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Communicating for Life with Blue Zones author Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner joins Carrie to share his exploration of life-nourishing Blue Zones on the release of his latest book, and a career bringing understanding as a National Geographic Explorer.

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Dan Buettner is a National Geographic Fellow and multiple New York Times best-selling author and joins us this week to share his work researching and documenting Blue Zones around the world.

Blue Zone is a geographically-defined and confirmed area of extreme longevity. Specifically, Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy, Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, boast populations that live the longest and are the healthiest people in the world. What makes them live so long? Dan and his team of demographers have spent years researching these Blue Zones, documenting how these populations live and work.

“We’re spending $18 trillion a year on largely avoidable diseases. That number just keeps going up,” says Buettner. “We know these populations have a fraction of the heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia. “Why don’t we focus on trying to set up our cities and our workplaces so they look more like a Blue Zone?”

That’s precisely what he and his team are doing now, working to create healthy communities across the United States, beginning with Albert Lea, Minnesota, where they built the foundation for the Blue Zones Projects.

The Blue Zones books are inspirational for crafting better, healthier homes and workplaces, and we’re thrilled to have Dan Buettner on the show this week to talk about his latest book, The Blue Zones Challenge: A 4-Week Plan for a Longer, Better Life.

Episode Transcript

Dan Buettner:
We’re spending 18 trillion a year on largely avoidable diseases. That number just keeps going up. There’s all kinds of political pressure right now to spend yet more on Medicare and rather than continuing to shovel money and to try to fix the problem to say, okay, we know these populations have a fraction of the rate of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and dementia. Why don’t we focus on trying to set up our cities and our workplaces so they look more like a Blue Zone?

Carrie Fox:
Hi, and welcome to this episode of Mission Forward, where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective, shifting conversation on the world, around us. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B corporation. Today, we’ve got with us national geographic explorer end New York times bestselling author, Dan Buettner, whose work on the world’s Blue Zones has inspired millions of people to live healthier, more connected and less stressful lives.
And I’m so excited to be bringing this conversation to you right on the heels of his brand new book, The Blue Zones Challenge: A 4-Week Plan for a Longer Better Life. This is one of the conversations I have been looking forward to most and been waiting for many months. And I want to share that this would not have come about without the awesome support, our mutual friend, Terry Clerk, and my partner, Brian Fox, who first introduced me to the Blue Zones in 2008 and has been shaping my life ever since. And we’ll hopefully get to this by the end. But the Concept of Ikigai is one that I first heard of by reading Dan’s book. And that has also shaped how I think about my work today as the leader of a social impact firm. So here we are, Dan, thanks so much for taking time to join us today.

Dan Buettner:
Absolutely delighted and nice to meet you in person sort of.

Carrie Fox:
Sort of someday. I hope, but it’s nice to meet you through our screens. Tell me Dan about this Blue Zones journey. What set you off on this amazing adventure now, what 20 years ago is it?

Dan Buettner:
Yes. Well, I’m a lifelong explorer, a national geographic fellow, and I’ve always been interest in solving mysteries and really a true explorer today. Doesn’t try to climb another mountain or go to a deep jungle to find something because we’ve been everywhere. A true explorer has to add to the body of knowledge or somehow illuminate the human condition. And I had been for about seven years. I actually had a company who, of the Harvard archeologist and national geographic photographers and MIT scientists. We literally traveled around the world to solve mysteries and why the Maya civilization collapsed. I think we proved Marco Polo probably did not go to China. One of the mysteries we stumbled upon in 1999 was these cluster of islands in the Southern pre fixture of Japan had the longest disability, free life expectancy in the world. And I said, “Aha. Now the there’s a good mystery.”
There are 77 million baby boomers. Most of whom would like to live a little bit longer, better lives than maybe these people have something to teach us. And we did a very fast high expedition there in 1999. And when I came back, I applied for a grant from the national institutes on aging to look for more Blue Zones. So Blue Zone is a statistically longest lived area that’s geographically defined and it’s also confirmed. So it’s not a hearsay. We actually go through census data and confirm ages. NIA me a grant to fund the work, to find more Blue Zones. And then national geographic gave an assignment to put together a team of experts to find the common denominator and the correlates that explained longevity and thus the whole movement as you put it, launched probably in 2004, which I guess is 16 years ago, 17 years ago.

Carrie Fox:
And I mentioned to you, I’ve got my original copy of Blue Zone here from 2008, but bring us all up to speed on you’ve had some really incredible books since then, including a cookbook that has now led into this latest book that I’d love you to talk about a little bit.

Dan Buettner:
Yeah. So you have Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, and that really Chronicles how we found these places and the lessons they teach us for the would be longer. A follow up book, Blue Zone Solution. What about distilling the science that enables us to put that wisdom to work for long enough? So we don’t develop a chronic disease. So most of our approach over a hundred billion a year on preventative health, we spend it on diets, exercise and supplements, and I’d rather disruptively point out that these don’t work. They work in the short run for a lot of people and they make a lot of money for marketers, but they fail for almost all the people all the time. So Blue Zone Solution marshals into science to show you how to once you know the right things to do, how you set up your life.
So you do it for long enough. And then Blue Zone’s Kitchen, I’m proud to say was both a number one New York times bestseller. And number one, Amazon, and number one Wall Street Journal best seller. And what it did was report on a meta analysis. If you want to know to centenarian ate to live, to be 100, you have to know what he was eating as a child and a young adult, middle age and newly retired. This book reports about the findings of that meta analysis of dietary surveys done in all five Blue Zones. But I think the reason people really buy it is because of the national geographic photography throughout and how we gathered 100 original recipes from back roads and villages throughout the Blue Zones. And the main finding from that book, if you want to live to be 100, this won’t shock a lot of people, but eating a whole food plant-based diet.
It’s about all you have to remember. And most of when you think of what our whole food plant-based tends to be greens and tubers and nuts and beans. And if you can make those simple peasant foods taste delicious, you have a killer app for Americans because at the end of the day, some people will eat because of their health. Some people will eat because they feel sorry for billions of animals that are crucified every year, for our pork chops and bacon and oh, and some people care about the environment, but at the end of the day, what people really care about is taste. They want something delicious on their plate for their next meal. And if you can deliver that to them, then you have a killer app. And I think the Blue Zone Kitchen delivers on that probably better than most. So that’s the update. And thank you for asking me about… Authors, love to talk about their books. So thanks for that question.

Carrie Fox:
Yeah. Well you’ve had an amazing run, an amazing journey, and it’s funny you mention that readers love it because of the photography and it’s true. The photography’s amazing, but here you are on a communications podcast and you as a communicator are pretty incredible. The way that you tell stories and pull people into that vision, right? Of what the future could be, whether they live in a Blue Zone or not. Do you consider yourself a communicator?

Dan Buettner:
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, that’s probably what I do then than anything. I’m pretty good at research and assembling a team. But at the end of the day, it’s getting the message through to people. And I have a pretty vastly different approach to reporting on longevity or even happiness than most journalists. So most journalists, they will find a centenarian they’ll interview. The centenarian, they’ll tell the story of the centenarian that centenarian will say, ‘Well, my secret to longevity is eating egg yolks and avoiding [inaudible 00:08:32]” Or whatever. You can’t really take an individual and extrapolate to a population or actually extrapolate any meaningful lessons from an of one. So my approach, literally spending years to find the verified areas where people are living the longest, then interviewing probably 50 of the top longevity experts in the world, getting the available academic literature and understanding in each of these five Blue Zones, what the population has been doing that explains their longevity.
Then once you get that sort of cake recipe, what they eat, how they interact, their spirituality, their purpose, et cetera. Once you get their cake recipe, then we kiss a lot of frogs until we find the prince and the princess whose life happens to represent the master formula. And then you tell that person story and people like a story, as you know. Don Hewitt founding a producer of 60 Minutes. When he was asked what the success of 60 Minutes was he boiled it down to four words, tell me a story. You find a centenarian who represents the whole, then make sure that he or she has a great story. You tell their story. And through the telling of that story, you’re actually delivering 100 of hours of research. People don’t realize that they’re being given a prescription for longevity, but it’s sugar coated in a story and goes right to the heart, and that’s the quickest way to the brain.

