We all want to know the secret to living a long and healthy life. Scientists agree the answers lie in a complex formula that includes our social connections, sleep habits, happiness levels, the environment, and having a sense of purpose. Perhaps the most important ingredient, though, is the food and drink we consume. Dan Buettner, an American National Geographic Fellow, award-winning journalist and documentary maker, has highlighted the common denominators of diet-related longevity, and recently spoke about them on a podcast recorded by the Global Wellness Institute. Buettner is credited with first identifying the earth’s “Blue Zones”, five places where people statistically live the longest, healthiest lives – frequently to or beyond 100 years and without chronic illnesses. In 2008, he published his findings in his bestselling book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People who’ve Lived the Longest. These so-called longevity pockets are: Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. “A lot of scientists look for the answers to longevity in a test tube,” he says in the podcast. “I had the idea of identifying these areas where people have achieved the outcomes we want, which is to live a long time largely without chronic disease. “If you’re an average person living in the developed world, you’re probably losing about 14 years of life expectancy, and most of that is from eating the meaty, cheesy, over-processed food. “We have no choice – that is all that is around us. The secret is looking at these genius, plant-based recipes that people in Blue Zones eat and learning how to make them in our homes. They’re cheap – peasant food – and you can assemble and cook these meals in less than half an hour.” Interestingly, in almost all of the Blue Zones, they drank coffee or tea and wine. Some of the 30-minute recipes he has published in his latest plant-forward recipe book, titled The Blue Zones American Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100, include butter beans with sesame seeds and okra; plant-powered arepas (South American cornmeal cakes); stuffed squash halves with blueberry wojapi (a Native American berry sauce); and Pennsylvania Dutch apple dumplings. Here is a recap of 10 key learnings of Buettner’s philosophy on following a Blue Zones diet. 1. Plant slant See that 95 per cent of your food comes from a plant or a plant product. Favour beans, greens – especially spinach and kale – sweet potatoes, nuts and seeds, and wholegrains. 2. Retreat from meat People in four of the five Blue Zones consume meat, but do so sparingly, as a celebratory food or a small side dish. Consume meat no more than twice a week, favouring whole, free-range meat and avoiding processed meat such as bacon and hot dogs. 3. Fish is fine Up to three ounces of fish daily (about the size of a deck of cards) is commonly consumed in Blue Zones. Eat fish in the middle of the food chain, such as trout, snapper, grouper, sardines and anchovies, to avoid high levels of mercury. Avoid overfished species like Chilean sea bass, or farmed fish like salmon. Bodybuilder ditched whey protein for plant-based substitutes, feels fitter 4. Ditch dairy Cow’s milk does not feature significantly in any of the Blue Zones diets, although fermented goat and sheep’s milk, made into yogurt or cheese, do figure prominently in the diets of Ikarian and Sardinian centenarians. Research shows our digestive systems are not optimised for cow’s milk products and we can get just as much calcium from a cup of cooked kale or a cup of tofu as a cup of milk. 5. Occasional eggs Blue Zone residents usually eat no more than three free-range eggs a week. As with meat, eggs are consumed as a side dish, alongside wholegrains or plants. Nicoyans fry an egg to fold into a corn tortilla to have with beans, while Okinawans boil an egg in their soup. Mediterranean Blue Zone residents fry an egg as a side dish with bread, almonds and olives for breakfast. 6. Beans please Eat at least half a cup of beans and legumes daily, whatever kind. Beans are the fundamental cornerstone of every Blue Zone diet on the planet, from black beans in Nicoya, to lentils, chickpeas and white beans in the Mediterranean, and soybeans in Okinawa. Blue Zone people eat as much as four times the amount of beans as those in most developed countries, on average. 7. Slash sugar Blue Zone centenarians only eat confectionery during celebrations. Skip any product in which sugar is among the first five ingredients and limit treats to 100 calories, such as a couple of squares of dark chocolate, or a handful of dried fruit. Seven added teaspoons of sugar a day should be the maximum. Watch for low-fat products that are sugar-sweetened to make up for a lack of fat. 8. Nibble on nuts Aim to eat two handfuls of nuts a day, which is about the average eaten in a Blue Zones diet. Almonds are eaten in Ikaria and Sardinia, pistachios in Nicoya, and Loma Lindans eat all kinds of nuts. A Harvard study showed that nut eaters have a 20 per cent lower mortality rate than non-nut eaters. 9. Sourdough or wholemeal bread Most commercial breads are based on bleached white flour, which metabolises quickly into sugar – making for empty calories. Traditional Blue Zones breads are made with wholegrains such as wheat, pumpernickel, rye and barley; or sourdough – breads that are made with a naturally occurring bacteria that creates products with less gluten and a longer shelf life. 10. Favour whole foods Most of the planet’s centenarians eat whole foods – food that is not processed at all, or processed minimally (such as tofu from soybeans). They mostly eat them raw, cooked or ground. Blue Zones’ recipes tend to contain half a dozen or so ingredients simply blended together, or that have been fermented or pickled. As a result, the long-lived rarely ingest artificial preservatives. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .