Live Purely with Dan Buettner
Live Purely with Dan Buettner

"Health and longevity is much more a result of the right environment than it is the right behaviors. Because behaviors don't last. Environments do." 

- Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner: Blue Zone Secrets from The World’s Healthiest Communities

It’s an illuminating conversation this week as Elizabeth welcomes Dan Buettner, National Geographic fellow, NYTimes Best Selling author, Emmy award-winning journalist and producer, and founder of Blue Zones. Recognized as a longevity expert on shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America, Dan's insights have touched millions.

Dan details the captivating world of Blue Zones and uncover the secrets of longevity's common threads. He shares an exclusive look into his newly released book, "The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer: Lessons from the Healthiest Places on Earth," and talks about what to expect from his latest Netflix series. Dan and Elizabeth talk about the pivotal role our environments play in our well-being and some actionable steps to add years to your life. Dan shares his own wellness habits to keep him energized and his best, along with allowing space and time to enjoy your food and a night out with friends.


    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey. This week's guest is Dan Buettner. An explorer, National Geographic fellow, Emmy award-winning journalist and producer, and founder of Blue Zones. He's also the New York Times best-selling author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the people who've Lived the Longest, Thrive: Finding Happiness, the Blue Zones Way, and Blue Zones Solution. Dan has appeared as a longevity expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning, America, The Today Show, CBS’s Early Show, and CNN. In this episode, we dive into all things Blue Zones and their commonalities of longevity. Dan shares all about his latest book out this week, the Blue Zones: Secrets for Living Longer, lessons from the Healthiest Places on Earth, along with his new Netflix series also out this week. This is such an incredibly interesting conversation, to learn about why our environments are so important to our longevity, what simple things we can all be doing to add years to our life, like having a sense of purpose, and community, eating a plant-based diet, and more. Keep listening to learn all about Dan in the Blue Zones. Dan, welcome to the podcast. It is an absolute pleasure and an honor to have you on today.

    Dan Buettner 1:35
    I'll be right with you. I'm finishing my bowl of Purely Elizabeth.

    Elizabeth Stein 1:41
    I love it. Well, first of all, this episode will be coming out right when your new book launches as well as your Netflix series. So, huge congratulations to you.

    Dan Buettner 1:53
    Thank you very much. Like every overnight success, it's taken 20 years. But Secrets of Long Life is for people interested in living up to 10 years longer. Based on populations that actually achieve it, I think this will be a useful contribution to the health and wellness canon.

    Elizabeth Stein 2:14
    Absolutely. That takes us back 20 years ago and starts there for a moment just to ground us whatever inspired you to start to study longevity in the first place.

    Dan Buettner 2:24
    I had a company that solved ancient mysteries, and we solved about 15. We had a huge following mostly online and in schools. And my company, every year, we had to find two great mysteries. And one of them we found in Okinawa, Japan. They had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. In other words, they have what we want. They lived a long time without chronic diseases like diabetes and heart attack, heart disease and GI tract cancers, breast cancer, and low rates of dementia, and then they died very quickly. They were living about 10 years longer with almost a 30-fold better chance of reaching age 100 among women, not among men. And I said to myself, aha, that's a great mystery. And we were so successful that a couple of years later, I decided to build a company just around finding places in the world where people live the longest and methodically, scientifically, and carefully distilling their lessons for the rest of us. That's Blue Zones.

    Elizabeth Stein 3:39
    And so in that first discovery, first of all, how long did that initial research take to find those five zones?

    Dan Buettner 3:50
    Okinawa, which existed in the academic literature there. There are a couple of researchers who have twin brothers by the name of Willcox, who published research on Okinawa. But identifying Sardinia and the Seventh Day Adventists, took about two and a half years. I wrote a cover story for National Geographic called Secrets of Long Life, the same as my book. Then finding the other two Blue Zones, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and Ikaria, Greece. Each of those took another two years. So really was somewhere between 2003 in 2009. It took six years to find all of them. It took considerably longer. The research continues to this day, to tease out what these places are doing to produce manifestly longer lives and less disease.

