I feel I gotta quit while I’m at it, and just say thank you.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: You got three world records? I didn't even know that. That's impressive. What are they…?

Dan Buettner: Yeah, while you guys were doing useful and productive things, after college, I biked from Alaska to Argentina. It was all downhill. I biked around the world, and I biked the top of Africa to the bottom across the Sahara and the Congo, and down the southern tip. And they took about a year each, and they each set world records.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: So, they set the world record for what? Time to travel a certain distance, or just total number of insane miles ridden on a bicycle, or what?

Dan Buettner: Well, in the same way people set a world record for biking across America. I hold the record for biking across these continents, and by the way, they're challenged all the time. So, I mean, there's a number of other nutcases like me who are out doing these things.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: So, how many miles a day are you riding on average when you do these long journeys?

Dan Buettner: 100. But, you know, we're carrying all of our packs with us. We're carrying sometimes 100 pounds of gear. Back in those days, you know, we had Canvas panniers, and sometimes we had to carry… Crossing the Sahara on bicycle, we had to carry about 35 liters of water, and all of our food, and we had this sort of bulky GPS, early technology, to keep us from getting lost and dying.

So, it was real adventure. It was before the days of internet and social media, so people didn't follow us while we're doing it. We made a bit of a splash when we when we got back, but a lot of it was just yearning for adventure, and interested in the world, and interested in seeing the world. And bicycle, by the way, I paddled right past Costa Rica. So, I drove Costa Rica on my way to Ushuaia, so.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Give us a little bit of insight here, when you were biking around the world, was your interest in the Blue Zones already present? Or was during this journey something that like, set the stage for you to be like, “Hmm, there's different lifestyles around the planet. Why are you guys doing well, and you guys not doing well?” Did it sort of center of the thought process start while biking?

Dan Buettner: Well, you know, like you're a diabetes activist and health care practitioner, my sort of Ikigai, my purpose is explore. I like to go out in the world and discover useful things and bring them back, and the earliest iterations for me was taken off on bicycles. And I was always a writer, I was writing for the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Outside Magazine, and I wrote books about these experiences as a way to explore and share it.

15 expeditions later, in 1999, we were doing an expedition, Okinawa, I was doing more interactive scientific expeditions at the time called quests, and we stumbled across this really interesting mystery of why this southeastern Island, it was experiencing the lowest rate of disability-free life expectancy. So, in other words, they were living the longest, healthiest lives. And I had learned from my editor at National Geographic that, you know, while biking across continents are nice, and they're good, youthful adventurers, if you want to get in the realm of real expeditions that matter, they need to add to the body of knowledge or illuminate the human condition or educate. And the idea of finding places where people live the longest, and then reverse engineering what they do in such a way that people can put those lessons to work in their lives, that is the, I think, in a way, the consummate manifestation of what explorers ought to be doing these days.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: For sure. Yeah, I totally agree with you because, in disciplinary unfortunately, people have, I want to say become victim to a corrupted food system, and then also eaten themselves into an advanced state of chronic disease. There’s more chronic disease on this planet than there has ever been in the entire human history.

So, it's interesting that you have a chance to be able to witness that firsthand, and then take what you've learned, and translate that so that people can say, “Oh, wait a minute, there's actually some very simple techniques here that I can use to promote longevity.” And this idea of living longer by making decisions today, is something that very few people are really talking about, and that's one of the reasons why we love talking about Blue Zones as a concept, because it's a concept, but it's also a set of practices that can actually truly change people's lives, and actually turn them into the healthiest versions of themselves.

So, my question for you is, you've been to the Blue Zones many times, you've written many books about the Blue Zones, and in order to create the Blue Zones Cookbook, correct me if I'm wrong, but you went back to the Blue Zones to research this book and learn about what recipes people in the Blue Zones are actually making. So, why did you decide to return?

Dan Buettner: Well, to your point about the food system, you know, you call it a corrupt food system, I actually find it useful to think of it as, or to frame it as we've just over innovated. We have to remember that until about 1970, there weren't enough calories necessary to feed Americans, and it was innovation, it was business innovation that created a system, a distribution system, an agricultural system, first of all, to feed enough people. The problem is now, we just over innovated, and now we have, you know, we need maybe 2400, 2500 calories a day to live a decent life, but there's over 4000 calories per person per day for everybody in America. We've just produced too many.