Carrie Fox:
Yeah. Yeah. And it’s true. We operate at that intersection of telling stories through the head and the heart. You’ve got to have, them both working if you want to be able to move someone to action. Right? So the stories that you’re telling are doing just that if I think about how many cans of beans I have in my pantry and how many times I take a walking meeting during the day, it’s because of the stories that I’ve heard you talk about.

Dan Buettner:
That’s exactly right.

Carrie Fox:
Well, let’s go back a second, because I had mentioned to you that last season, we focused our entire season of shows on the intersection of communications in public health. And there’s a lot of connectivity now to this new book. You talk about it as not an elimination diet, not a fitness plan, but a new way for people to look at their health and happiness. You’ve developed this tool that helps readers change their surroundings, set up what you call nudges, which I love that. So that the healthier choice is the natural choice. That’s a really tall order, right? Given how much noise we hear from the media, whether it’s advertising or otherwise, but we’re constantly being pushed the not healthier choice. So I’m curious, what you think the role that communications has played in affecting our public health and how maybe this book could start to nudge us back to a healthy place.

Dan Buettner:
Yeah. So my day job has been working with over 50 cities to change their surroundings. So the healthy choices, easy choice. So I actually get paid by big companies like UnitedHealthcare, Blue Cross Blue Shield to go into a city and lower the BMI. And when you lower the BMI by 1% in a city of a million people, you save about 20,000 heart attacks, all of which cost $120,000. So you don’t need a lot of movement at the population level to save a lot of money. And we get paid according to how much we actually lower BMI. So it’s not just a rah-rah campaign that evaporates. So we use communications to sort of hero our coming and we don’t buy a lot of advertising, but our approach is getting city council to adopt policies that favor the healthy choice over the unhealthy choice.
We get schools, restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, and churches to go for Blue Zone certification. And in many cases we can get half of all the businesses doing it. And then we get about 15% of the population to take a Blue Zone pledge. Through doing that work we become so ubiquitous that people know what Blue Zones means. And that’s really the lesson and the core insight that I harvested from spending nearly 20 years in these Blue Zones. Isn’t none of the Blue Zones are people disciplined. They don’t have diets, they don’t have exercise programs. They don’t call an 800 number for supplements. They don’t have a greater sense of individual responsibility, which we hear a lot from politicians. They live about eight to 10 years longer than us, a fraction of the rate of heart disease, a fraction of the rate of breast cancer and dementia. These are real of populations and we have the data.
So this isn’t some south beach diet, huckster, saunas, crap. This is hard data. And they achieve these extraordinary health outcomes not because they’re thinking about it, not because they have focus of mind or great tension or resolutions, they simply live in environments where the healthy choices, the natural choices you put it pointed out. And with that insight, one thing I know for sure, if we don’t do anything, our countries in deep do do we’re spending $18 trillion a year on largely avoidable diseases. That number just keep going up. There’s all kinds of political pressure right now. That’s been yet more on Medicare and rather than continuing to shovel money into to trying to fix the problem to say, okay, we know these populations have a fraction of the rate of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and dementia. Why don’t we focus on and try to set up our cities and our workplaces so they look more like a Blue Zone? So that the foods that are cheapest and most delicious are healthiest? They’re whole food plant-based that I’m incentive to walk, bike, or take public transportation to work.
I’m disincentive to implode into my device, but am nudged into healthy social inactivity that instead of going through life rutterless, somebody takes some time with me to help me identify, do the internal work, to identify what you’re good at, what you like to do, your passions and outlet for those passions. And it’s probably not work in America by the way, for most Americans, it’s probably something else. But to help people, as you pointed out at the top of the show to, I know their Ikigai and live their Ikigai, that’s what works. That’s what brings joy to life. What makes life worth living. And it also, we know scientifically that it also produces a longer life. That the maximum average life expectancy in the states right now is about 93, but life expectancy is 79 or 80. So we’re leaving more than a dozen years on the table. Those years are ours to take. And by the way, if we’re doing the right thing, those years will be good years.

