The book that promulgates this point of view the most extensively is The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner. Based on several articles published in the National Geographic, Buettner opens a lot of creeky gates and visits a number of dimly lit bars to explore several “blue zones” known for a large number of centenarians, long-lived people who invariably have wrinkly smiles and live fairly isolated, physically active, low-stress lives.
As for the diet, Buettner gives you the bottom line in Chapter One, which includes the suggestion to eat six to nine servings of vegetables a day and making sure your meat is lean. “The best diet is basically one of moderation. You hear about all these people that live on legumes and plant foods and that’s probably okay, but I don’t think it’s necessary. One certainly can metabolize a certain amount of meat, but again it’s a question of are you eating European portions or American portions? Are you eating meat a couple of times a week , or are you eating it every day for two meals a day? Are you eating processed meats that are filled with fat? Or are you eating good cuts of fairly lean meat?”
Buettner’s first example of a Blue Zone is the mountainous Barbagia region in the province of Ogliastra on the island of Sardinia. A paper given at a longevity conference in 1999 found, for example, seven centenarians in a village of twenty-five hundred people, ratios that were confirmed in later studies. In the U.S. only about one male in twenty thousand reaches the age of one hundred.
Barbagia is characterized by “rough pastureland” with “patches of hardwood forest and occasional vineyards.” Like other Blue Zones, the region was relatively isolated until recent times.
“Barbagia a difficult place,” says Buettner, “where people eke out a living from a rugged land by raising sheep and goats. . . The residents there have a reputation for kidnapping, stealing, and settling scores at the end of very long knives . . . A vendetta can last generations. A son of one family might get shot today for something his father did decades ago. . . If a boy catches you looking at his girl, expect to be confronted. . . everyone in Barbagia has a knife in his pocket.” Knife-wielding peasants carrying grudges seems to contract the notion that life in Barbagia is stress-free, but we digress.
Back to the diet. “The Sardinian diet was lean and largely plant-based,” Buettner insists, “with an emphasis on beans, whole wheat and garden vegetables, wine, goat milk, mastic oil.” So my first question is this: what is mastic oil? According to my findings in a brief Internet search, mastic oil comes from a tree that is a relative of the pistachio, which actually produces a resin called mastic, not an edible oil. Mastic has medicinal and industrial uses as an additive to perfumes, cosmetics, soap, body oils and body lotion. In ancient Egypt, mastic was used in embalming.” But according to Buettner, some parts of Sardinia used mastic oil squeezed from the nut as a substitute for olive oil.
Buettner first visits the alert and chipper Giuseppe Mura, age one hundred two , whose house “smells vaguely of sausages and red wine.” Does the house smell of sausages because Mura eats sausages? We never find out. Gosh, here is a wonderful opportunity to ask a non-senile centenarian whether he has eaten foods like sausages over the years—after all, it would be good to know whether our centenarian peasant has enjoyed “processed meats filled with fat” throughout his long life. Instead, Buettner asks “questions from the National Institute on Aging—nonleading questions, carefully crafted to tease out the lifestyle by eliciting a narrative. Instead of asking a man what he ate when he was a child, the question would inquire, ‘Can you think about things you do every day or have done most days of your life?’”
Buettner’s meal at the house of Guiseppe Mura: wine and cured ham, followed by cups of hot coffee. But according to Buettner’s carefully crafted questions, the centenarian’s diet consisted largely of fava beans, pecorino cheese, bread and meat as he could afford it, “which was rarely in the early days.”
Next we visit a fit and active seventy-five-year-old named Tonino Tola, who was definitely not eating fava beans. “When I caught up with Tonino . . . he was slaughtering a cow in the shed behind this house, his arms elbow-deep in the animal’s carcass. . . The cow would provide meat for two families for the season as well as gifts for several friends.” What a great opportunity to tease out the parts of that cow that Tonino actually ate—did he eat the liver and kidneys that evening, before they could spoil? Did the tripe get consumed or did the empoverished folks of the Sardinian mountains throw it out? Did Tola prefer lean or fatty cuts, did he boil up the head? We never find out.
