Lessons For Paleos From “The Blue Zones”

"Grandpa" just saved your ass

So what can the longest lived populations teach us about health in our youth? This is what Dan Buettner attempts to tease out of these isolated populations with his Blue Zone project. There is a lot to learn from these peoples, especially if you’re of a doctrinal paleo position.So knowing that lifestyle accounts for the majority of our longevity, which paleos are attempting to optimize. Here are 3 things to consider:

1. Grains Are Not Going To Kill You.

I eat a low carbohydrate diet. Not ketogenic low, but 90% of the time my carbohydrate intake doesn’t creep over 20% of my daily caloric intake. Most of that comes from fruit, berries, veggies, and seeds. However, I like hamburgers. Really, really, REALLY like hamburgers. Up until Sarah and I moved in together I consumed a burger of some sort everyday since about the age of 17. You can pry them from my cold, dead fingers. However, after reading an article from Clarence Bass, I switched to sprouted grain muffins as my bun. Only recently have I removed grain from my regular intake; I don’t fear it but I don’t miss it and have not improved composition or health substantially as a result.

Why bring this up? All of the Blue Zoners consume grain. Of course, those grains aren’t coming in a plastic bag (contained in a box, sealed with glue, under artificial light, etc.), so they’re as coarse and complex as possible. This is also in line with the Weston A. Price dietary recommendations which carry some weight with paleos. Further, as much as I love theory that comes from 50,000 year old skeletons, we have living, breathing data points to study right now.

Am I saying add grains into your diet if you currently aren’t consuming them? Not at all; diet is an n=1 experiment and only you can know how you feel in your bones. Rather if you can’t imagine yourself without them I’d suggest reducing intake and improving the quality by switching to sprouted. For instance, Darya Pino has noted that she feels better with a little bit of (coarse, heavy, minimally processed) grain. You won’t know until you try. If you’ve been orthodox paleo and feel something is not quite right, this might be something worth reintroducing in small amounts. Your mileage may vary.

2. Dairy Is Not Going To Kill You

This seems to be falling by the wayside for those who have been at it, thinkering to become their own authority. A large portion of these cultures consume dairy: raw goats milk in Icaria, Greece, hard aged pecorino cheese in Sardinia,  and the normally available dairy in the Adventist population who are not Vegan. While it is currently vogue to dismiss diary for a variety of reasons depending on your circle, dairy is great for a variety of reasons. Lyle McDonald has written about the benefits of dairy before. Further, if you’re looking to gain quality bodyweight (like I’m currently doing) adding large quantities of milk to your diet gives you nutrient dense calories in an easy to swallow (ha!) package. Your mileage may vary.

3. Legumes Are Not Going To Kill You

Save for the occasionally extra meaty chili, I can’t stand legumes. I have no dog in the fight, but it’s worth noting that every one of these cultures consumes beans regularly. Ever. Single. One. This is especially important for the Costa Ricans on the Nicoyan peninsula, as the book stressed this point: “They asked centenarians what they ate and heard ‘beans, rice, tortillas and fruit’ over and over.” While I have no desire to add beans to my diet, you might find no problems consuming them on a regular basis. Your mileage may vary.

Your Mileage May Vary

So am I suggesting that one should add these to their diet right now no matter what? Not at all. Am I saying one can have great health while including these in their diet? Absolutely. More to the point, the “best” diet for human beings comes with a huge caveat, due to our omnivorous nature. Too often individuals who consider themselves paleo (or whatever) paint the world in black and white, us vs. them terms (see Richard getting kicked off the island for eating potatoes), when a healthy diet is much more fluid. In fact, if I could take everyone eating a standard american diet, remove all of the garbage and replace those calories with sprouted grains, whole dairy, and legumes, I have no doubt they would be healthier as a result. The fact that I see people on message boards agonizing about the little bit of diary or grain in their otherwise “perfect” diet shows me the plot has been lost.

Eat real food. Eat real food. Eat real food…

22 thoughts on “Lessons For Paleos From “The Blue Zones”

  1. Good points! Ironically, i am sure these blue zoners are not confused and obsessed about their diet as much as Americans. We argue over the virtues of certain foods in our diet and they simply enjoy eating traditional food. We go on diets and take supplements and they just take time to prepare and consume what ever serving size satisfies them. They seem to have a very healthy relationship with real food. I would guess blue zoners are probably less anxiety about body image, dont obsess about their health, and just enjoy life more.

    1. Dan,

      Isn’t that the truth? We could stand to learn a few things from them in regards to our (sometimes…ok, often) OCD relationship with food.

  2. Great post!
    Personally I have banned grains from my life, this is due to the fact they do not agree with me in any form whatsoever. I get a serious brain fog, bloated, etc.