Carrie Fox:
All right. So you mentioned Ikigai. We’re going to come back to that in one second, but I’ve got one follow up for you on the Fort Worth story. And, and so many of these other cities that you’re working in, what I think is so neat, I want to ask you about is, you’re talking about large scale systems change, but we do a lot of work with organizations on systems change. And when it comes down to it, it really feels like systems change is human change, right? The human has to change in order for then the system to change. And it really feels like you’re working at that intersection that you’re understanding or maybe it’s how you’re working with organizations and with the systems for them to see that there’s this opportunity, right? That if you look at the ProCon benefit, the pro of changing the system far outweighs any risk associated with it, or the barriers associated with it. What are the barriers that do find inside cities or with individuals who are thinking about making this large scale change, but realize what they’re up against?

Dan Buettner:
So I just a little bit of a refinement. I actually, we don’t rely on the human change. We basically assume that the human is genetically hardwired to seek sugar, fat, salt, and take rest whenever he can, because that’s how we evolve for 25,000 generations. So the classic approach is to either educate or guilt or incent individuals to change their behavior. We don’t do that because it hasn’t worked. It it hasn’t work long term, big scale in anywhere that I’ve known. So we go about changing that person’s environment, setting up nudges and defaults at the population level. So people don’t even realize their behavior’s been modified, but all of a sudden the healthy choice is cheaper. The healthy choice is more accessible and the ugly choice is not caught relentlessly trying to get them to do bad things. So that’s the approach. So how are we successful?
The first big insight we had is we audition cities. In other words, a city could offer us a hundred million dollars and if they’re not ready, we will not come in. So before we start, we interview the mayor, the city council, the city manager, the superintendent of schools, the police chief, the big CEOs. And we say, “We’re coming in here and quite honestly, we’re going to limit your freedoms to do unhealthy things.” And if they want maximum freedom, we’re not right for them because we’re trying to engineer better choices at the population level. The payoff is huge, but there are some communities that value sort of economic growth and the right to sell anything they want to sell to people, whether or not it’s good for them. So we audition cities. We only pick the cities that are most ready. We’ve only been about 60 cities so far, and over 400 have applied.
And then once they say, they’re ready, then your work is easy. You’re not fighting a political uphill battle for the next five years. It always takes us five years, by the way, that’s the minimum engagement when we come in, because we’re trying to change streets. So they’re built not just for cars, but for humans. And that takes some time we’re trying to change the local law so that you limit junk food marketing and poor neighborhoods. You see right there, you can lower obesity rates by 10% by just getting rid of billboards. That kids aren’t marketed to junk food relentlessly, that there’s a 1,000 foot, no flies zones outside of school. So the kids aren’t tempted by the junky food truck when the cafeterias tried so hard to create healthy lunches for kids. So we just try to look at every micro environment in a city and favor the healthy choice and disfavor the unhealthy choice. There’s some individual barriers, but once the city says, “We want to do this.” We can get a lot done.

