In the ‘Blue Zone’: Dan Buettner’s Secrets to Healthy Living

The author, wellness expert, and Minnesota native recently launched a Netflix series and a line of frozen meals, so we wanted to check in
Dan Buettner exploring the landscape near St. Helena Island in South Carolina
Dan Buettner exploring the landscape near St. Helena Island in South Carolina

Photo by David McClain

What’s the secret to living a long, healthy life? Minnesotan Dan Buettner has some thoughts. Buettner, who was born in St. Paul and graduated from the University of St. Thomas, has been an explorer, author, and wellness expert for decades now, known mainly for developing his “Blue Zones” brand for healthy lifestyles.

Blue zones are communities across the globe that Buettner’s team has researched and identified as locations where residents’ lifespans are longer than average and among the healthiest. The reasons span certain diets, communal philosophies, a focus on exercise, and other factors. For 20 years, Buettner has worked with National Geographic, the National Institute on Aging, and other researchers to identify five original blue zones. They are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

Since that original work, Buettner has expanded his work to include Blue Zone Kitchens, comprising cookbooks and frozen meals, as well as work with cities and towns as part of the Blue Zones 2.0 trials. Readers may remember when Albert Lea became the first Blue Zone-certified community in 2016 in a pilot program with Mayo Clinic that resulted in a significant drop in health care costs for participants. 

People seem consistently interested in health, wellness, and aging issues, and Buettner’s four-part Netflix series titled “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” which debuted in August 2023, skyrocketed to the top of the channel immediately. Earlier this year, he launched a new line of frozen meals including rice bowls and minestrone casseroles in hundreds of grocery stores across the United States. What makes this Minnesotan a health expert? We wanted to check in.

Dan Buettner's "Blue Zones" brand has launched a Netflix series, a frozen-meal line, and more
Dan Buettner’s “Blue Zones” brand has launched a Netflix series, a frozen-meal line, and more


How did the Blue Zones concept start?

For years, I had a company that led an online audience [in solving] mysteries. My team had to come up with two mysteries a year. And one of those mysteries in 1999 was from the World Health Organization, which published data showing that Okinawa, Japan, was producing the longest-living disability-free people in the world. And I said, “Aha, that’s a great mystery.” We went and did a facile exploration of that. I was riveted by it. A few years later, after I sold that company, I was at National Geographic actually pitching another story. He was not really interested in that other story so in an act of desperation I said I’m also working on another story. I completely shot from the hip. I said I found this area where people live the longest in Okinawa, and I have a hunch there are also places [like that] in Europe and Latin America and maybe even America. He liked it. 

The very first call I made on it was to [famous University of Minnesota researcher known for theorizing that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat in the diet would reduce cardiovascular heart disease] Ancel Keys. I cold-called with this idea. He was 99 years old. He loved the idea. … [That helped lead to securing] funding from the National Institutes on Aging. I hired demographers and we were able to find these places with some scientific rigor, and then I wrote a cover story for National Geographic in 2004.

The reaction was beyond my wildest dreams. It was the third-most popular story then and just gets keeps getting bigger every year—and, you know, was just the topic of a four-part documentary series on Netflix, which had been told as one of its most successful international documentary series.

How do you explain the success?

I think the reason is because, A, we did our homework, and, B, with the infatuation with longevity right now and longevity hacks, the blue zones way offers a joyous journey through hunger as opposed to starving yourself, shooting yourself up with dangerous substances, and taking weird supplements. People in blue zones live a long time because they have a strong sense of purpose. And they sit down to dinner with their friends and their family and they interact with their environment. They grow their own food and they walk places. We tend to under-celebrate the enormous longevity power of these very simple things.

What has changed in the 20 years since first introducing the idea?

When I started in Okinawa 25 years ago, it was producing the longest-living humans on the planet. And then [in] a quarter-century, because of the encroachment of the American food culture and the freeways that criss-cross the island, they are succumbing to the same sicknesses that we in America are: obesity and Type 2 diabetes and inactivity, junk food consumption. [It has been de-listed as a blue zone.] 