Buettner says that Tola slaughters his cow in the fall “to make meat easier to preserve.” How is that meat preserved? Another mystery left unsolved by carefully crafted questions. But it’s a good bet that Mura preserves his beef in salt, especially as we later learn that meat is boiled on Sunday (the usual preparation for salted beef) and roasted during festivals (the usual preparation for freshly killed meat). Of course, if Tola preserves his meat in salt, that means he is consuming quite a bit of salt, a habit that is not supposed to give you a long life. But there not a single mention of salt in the chapter—best to avoid the embarrassment of conflicting evidence.
The next fellow we meet drinks goat milk for breakfast and carries bread, cheese, wine, sheeps milk and roasted lamb on journeys. No fava beans for him!
Buettner admits that the shepherds of Sardinia consume a lot of sheep and goat milk products—of course the R word is avoided, but in isolated Barbatia, these sheep and goat milk products are most certainly raw. He notes that the centenarians seem to avoid bone loss and fractures and speculates that goats milk and the mysterious mastic oil, along with bread and wine, may be Sardinia’s “other two longevity elixirs.” (Those Sardinian peasants do drink a lot of wine.)
Better information about the Sardinian shepherd diet comes from a 2014 article, “Male longevity in Sardinia,” published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Here we learn that the main activity in the Sardinian blue zone was animal husbandry, whereas in the rest of the island it was agriculture. “The major discrepancy between the lowland areas, where peasants were the majority of the population, and the mountain areas, essentially pastoral, was the relatively superior consumption of animal-derived foods in the latter.” The shepherds also ate more animal fat, and had very low consumption of vegetable oil. Carb consumption was also lower among the long-lived shepherds. Both shepherds and peasants did consume fairly high levels of “vegetable proteins,” in the form of fava beans, white beans, lupine, chickpeas and lentils, although none of Buettner’s informants seemed to favor beans. Seasonal vegetables came from their gardens; seasonal fruit (mainly grapes and figs), chestnuts and walnuts added variety to the diet.
The authors of the article asked good questions and came up with some fascinating details: “Two vitally important foods were widely consumed throughout the island, that is, sourdough-leavened bread and vegetable soup (minestrone) that contained fresh vegetables, .. . in the mountain area (Ogliastra), that soup also included some tubers (potatoes) and pork stock. “ Also, “consumption of dairy products both from goats and sheep, was higher in the mountains [including] a sort of fresh sour cheese called casu ajedu, which was rich in lactobacilli.”
Wait a minute! The diet of the Sardinian blue zone sounds a lot like the Wise Traditions diet! It almost certainly contained organ meats—shepherds eking out a living are not going to throw the organ meats away—and included raw milk, lactobacillus-rich sour cheese, sourdough bread and soup made from pork stock!
Speaking of pork, the island of Sardinia is famous for the Sarda pig, raised mainly in the mountainous provinces of Ogliastra and Nuoro. From Wikipedia we learn that “Management of the Sarda pig is almost always completely open-range; the pigs are allowed to range freely in wooded mountain areas,”—those “patches of hardwood forest”– often including public land, where they feed on acorns, chestnuts and roots. Additional feed is given only in the summer, when natural sources of food are scarce. Pigmen train the pigs to come at their call to the usual feeding-place; feed is often given directly on the ground, or at the side of the road.” Seems like a picturesque custom that Buettner would have heard about and the National Geographic would want to record.
But that would lead to uncomfortable questions, because pig meat is preserved by making it into sausage and ham, “processed meats that are filled with fat.” Here’s a beautiful photo of Sardinian pork products:
Also pictured are the famous Sardinian cheeses, the typical flat bread (probably originally sourdough), and two beautiful broad-faced women in their native costumes. Now zoom in on those pork products. The outer rim on the plate is sliced ham—the kind Buettner must have eaten at his first blue-zone meal. Look at all the fat on that ham! Did that first meal give Buettner qualms about writing a whole book promoting a low-fat diet as the secret to longevity? He doesn’t say.
Here’s another great photo: whole lambs skewered and roasted over an open fire. And what’s that on the right hand skewer? Looks like intestines to me. Yet another food that Buettner failed to tease out in his carefully crafted questions.
Learn about the Wise Traditions diet at westonaprice.org, a member-supported organization that provides accurate information about traditional diets, with no ties to the food industry or the government.