    Elizabeth Stein 4:49
    What were you most surprised by in the beginning?

    Dan Buettner 4:53
    In the beginning, I was more surprised that they didn't take supplements. They didn't take pills. They didn't exercise in the way we think of exercise, they weren't on diets. They didn't seem to be doing anything special to pursue health. You figure that all these are incredibly healthy people. In some places, fewer than 2% of people suffer from obesity, compared with 43% of us in America. And they weren't doing any of the same things that are marketed to us.

    Elizabeth Stein 5:22
    us. They weren't doing hot and cold therapy.

    Dan Buettner 5:27
    No, they weren't taking testosterone or Metformin, or resveratrol, or the cabinet full of pills and supplements, non of that. Not CrossFit, not yoga. They did a little Tai Chi. But yeah, it said, the absence of all the things that we think produce health and longevity shocked me.

    Elizabeth Stein 5:48
    Yeah, that's incredible. Rather than starting with what the commonalities were, and some of those pieces, I'd love to start here in the US. And as you're saying, we're doing all these health and wellness things that are keeping our minds busy and probably a lot more stressed just thinking about all the things that we should be doing. But what have we gotten wrong in the US in terms of longevity?

    Dan Buettner 6:17
    First and foremost, I think people listening today, if you're overweight, and unhealthy, it's probably not your fault. I think mostly we get wrong by shaking our fingers at people and saying it's our responsibility to get healthy. I'll tell you why. 1980 when many of us were still alive, about a third as many people suffering from obesity, about a seventh as many people suffering from diabetes and pre-diabetes, and about an eighth as many people suffering from dementia. And you say to yourself, well, back in 1980, did they have better diets? Were people more responsible for their health? Were we better humans back then? And the answer is no. What's changed? Not us, our environment. And it's very difficult to escape the highly processed foods. It's very difficult to live in a place that doesn't require us to get a car to make most of our trips. The average American eats 220 pounds of meat a year, another 200 or 300 pounds of dairy and dairy products, and 110 pounds of sugar. It's not that they're gluttonous. It's just that if you go to a restaurant, the entrees are full of those foods. And those are the foods that in Blue Zones are considered celebratory foods. And in America, it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I would say that's mostly what we're getting wrong. But we're increasingly imploding into our handheld devices, a big mistake. Our attention spans are dropping, we're not spending enough time interacting as humans, just bumping into each other on the street or taking the time to have a face-to-face conversation with people. When I first started Blue Zones, when I was reporting on that, people thought, well, that just seems soft and facile. But now we're finding there's an ocean of research that shows that connecting socially and having a sense of purpose and keeping your mind active, contributes to longevity in a way much greater than our biohack we can pursue.

    Elizabeth Stein 8:34
    I was just visiting our oat farmer in Montana. And she shared that they are an organic regen farm, but they weren't always that way. And she had gotten sick, which is what prompted her to change their farming practices. But she was mentioning how the small town that they live in the big farming community is one of the highest rates of cancer due to all of the pesticides, of course, they believe. So as you think about from environment even in the US versus elsewhere, how big of an impact has that had do you think?

    Dan Buettner 9:14
    It's hard to say. But to your point, the grains in the blue zone for the most part are organic and way more likely to get an ancient grain than genetically modified grain. It may have something to do with it. I believe, however, the true culprit is sugar and overly processed foods. We think of oat milk as being healthy but emulsifiers seem to interrupt our microbiomes and signal to our bodies to store fat. High fructose corn syrup is the same thing. I'm sure pesticides and GMOs have an impact. You can't measure it. But we know metabolically for sure that processed foods, sugar, and the vast overconsumption of meat, cheese, and eggs are contributing to the chronic disease load.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:08
    Let's dive into your new book. And what was the inspiration behind it? Why now?

    Dan Buettner 10:15
    So I've been working on this four-part series for Netflix for over five years. And the last two years, I've taken trips back to all the Blue Zones. And the beautiful thing about working for Netflix is that we had a huge research team. I was able to call all the latest research on Blue Zones and incorporate it into not only the show but a new book. So about 18 new insights on how people in Blue Zones are living longer. And while my books are published by National Geographic, I've worked with three of the top photographers, and 99% of their photos have never been seen. So I took this opportunity to showcase 300 of their best photographs.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:03
    It’s absolutely beautiful, by the way.

    Dan Buettner 11:05
    Oh, thank you very much. Yeah, most of those shots were shot by David McLean, our photographer. But then I just wanted to have one sort of Capstone book for people interested in following the footsteps of people who make it to 100. This would be an accessible, visually stimulating, and easy-to-follow manual on how to live to 100. Not biohacking. This doesn't come from a test tube or a petri dish or some genetic code. These are real people with an average set of genes who are getting the outcome and life we want. Live a long time, die quickly, and leave a lot leftover.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:51
    So, what are some of those? Let's talk about some of those commonalities in your power nine then.

    Dan Buettner 11:58
    Yeah, so first and foremost, they're eating mostly a whole food plant-based diet, 90% to 98% Depending on where you go. Meat is only concerned about five times per month. The pillars of every longevity diet in the world are whole grains, wheat, corn, and rice, but there are also some grains that show up in your granola. Millet, for example, is big in Okinawa. Tubers like sweet potatoes, nuts, greens, and seasonal fruits. And the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world is beans, beans of every sort. If you're eating about a cup of beans a day, it's probably worth an extra four years of life expectancy. They don't exercise but they move every 20 minutes or so because their environments are such that every time they go to work or a friend's house, that occasions a walk, they have gardens out back. They haven't been obsessive about finding mechanical conveniences to do their housework and their garden work in their kitchen work. They're still kneading bread by hand. They have a vocabulary of purpose. These are the other things that we tend to overlook. The reason we overlook them is that you can't make any money from them. It's very hard to package the purpose. But purpose is worth about seven years of life expectancy, over being rudderless in life. So is having a good social circle around you. Four or five people you can count on on a bad day, who have healthy behavior behaviors themselves, who are plant-based. We know that if your three best friends are obese and unhealthy, there's about a 150% better chance you'll be overweight yourself. So, surrounding yourself with healthy people who care about you is hugely impactful and important. Thinking about not what to add to your diet but what to take out. A lot of our health problems come because the average American consumes about 500 more calories than we need. And in Blue Zones, they have strategies, unconscious in many cases, for keeping themselves from eating these extra calories. One is they tend to eat a huge breakfast, a medium-sized lunch, and a very small or no dinner. They eat on small plates, they tend to pre-plate their foods, and then put their leftovers away ahead of time. They eat with their family. These are all proven strategies. They’re not on the TV in their kitchen. Proven strategies to mindlessly eat, and laugh less. They belong to faith, almost all belong to a faith-based community, which is associated with 4 to 14 extra years of life expectancy. And they put family first, which seems sort of trite. But keeping your aging parents nearby, not warehousing them in a retirement home was worth about 6x years of life expectancy in most cases than a place where they're not cared for as much or feel like they're useful. Investing in your partner, and investing in your children, are all things that stack the deck in favor of longevity, and things that we don't pay much attention to, but work better than any vitamin or supplement we'll spend $150 billion a year on.

    Elizabeth Stein 15:22
    So an important distinction I want to make sure I'm getting this right too is that these people while living to 100 or beyond, they're living to that point in thriving, right? They're not living their last 10 years in bed feeling sick and diseased. Right?