And it's not… I don't like to think of corporations as being evil, or corrupt. They've just done too good a job at innovation, and enterprise. And now the challenge for everybody is to innovate in a way where people can eat healthier mindlessly.

The core tenet of Blue Zones is, if you try to change your behavior, with the exception of you two guys, and a few other highly disciplined and enlightened individual, you're going to fail with most Americans. Diets don't work, exercise programs don't work. In Blue Zones, they have no greater individual responsibility for their health, and we Americans do. They just live in an environment where fruits and vegetables, and beans and nuts, and tubers are the cheapest, most accessible, and most delicious food.

So, knowing that David McLain, National Geographic photographer and I, two years ago, went back to Blue Zones in Icaria, Greece, Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, very close to where you are right now. And the Adventists in Loma Linda, California. And before these American food cultures completely blast away the food tradition, I sat on stools in old ladies kitchens, up in the mountains of Sardinia, or Icaria, captured 100 recipes that have been used for over 500 years, and then David, the photographer, shot the ingredients, and the food techniques, and the tables, and the people who are making these foods, and the setting.

And I don't like to think of this as a cookbook. It's called the Blue Zone Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100, but it's really constructed like a 300 page National Geographic article. In other words, it's all National Geographic photography. The introductions are very science heavy, I explain why these foods are yielding disease free people. And then, because people like to have something they can use, I captured 20 recipes in each of the five Blue Zones that follow the Blue Zones food guidelines. Which by the way, are very close to the prescription that you guys offer for people to get insulin sensitivity under control.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: Yeah so, you mentioned something really interesting there, you said, the key is to have an environment where you can eat healthy mindlessly. That's really interesting. How can people make that happen in their life? I mean, what can somebody do? Do we have to wait for the environment to change? Is there things that we can set up? Like, how do we make that happen?

Dan Buettner: That's almost like a trick question, Robby, because anybody watching you right now, all they have to do is look at your backdrop. There is no negative choice in that whole backdrop. They can grab anything off of any shelf, and it's going to help them live longer, and to your point, get their insulin under control.

So, there's no reason, you know, there's this idea of Ulysses contract. It comes from the Iliad where Ulysses tied himself to the mass so he could flow through the Sargasso Sea and hear the sirens without going crazy.

If you set up your home the way you set up the backdrop behind you, if you make friends with people like you two guys, who by default are going to eat plant-based food, if you make an effort to make sure your family lives in a place where there's easy access to fruits and vegetables, and it's inconvenient to go eat burgers, fries and pizzas, well, you don't need heroic discipline to make the right choice. And Blue Zones, our mantra is if you want to get healthier and live longer, don't try to change your behavior, you'll fail. Change your surroundings.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: Brilliant. Okay so, something you discuss in this book, as I read through, you say that in the Blue Zones there’s approximately 20 core ingredients. And so, can you give us insight into what are the most common ingredients across the Blue Zones?

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: In alphabetical order, please.

Dan Buettner: All right. Beans, greens, nuts, tubers, and whole grains. And I'm using the W, so there, I had to do it. So those five, but you know what? The actual ingredients are different depending whether you're in Okinawa, or Sardinia, or Icaria. Conveniently, I have a Blue Zone in Asian format, a Mediterranean format, a Greek format, a Latin American format, an American format, and so they change from place to place.

But you know, when you go to Okinawa you're going to see mostly tofu, and turmeric, and different… And garlic and sesame. In Korea you're going to see garlic, lemon, and rosemary as kind of the base. In Sardinia you're going to see pasta, sourdough bread, fava beans, tomatoes. In Costa Rica, you're going to see whole grain, corn tortillas, beans, squash, tons of tropical fruit.

And then among the Seventh Day Adventist, you know, they're biblical, they're a little bit less on 20 ingredients. They mostly follow Genesis chapter 1 verse 26, where, you know, this is from God that died in the Garden of Eden, every plant that bears seed, and every tree that bears fruit. So if you think about that, fruits are apples and citrus, and even tomatoes, and seeds are nuts and grains, and legumes, and beans.

So, the point being, if you want to eat for longevity focus on peasant foods, simple foods that for the most part are cheap, and you know, with the little bit of the genius from these kitchens in Blue Zones, you can make them taste good so you'll eat them for a long time.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Okay, Dean, I gotta ask you, I've been sort of bothered by this question for a long time. I live in Costa Rica, just like you mentioned earlier, and then one hour away from the (inaudible)…

Dan Buettner: I know where you're going with this.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Okay, you know exactly, we talked about this in the past. For those of you who don't know this, you come to Costa Rica, you go to Nicoya. The first thing you see when you get into the heart of Nicoya is what?

Dan Buettner: A KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it breaks my heart.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Exactly right. Every time I'm there I think to myself, like, “Wow, where is this Nicoya that Dan talked about? It's either a place that used to exist before the Western culture invaded it, or changed it to having fast food options all over the place.”

But in addition to KFC, there's also a whole bunch of restaurants that are serving fried foods all over the place. So if I go to Nicoya, I think to myself, “Hmm. I don't know if these are the exact people that he's talking about, or if they live up in a hill somewhere that happens to be close to Nicoya.”

The point being, is that even in a place like Costa Rica, my wife and I do a really good job of trying to grocery shop and find the cleanest food that we can possibly find. And it turns out that even here in Costa Rica, there's a huge use of pesticides. It doesn't make any sense, because you're like, it's in one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the entire world, but yet there's an overuse of pesticides.

So, for people who are truly adopting a plant-based diet, and they're eating according to your recommendations, how necessary is it that they shop for organic, or non-pesticide, or locally grown clean food? Is it that important, or is it more important to just start eating a more plant focused diet, and not necessarily worry about how clean the foods are to begin with?

Dan Buettner: So, I'm hearing a two part question. The first question is about Nicoya, and where are people eating a True Blue Zones diet. You have to remember, in order for me to write the Blue Zones Kitchen, we did a meta-analysis of dietary surveys that have been done over the past hundred years. So, we weren't just looking at what people in Nicoya are eating today, i.e. KFC. We were looking what they're eating 10 years ago, that KFC wasn't there. Five years ago, it wasn't there.

So, if you want to know what 100 year old ate to live to be 100, you have to know what he ate, or she ate, when they were 10, and 30, and 50, and 70, you know, 90. So, what you see in the Blue Zones Kitchen is an aggregation of the dietary wisdom of over the last hundred years, not just what they're eating today.

And yes, as Nicoya adopts the American food culture, it's already happening, their diabetes rates are soaring, they're dying of heart disease, obesity is getting out of control, and it's heartbreaking. But indeed, if you go to San Juan Diaz, which is just north of Nicoya, and you get out of your car and you walk up a hill, a few miles, you can see villages where people are still largely eating beans, rice, corn tortillas, and the fruits and vegetables they're growing in their Chorotega inspired gardens. So, it's important to realize that.

Now to your point about organics. The truth is we don't know how bad pesticides are damaging our health right now. We simply don't have, I mean, we can take case by case but on an epidemiology level, we haven't been able to measure it well enough or follow it long enough. So, it's hard to tell.

But you know, I work in 50 cities and I can tell you something for sure, if you let people give you the argument that they can't afford to eat whole foods or… I'm sorry, organic foods, you're never going to get out of the shoots. So, I basically say “Don't worry about buying the most expensive freshest fruits and vegetables. Go out and buy, go to these places where you can buy in bulk, and buy beans.”

I was at Costco the other day and saw a 25 pound bag of pinto beans for $9.99, for another $15 you can get a 20 pound bag of rice. You can get some spices, I know you guys don't like oil but for a lot of people the gateway is a little bit of oil in their food so, you know, get some off of the richness of eating meat and so forth. And you can start there, and you're 70% the way to eating a Blue Zones diet with those two foods alone. And you don't want to get them wrapped up too much in buying super fresh. Canned tomatoes are in my opinion are fine. I mean yes, you can point to this small risk in the inside lining of... But it's a much greater risk your health, to skip those non organic vegetables all together, because you're afraid of pesticides and GMOs, or whatever other thing that's been marketed to us as a big danger.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: We could not possibly agree more. We celebrate progress, and people understand where you're coming from, you know, move towards a more plant-based diet. That's something to celebrate. It's not about perfection, and getting lost in these details can be very problematic for a lot of people. So, I'm glad you're on the same page with that.

Dan Buettner: Yeah, indeed.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: One question, one main question that I have for you. I know you have a huge collection of raving fans all around the world, but I know that there's many people in our audience that want to read your new book.