Carrie Fox:
So you are truly creating more Blue Zones. You’re recreating the environment that you have found in the Blue Zones. And at the top, you mentioned the islands that are the Blue Zones, right? All of the environment that has to take hold for that Blue Zone to exist. And I, I admit, I don’t live in one of your Blue Zones, but I live in a place where I’ve got walking trails. I’ve got nutritious food, I’ve got clean air, I’ve got farmers’ markets, I’ve got doctors’ offices, I’ve got all the elements that could help play into a Blue Zone. What I’d love for you to check in on because for all those cities that you’ve worked on, I’ve got to imagine that you’ve been inside some deserts too, right? So you’ve been inside cities and communities that are food deserts, provider deserts, news deserts. Do you find that it works to start to set up a Blue Zone, the island ideal even in a place that has been limited in its resources?

Dan Buettner:
That’s where the most opportunity is. The least healthy places are the places that benefit the most. Fort Worth, Texas as you point out. So yes, there was a huge food desert in the middle of Fort Worth, but it turns out there were several retail, sort of convenience stores that wanted to be part of the solution and not just continuing to fuel the problem. And we helped them put in fruit vegetable vending. This often meant that a cooler had to be purchased. Do we help them purchase the cooler? And they found that among these poor people who are on food stamps and so forth, and before all they had were candy bars and cigarettes, that actually, they loved having access to fresh fruit and vegetable. They sell out every day and it was good business for them. And it was great for our goals because we created an oasis in a food desert.
Walkability and bikability. People often think, well, what I want is a car. But the reality is for poor people, they’re spending usually 25 to 30% of their annual income, keeping that car running with insurance and gas and up keeping, et cetera. You disproportionately do poor people of favor when you make cities safe to walk, safe to bite and you provide good public transportation, because that takes away enormous expense. And it also engineers in physical activity into their lives. We know that people just walking or taking public transportation to work have about 20% lower rates of heart disease.
For many Americans that the most exercise they’re going to get. You can hope they go to the gym but it doesn’t happen. And if you look at the data that people who do belong to gyms, they show up less than twice a month on average. So it’s not really, it’s not really a solution. The solution is making physical activity, mindless, making it cheaper and easier to buy beans and grains and make minestrone or beans and rice, which everybody can afford. If they just know how to make them taste delicious, they’ll eat them. Make it hard to be isolated, nudge people in a social interaction. And that’s largely the result of setting up the right environment.

Carrie Fox:
So this new book is really practical. It literally lays out for people day-by-day, what they need to do in this first 30 days, and then takes people over the course of their year to really reset a lifestyle. And if you are a friend or a family member of mine be prepared because you are likely getting this book for the holidays. And we’ve already told our team actually that we’re starting in on a team wide Blue Zones challenge come January. It’s cool what you’ve set up, but I want to hear from you more why this felt like the next step in this Blues Zone journey.

Dan Buettner:
Well, I’ve largely been focused on, on Blue Zone city project work. And I recently partnered with the Adventist Health System. Who’ve taken over the operations, which has left me free to do more writing. And I realized that this central idea of don’t try to change your mind change in your environment. I’ve been doing at the city level. It could be done at the individual level. So around December or January, people start thinking of new year’s resolution and typically it’s, get on a diet or exercise more. And by the way, statistics show that when you started new year’s resolution on January 1st, the vast majority, I have forgotten about that resolution by January 19th. So it’s never a very long term. What this book does is I marsh in about 30 evidence based ways for you to set up your home, your workplace, your bedroom, your kitchen, your social life, so that the healthy choice is the easy choice.
So I do spend a little bit of time to share what the world’s longest that people do, their diet, we have the Blue Zone, food guidelines. We do challenge people to go whole food plant-based for a month. The payoff is within one day they feel more energetic, within five days, their digestive system’s working better. They’re thinking clear. Within about three weeks, their cholesterol and mortality rate is down about 10%. And within a month they should expect to lose between five and eight pounds. Now this isn’t a dramatic diet, but it’s a sustainable way to lose weight and to get healthier.
But then the bulk of the book shows you how to set up your life. So it’s easy to live this way. And that’s the key because we’re all busy. As you pointed out before we are bombarded by information about health and often these studies refute themselves every day, pick up the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, or turn on Fox or CNN. And there’s always some new health insight for us that often refutes what we heard before. This is evidence-based way to set up your life, focus on it. And you can forget about it because the healthy choice would be the easy choice from there on out.