    Dan Buettner 15:43
    Right. Just to put a finer point on that, Blue Zones is the value proposition is living about an extra 10 years without chronic disease. So in Blue Zones, they're manifesting the potential of an average set of genes. So you, me, and everybody listening right now if you adopt the best habits, and you have an average set of genes, and you're a female, you can expect 95 years. If you're a male, you can expect about 93. And in these Blue Zones, they're living a long time, not because they have better machinery than we do. It's because they're not getting the diseases that shorten their lives, like Type Two Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, cancers of the GI tract, dementia, and heart cardiovascular disease, that's why they're living a long time. And because so many more people get to age 95, you also have the same percentage, but a bigger pool of people who are making it to 100. Making it to 100, still you not only have to have, for the most part, a very healthy lifestyle, or I would argue an environment, but you still have to have won the genetic lottery. You have to have both to make it to 100.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:02
    Okay,.one of the things, as you mentioned about food that I was surprised reading in your book somewhere was that their food was more or less, fewer ingredients. You talked about how it was sort of the same 20 or so ingredients that they utilized, which, as I think about, some of the things reading about our gut and hearing, we should be having such a diverse diet and including so many more foods. So that was a really interesting difference from what I would have presumed.

    Dan Buettner 17:34
    Yeah, at any given time there, most of their food comes from about 20 ingredients. Those 20 Ingredients changed a little bit over the course of the year because they'll have a summer garden and a winter garden. And there'll be different, mostly fruits and vegetables, in different seasons. So the total number is greater. But the fruits and vegetables they're eating are organic, they still have a little dirt on them. So they're getting the microbes from the soil. They still have a wider range of micronutrients and macronutrients than a vegetable that traveled from Chile to California, which a lot of ours have. I can't say for sure that having 100 Ingredients isn't better for you. But all I can say is these are people who are living 10 years longer without disease. I described that very clearly in two books one is called the Blue Zone Solution. And then I created a food book, a recipe book called The Blue Zones Kitchen where I gathered the recipes that these old women have made over time, the actual food that I ate. It's peasant food, simple recipes, but what is I like to describe as maniacally delicious? As you've done with your products, they pay very close attention to what tastes good. Because at the end of the day, the most important ingredient in any longevity recipe is taste. I could say that millet or tofu or bitter melon are the healthiest foods in the world. But if you don't like them, you ain't going to eat them over time. A very tiny percentage of people eat over time. So the secret sauce is taking these simple peasant ingredients and blending them and preparing them in a way that tastes so good, you crave them. Because there's no pill. There's no short-term fix. There's nothing you can do this week or this month that is going to help you live an extra five years at the end of your life. The only thing that works is the things that you do for years or decades. And eating delicious food is pretty easy to get people to do.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:09
    Absolutely. So as you think about those keys like eating delicious food, of your power nine that you've observed, is there one or two that you think has more weight than another? Like if you didn't have a purpose, but you had the eating? What do you think about that?

    Dan Buettner 20:30
    Yeah, so I think of it as an interconnected web of mutually supporting factors. So yes, they're eating wisely. They're eating mostly whole food plant-based, because their life is underpinned with purpose. They're surrounded by four or five friends who reinforce this kind of eating. They're eating the same way. So when they get together at each other's homes, it's the same healthy food. And they live in places where the healthy choices are easy, or in most cases, unavoidable choices. Diets largely rely on the presence of mind and discipline. And both of those are short-term. We get distracted. Discipline is like muscle fatigue, and we quit doing it. But setting up these long-term strategies around eating the right food, i.e., making some friends who are eating whole food plant-based and knowing your sense of purpose. Your sense of purpose is making sure your child gets into a healthy adult or a healthy grandparent even if that provides a kind of unconscious motivation. And this is disruptive to a lot of people, but moving. The average American adult moves about 10 and a half times in their lifetime. And each of those times allows you to move to a healthier place. So the extreme example is Kentucky. There are parts of Kentucky where life expectancy is 20 years less than in Boulder, Colorado. By the way, they're good Americans in both places. And there's a certain percentage of Americans in both places who have a real disappointing, can’t get on the right diet and exercise program and stick to it. But in some way, it just seems Boulder, Colorado stacks the deck in favor of 20 extra years.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:38
    I’m here in Colorado by the way.