So the question is, where can they buy your book? Is it even possible to buy your book, because the last I heard Amazon didn’t have it, Barnes and Noble didn't have it. It wasn't possible to buy it because this thing was selling so quickly, that it doesn't really, it's not really, you can't really buy right now. But is that true? And if not, tell people exactly where they can go to buy this book and what are they going to learn from it?

Dan Buettner: Thank you. Well, the National Geographic, my publishers, has done seven reprints in the last four weeks, and if you ordered in Amazon, you'll get it. It'll take about a week to get, but you'll get it.

And the idea of the book is, 100 Recipes to Live to 100, but we also give you free recipes, not the exact same recipes, but if you come to BlueZones.com, we have free recipes there. We have a meal planner, and I love it if people would just bypass the book if they want, to go right to the meal planner because they can put that to work in their life. And yeah, I'd say those are the best vehicles right now.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: I think they should go for both Dan, the book and the meal planner. It's a great decision guys. This thing is beautiful. It's absolutely beautiful and very inspiring. I love your opening sentence of the book. Opening sentence is, let's see here, it's “If you want to live to a healthy 100, eat like healthy people who've lived to 100.” There you go. That sums it up.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Robby, give us a quick tour. Flip through some of the photos in the book. I know probably (inaudible).

Robby Barbaro, MPH: Yeah. So, I mean, it's just the whole thing is beautiful. Let's see, like, again, you get to see the people that Dan went and visited, and he took pictures of them, the people that actually made these recipes.

Dan Buettner: Actually, that’s David McLain, a celebrated National Geographic photographer.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: Okay, (inaudible), certain foods are in certain Blue Zones that are like the highlight of those Blue Zones. So, it's just straight up beautiful. The whole thing is beautiful.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: I love it, I love it.

Dan Buettner: You guys are very kind.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: For sure. Also, below this video, we're going to be putting Dan's personal cell phone number, and his address.

Dan Buettner: Call me late at night. I love calls after midnight.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Dan, this has been a pleasure. It's been great to be with you, we could talk for hours, but I know that we're both on tight schedules right now. So, thanks for continuing to advocate about the mechanism, the exact way, the simple habits that people can put into place that are going to decrease their risk for all chronic diseases, whether diabetes, heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, aging too quickly, digestive concerns. There's literally no healthier…

Dan Buettner: Even dementia.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Say it again.

Dan Buettner: Even dementia.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Even dementia, which is something that up until a few years ago was considered… 100%.

Dan Buettner: We found, on Icaria, about one fifth the rate of dementia that we have here in America. You can avoid, most of us can avoid dementia.

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD: Yeah, it's absolutely phenomenal. The true power of being a Blue Zones diet is something that is even hard to put into the words because, you know, imagine there was a pill that you could take, imagine there was some kind of pharmaceutical medication that could decrease your risk for literally all chronic disease. That would become a blockbuster drug, it would be a multi-billion dollar drug. You're explaining how that drug exists by changing the stuff that you put on your plate. It's just that simple. And in addition to that, also making other lifestyle changes as well.

Robby Barbaro, MPH: And it tastes amazing, that's the key. You guys are gonna love this stuff. I'm guarantee it, I guarantee it.

Dan Buettner: Well, let me just say I'm very proud to lock arms with you guys. I see you too as great activists, and I like to think of it as a movement. I think you two are doing more than most doctors are doing at saving people's life, and life expectancy. I salute you, and I'm honored to work with you even though we’re on separate continents right now, but I look forward to collaborating in the future.

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About the author 

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD and Robby Barbaro, MPH

Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, and Robby Barbaro, MPH are the coauthors of the New York Times bestselling book Mastering Diabetes: The Revolutionary Method to Reverse Insulin Resistance Permanently in Type 1, Type 1.5, Type 2, Prediabetes, and Gestational Diabetes. They are the cofounders of Mastering Diabetes, a coaching platform that teaches people how to reverse insulin resistance via low-fat, plant-based, whole-food nutrition. Cyrus has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2002, and has an undergraduate degree from Stanford University and a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from UC Berkeley. Robby was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2000, and has been living a plant-based lifestyle since 2006. He worked at Forks Over Knives for 6 years, and earned a Master’s in Public Health in 2019.