    Dairy and I do not agree either. I grew up with the notion that it was healthy only to be confronted with major skin problems all my life. Quit the dairy and “all of a sudden” I’ve got healthy skin.
    Some people do well with dairy. Unfortunately you cannot get it raw here in The Netherlands. When I think of the milk sold here, I cannot help but think about the latest news about how the elderly are inexplicably becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics. Some org pointed the finger at a.o. the dairy industry and was hushed. I guess it makes sense… if the cows are being given anti-biotics, you will be ingesting them.

    So imo, yes drink your milk if you can handle it, but make sure you get it from healthy animals. And if it is raw, hey, then the more power to you.

    As for beans, they do not cause any reactions and for that I am glad. I looooove a mean gallo pinto whenever I am on holidays in Costa Rica.

  3. Hi Skyler,

    I’m a Masai warrior.

    That’s at least what I tell myself when I eat hefty amounts of FAGE Greek Yogurt, raw cheese, and cultured pasture butter every day.

    It’s an m=1 my-thology that seems to be working in my n=1 case.

    The Problem of Induction is always lurking, so we must all keep thinkering.



    1. Brent,

      Masai warrior minus the cow blood, I take it? 😉

      In my opinion, the only way to get “kicked off the island” is to be sure you’ve found the ONE answer. Keep thinkering indeed.


      1. Brent,

        I like it; I currently have a Tanzanian single origin so I too could run with the Masai warrior vibe.

  4. “The only dogma is, there is no dogma”, and the only grains I’d rather not do without are of the finely-crafted, fermented kind. I fully realize that I might very well be booted from Paleo island along with you and Richard, but I’ll leave clutching my Guiness, thank you all very much 🙂

    Seriously, though — my approach, with myself and with others, is to (1) acknowledge the consequences of an action — or inaction, as the case may be, then (2) determine whether or not the quality of life pay-off justifies the action or inaction. It’s an on-going self-dialog. Oh, and I’m not beholden to the same answer each time out, either. Life changes. Goals change, priorities change. It’s rather like living a real-life version of “Groundhog Day”.

  5. the stuff being rejected by the dogmatic paleo won’t kill you or, on the other hand, can even be beneficial (who knows) per se, but there is one dangerous thing about it: satiety control definitely goes haywire: it is rather difficult to overeat eating a diet consisting of foods of animal origin and low carb-high fiber vegs, but grains, dairy, legumes makes you eat, and eat, and eat…

    1. Carbfiender,

      From my experience this is n=1. Awful processed “bread” can make me do this, but I didn’t notice this behavior with sprouted bread and certainly don’t notice it with diary. N=1

    2. carbfiender, I agree with you and Skyler. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” issue…

      I find sprouted bread even more addicting and hypoglycemia-inducing than regular bread, so there’s my n=1, Skyler. (Perhaps because sprouting converts more of the fibers into usable sugars.)

      1. It’s possible.

        Of note: I’ve certainly altered my views over time, namely seeing the need for ruthless removal and reintroduction before being “sure” of how these things work with your body. I also do not advocate them being the base of a personal food pyramid. But a bit of quinoa in your salad a couple times a week, assuming the rest of your diet is meats, leaves, fruits, spices, real fat, and nuts/seeds, will get you kicked off paleo island but probably (probably) be OK in the long term.

        Also of note: I hate quinoa.

  6. I read The Blue Zones this winter and sent author Dan Buettner a couple of questions. when I was done When his assistant found out I was not a journalist, I was told he was too busy working on his new book to answer them, which is fair enough. Perhaps he’ll answer these in his new book. I did enjoy the book overall, though I don’t believe the evidence gathered supports Dan’s conclusions. My email to Dan is below…

    Hi, this message is for Dan, it would be great if you could pass it along. I just finished reading The Blue Zones and enjoyed it very much, but I was wondering about something that was not addressed in great detail. All of the diets discussed other than the Adventists (Sardinia, Okinawa and Nicoya) include lard, which I understand is actually used in significant quantities in some or all of those places. You describe (Nicoyan) Don Faustino getting multiple 2-liter bottles filled with lard at the market. Does he do this every week, and if so, what is he using all of that lard for? In Nicoya and Sardinia, eggs and dairy appear to play a large role in the daily diet. Your quote from Philip Wagner indicates that the Nicoyans were eating eggs three times a day (sometimes fried in lard), in addition to some kind of milk curd. So my questions are:

    1. Why did you choose to emphasize the vegetarian angle so heavily and de-emphasize the consumption of eggs, dairy and lard? Was this decision based solely on the Adventist health study?

    2. Did you record in detail the dietary contribution from the various foods consumed, including macronutrient ratios (by caloric value)? If so, where could I fund that data? Is the data broken down in detail by types of fatty acids?

    3. Do you believe the type of fat consumed plays a significant role in health and longevity? (e.g. lard from wild or pastured animals vs. modern processed oils like canola, etc.)? Do you recommend lard as a cooking fat and if not, why not?

    1. Greg,

      Fantastic questions! I too wondered about the Okinawan angle as far as pork/lard consumption. I suspect it’s strangely PC to recommend the vegetarian angle.

  7. Skyler,

    Great article. I read the Blue Zone a year ago and realized that grain, milk, and legume aren’t the enemies that the Paleo community makes them out to be. Although I include and enjoy them in my diet, I do so conservatively as my aim is not so much a Paleo diet but one that’s nutrient-dense and calorie-sparse.

    My blog The Lean Saloon begun nearly a year ago with a bias toward the Paleo diet; however, I’ve seen way more great result with leanness, health, and mental sharpness with intermittent fasting, even while eating (mostly sprouted) grains again. I’ve since no longer push the Paleo diet, but emphasize eating real, wholesome food.

    Thanks for a fantastic article based on a book that defies some of the positions of the Paleo philosophy.


  8. Good post. I suspect any of us who get too dogmatic about any of this could try and remember that we’re just holding to ideas. But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

  9. I’n just a guy who started to read many paleo and superslow blogs (devany, mcguff, keith norris, mark sisson ecc.).
    I learned a lot of interesting ideas from these blogs.

    But I always find too much contrarianism without checking the facts.
    I learned that it’s wrong to accept any idea just because is conventional wisdom, but equally wrong is automatically reject the same idea.

    I’m Italian and one of the blue zones is Sardinia, in Italy.

    I can assure you that old people (the young are eating in a more American way) diet is:

    – based on carbs
    – they eat grains, bread, legumes and dairy
    – always vegetables
    – they eat little(compared to U.S) red meat
    – they drink wine or water. No sugary drinks.
    – Very little junk foods, like donuts and similar.
    – Extra virgin olive oil everywhere.

    Now I’ll list some lifestyle factors I think are different from U.S. Of course it’s just a generalization and I might be wrong.

    They do a lot of walking and manual labour.
    They work less hours and with less stress than Americans.
    Basic health care is free.
    People are generally less obsessed with making money.
    Family relationships are very important.

    Of course I have not the last word on healthy living, I just wanted to give something back after reading so much about paleo ideas.

    1. Roby,

      Out of curiosity, how whole is the grain? To put it another way, are the grains they eat extremely fresh and homemade?

      1. I’m afraid I don’t know.
        Just normal bread and pasta you can buy here in Italy.

        Not necessarily 100% whole.

        I don’t know if there are differences with grains eaten in America.

  10. You said it yourself: “Your Mileage May Vary”.

    The paleo argument is not (or classically should not be thought of as), OMG YOU CANNOT EAT GRAINS, BEANS, OR LEGUMES! Nobody thinks small amounts of these things are going to kill anyone.

    The argument is (or should be) one of optimization: yes, natural selection has given us the ability to be highly adaptable to suboptimal food supplies, but that doesn’t mean that anything we “can” eat will create the optimal health environment.

    What I feel you’re saying in this article is that, because of the existence of these individuals in highly dietarily specialized areas of the world (and their health and longevity), that beans, grains, and legumes shouldn’t be thought of as “evil”… and that maybe we could or should eat them a little.

    OK, fair enough. But just as most people wouldn’t do all that well eating a diet composed almost entirely of blubber, even though that is technically paleo and is also a diet that is successful for its population (Eskimo), most people also don’t do that well eating grains, beans, and legumes — UNLESS their ancestors were fully adapted (which is what you see in these “blue zones”).

    So the paleo argument here would have to be that unless you know your ancestry and have been eating this grain- or bean-based diet for many years, and your family history shows no health consequences from it… you probably shouldn’t consider these non-paleo foods to be “healthy”.

    1. Naomi,

      I don’t disagree with anything in particular that you’ve said. I’d actually say that they’re an optimal expression of a sub-optimal diet. Understanding that they foods they eat have more than a little when it comes to anti-nutrients/gliadins/gut irritants also shows that, given enough time and relatively isolated generations, one can thrive on nearly anything, no matter how sub-optimal. That is in no way an endorsement of intentionally putting things in your diet that have clinically documented health-reducing outcomes ad libitum. That’s why you do a super-clean removal diet (“pure paleo”) and then reintroduce and see. Even then I’d stay clear of making any of these things the bulk of one’s diet.

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