Carrie Fox:
Couple minutes left. And I, I want to go where we stated at the top and where I’d love to end, which is on Ikigai and purpose. And for folks who are listening, I have shared this with my team before, but when I first discovered your book and read about the concept of Ikigai from your learning in Okinawa, it came at a time for me, that I was thinking about, where am I going? What is my purpose? What is my point here? What am I going to leave behind? Big questions I was trying to figure out. And that led me into doing a lot more research and thinking into the kind of company I wanted to have, the kind of work I wanted to do and the kind of decisions I could make day-to day-to, to really cement and clarify that purpose.
And so for me, I have determined that I operate as what I love to do is be a communicator. I love to make connections. I love to help people find their greatest hacked in life. What I think I’m pretty good at is telling those stories and helping organizations tell their stories. What I think the world needs is more truth to be told, right? More understanding of the real world around us and empathy for that real world experience that people have. And then thankfully, what I can get paid for is be a consultant, to be able to do that work. Right? So if I think about how that concept has shaped my work now into leading a B corporation, I want to hear about your path on your Ikigai and what that’s been like for you over time.

Dan Buettner:
Well, first of all, let me salute your path because I love the fact that you were intentional and you’re following your values and your passions. And you’re changing the world one organization at a time. So salute there, but I’ve been very clear probably since I’ve been above 30 years old, that my passion is finding the traditional peoples of the world and learning their wisdom. A lot of these traditional ways of life are disappearing, but there in many cases, there is a millennia of observed human history and patterns that have worked for civilizations for dozens and dozens of generation. And my passion is capturing it and putting it to work in today’s life. That’s my Ikigai. And every job I’ve had since 1990 has pretty much followed that. Not that I’ve ever really worked, but all my projects are very much focused on bringing wisdom to life and putting it to work.

Carrie Fox:
So here we are at the end, I’ve got one final question to have you leave us with a thought. Here we are end of 2021. We’ve had a couple tough years on a lot of levels, but if you think about where we are getting ready to head into a new year, you’ve got this new book, you’ve got so much energy around your work. What gets you excited and hopeful for what’s ahead?

Dan Buettner:
I think this pandemic is going to be something that we’re looked back and think of the good old days of the pandemic. A lot of us left the work we were doing and thought about our next act and our working more purposely, a lot of families reconnected. The disappearing art of learning how to cook at home came back when we were put, all the restaurants were closed and that’s a gift, easy thing. I think a lot of people now office buildings, a lot of them are, are boarded up or half vacant. And that’s because I think people A, get to work at home and B, closer to their family and friends, but also they’ve taken jobs that fit better with who they are, what they’re doing.
I’m optimistic that this coronavirus will burn itself out. Well not exactly burn itself out, but it’s going to be something that like a flu we’re going to live with it, but it’s going to be, we’re going to get used to it and adapt to it. And we’re going to put this whole experience in our quiver and say, “That’s our new era of wisdom.” And we’ll go forward having learn from that, having endured and having transcended it.

Carrie Fox:
And continuing to be nudged in the right healthy direction. Right?

Dan Buettner:
That’s a secret.

Carrie Fox:
Well, Dan, thank you so much for your time today. I know you’re a busy man moving from thing to thing, and I appreciate so much your ability to give me 30 minutes to your time. Thank you.

Dan Buettner:
Well, it was real delight to talk to you and people like you are the people who are making this world a better place. So thank you for including me and introducing me to your audience.

Carrie Fox:
Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with True Story FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by BalloonPlanet and Josh Leak. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, I hope you will consider doing just that for this show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or a colleague, thanks to your support. And we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.