    Dan Buettner 22:39
    There you are. That's why you're so exuberant and full of life. I didn't know that actually, it was just a lucky guess. There are lots of other places in America. But this supports my central argument, which is, health and longevity are much more a result of the right environment than it is the right behaviors. Because behaviors don't last. Environments do.

    Elizabeth Stein 23:08
    So on that topic, as you have taken your learnings and started to apply that to the US and communities here, would love to hear about your work with Blue Zone projects. Because as you're saying, you're helping to create these environments. And I just love how that perspective of it doesn't have to be as complicated as all these different hacks that we're doing. And if we can get this right, how can that help? So what's that been like? And how has that been going across the country?

    Dan Buettner 23:45
    Slow but it's exploding right now. The central premise of all Blue Zones is don't try to change your behavior, change your environment. Remember Blue Zones, they're not an exercise program, they don't take supplements. They do almost nothing to stay healthy. They just live their lives. So, applying that observation. In 2009, I got a grant from AARP to manufacture a Blue Zone in America, and I got a million bucks from them. And I spent almost all that money hiring top academics who knew how to shape our environment. So what do I mean by that? I break environments down into three subsets, the small subset as your home. Turns out there are about 60 different things you can do to your home, so that you eat less, move more socialize more and live your sense of purpose mindlessly. I chronicle them in a book called The Blue Zone Challenge. And some of it in this book, Secrets of living longer. There's lots of evidence. You can engineer out about 150 pounds, 150 calories of mindless eating, and engineer in an extra 100 salaries of movement by just the way you set up your home. So that's the smallest domain. The second domain is your social circle. Like I said before, if you pick the right friends, health behaviors are measurably contagious. If you're around people's idea of recreation as physical activity, and they're eating plant-based, you're going to mindlessly do it. The third domain and the buildings we spend our time in. Schools our children attend, workplaces, grocery stores, restaurants, and faith organizations. So when we go into a Blue Zone city, we have a whole team that tries to certify a critical mass of all those places. So people unconsciously move more, eat less, socialize more, and live their purpose. And then finally, we work with city governments to help them adopt policies that favor healthy food over junk food and junk food marketing to favor the pedestrian over the motorist. Boulder, Colorado is a prime example of that. It's quicker and easier to bike across Boulder than it is to drive. That's because that was a very conscious effort on the part of your department or your city planner. And then to favor the nonsmoker over the smoker. So people, places, and policies, I bring a team in for five years. It's depending on the size of the city anywhere from 5 to 35 people, full time. And we've now been in 72 cities, we've lowered the obesity rate by as much as 15%. Fort Worth, Texas, we helped save them about a quarter of a billion dollars a year in health care costs. Not because we tried to convince a million beef-obsessed Texans to stop doing what they want to do. We simply shaped their environment. So, it was easier to get some vegetables once in a while. And it was easier for them to walk places once in a while as opposed to driving everywhere. And their city, this is largely thanks to Mayor Betsy Price, there are more places to bump into your friends and socialize. And that's what we find in Blue Zones that works. For every single city we work with, we hired Gallup to measure the third parties. In every single city we worked in, we've seen measurable improvements in health and well-being. Not because we try to convince everybody to change their behaviors. But because we set them up for success by reshaping their surroundings. The healthy choice is the easy choice.

    Elizabeth Stein 27:49
    I love that. That's incredible. And feels like something that's tactic of long-lasting habit change versus a mere ‘Hey, I’m going to try this thing’. And we know that those things don't stick. So this is something that sounds like it works and has been so impactful. You were mentioning for people at home, the ability to increase calories or steps or the reverse, what are some of those tips that you'd like to share to set up your home in the most BlueZone-friendly way?

    Dan Buettner 28:24
    So, your kitchen. We know that people have a toaster on the counter, which weighs about six pounds more after two years and people don't have a toaster on the counter. That's a couple of studies. Why? Because a toaster reminds you to put something in it every time you see it. And what we put in toasters tends not to be all that healthy. So taking your toaster off the counter, establishing a junk food drawer that's out of the way, a little bit hard to get to either way up. We're all going to bring some junk food into our house, not wagging my finger and telling you can't have junk food in your house. But put it in a pantry or put it down where you got to stoop down uncomfortably to get it. The worst place to have your bag of chips is on your colander with a clip on it because humans tend to be on a see food diet. We eat the food we see. So every time we walk to the kitchen, we see that delicious bag of potato chips. Oh, just have a little bit of that. Forgot they were there. Whereas if they're out of the way, it makes a difference. Cornell food lab researched this. Setting up your bedroom, we've heard this over and over every decent longevity book. They say the same things. Peter Attia just came out with a book about longevity. And he goes on and on with these multisyllabic words that you can barely understand but his conclusion at the end is to eat nutritious food. Get more exercise, mostly lifting weights, get rid of stress, and sleep more. All right, well thank things we heard in the Blue Zone. Just that I use nickel words instead of dollar words, but a big thing is getting sleep. So there's lots of research that show if you sleep in a completely dark room, that if you don't have electronics in your room and you're set your thermostat to about 65-66 degrees, you're going to sleep better. So set up your room, so that you can favor sleep. Getting rid of mechanical conveniences. Maybe we don't need the electric mixer. Doing it by hand, that's an exercise that counts. Getting rid of the garage door opener. Lift in that garage, getting rid of some of the mechanical tools we use for yard work, and using hand tools. Since it's federal engineering back in the physical activity, we've let gadgets engineer out. Our grandparents burnt about three times as many calories as we do in non-exercise physical activity because they didn't have all these conveniences. And it's the unconscious physical activity that's much better than the conscious physical activity. Because even though we resolve our brains to go to the gym every other day, the reality is if you look at the data, people sign up for gym memberships are going fewer than once a week after seven months. We intend to do it but we don't. Meanwhile, if our house is set up to nudge us into physical activity, unconsciously we’ll do it.

    Elizabeth Stein 31:35
    Those are great tips. I love that. Curious to hear as you are working with these different cities across the country, how does that happen? Are there cities that reach out to you? Do you reach out to cities? And how do you think that's going to progress over the next couple of years?

    Dan Buettner 31:53
    I think it's going to blow up in a good way. Because we're spending almost 20% of our GDP on mostly chronic diseases, about 85% of that is an avoidable disease, spending $4.4 trillion a year. And to put that in perspective, the value of all farmland in America is only $3.7 trillion. So, we spend more on chronic disease every year than the value of our crop-producing land. And that's just getting worse. And we have to do something. The health care system is not working. We spend more and more on these aerobic interventions, yet diabetes, heart disease, and most types of cancer and dementia continue to grow. Our waistlines continue to grow. And at a certain point, we're going to see the political will shift to what does work, and what does work is reshaping the environment so that people are set up to get healthier. And we have a 10-year head start on everybody else doing just this.

    Elizabeth Stein 33:00
    Yeah, it's gonna be the way of the future. Interestingly this past week, I had a Costco meeting in San Diego, but it was actually with Costco in Mexico. And the buyer asked, “Would you ever think about coming out with children's cereal?” we'd thought about it, but not seriously. And she said, “In Mexico, you're not allowed to advertise cartoon characters on sugary cereal.” So we have these but you don't know that it's that and I would love to have a healthy cereal that could have a cartoon character that would attract a child. So, I thought that was super interesting. And to your point is the exact thing about the environ

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