Meanwhile, I started exploring another area called Blue Zones 2.0. Singapore in one lifetime has seen its life expectancy jump by 20 years. And they now produce a population that lives a dozen good years more than Americans. They do not just live longer, but they have the longest health-adjusted life expectancy. 

This has all been manufactured. This isn’t some mysterious culture that’s been around for 1,000 years. … It’s the result of a disciplined, values-driven government that has marshaled in evidence and made policies to favor the well-being of individuals, not just business. They understood early on that their No. 1 resource is its people, as opposed to some mineral or oil or some other natural resource. 

These Blue Zones 2.0 are important because they show our policymakers [ways] that can be enacted that manifestly produce healthier people and lower health care costs, which is probably the bigger issue—at least when it comes to priorities for most people.

That’s what happened in Albert Lea, right?

That was our early pilot. We introduced about 25 policies that have worked elsewhere around the world. They picked a subset of it to put in place, and, lo and behold, health care costs dropped by some 30%.

Left to right: Marion Nestle and Dan Buettner in “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones”


What advice do you have for Minnesotans to live as though they live in a blue zone? 

I would say if you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul, I call it a light blue zone. It is one of the most walkable and bikeable cities in America. Nobody lives more than about 400 yards from a park. We have wonderful parks and easy access to recreation. They’re doing pretty well there. It’s not a food desert. 

The core tenet of blue zones is if you want to live longer, don’t try to change your behavior, because you’ll fail at that in the long run. Change your surroundings. Some of the most impactful and lasting ways to change your surroundings are to think about your immediate social circle. Curate three to five friends whose idea of recreation is biking or golf or pickleball or something active. Find friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation and who care about you on a bad day. That’s kind of the litmus test for a real friend. Our friends have a measurable and long-term impact on our health behaviors.

It’s not a bad idea to have a vegan or vegetarian in your immediate social circle because they can help teach you how to eat plant-based and where to find it. Learn how to cook at home. Every time you go out to eat—and Americans eat out about 100 times a year on average—you eat about 300 extra calories. And those calories tend to be laden with more sodium and sugar and processed foods. My favorite eat-at-home hack is to buy an instant pot or one of these electric pressure cookers. 

Most blue zone foods can be cooked in a pressure cooker for under $1 per serving, and you can make 10 servings in under 20 minutes. My book includes recipes for doing it, but you can get them all over the internet. Learn how to cook beans—a cup of beans a day is associated with four extra years of life expectancy and was the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world. 

And take the time to know what your sense of purpose is. Or, as they call it in Okinawa, your “ikigai.” List out what your values are, such as “I’m a Christian, I’m a conservative, I love dogs.” Then identify what you’re good at, what you like to do. And then, for a final column, identify if there is an outlet for those interests. For the vast majority of Americans, it is not at their job. So that means it has to be a recreational activity or usually volunteering. This sounds trite. But people who know and live their purpose live years longer. There’s no pill, there’s no supplement. There’s no super food that gets you anywhere near that yet. But if you know what your purpose is, it makes day-to-day decisions very easy and reduces stress.

You have traveled extensively, and this issue of Minnesota Monthly also includes our Ultimate Travel Guide. Do you have a favorite travel destination or region? 

I got my start setting records for biking from Alaska to Argentina, around the world and across Africa. And then I also biked across Australia and across China. The only continent I haven’t biked across is Antarctica, and I’ll leave that coldness to Will Steger. 

My favorite blue zone is Sardinia, Italy. My second is Nosara. I love going to those places that are sort of easy entry points of blue zones. And they’re nice places to vacation, with good food and beautiful [scenery].

I go to the Boundary Waters every summer; I have been for 50 years. I am a big fan of ultralight hiking. For a three-day hike, we carry eight pounds of gear, which includes tents, sleeping bags, a stove, and our meals. And my favorite place to do that is Buckskin Gulch in Utah. 

What is next for you?

The line of grocery store foods is new. After only one year, it’s in 700 grocery stores. They are 100% plant-based with a maniacal focus on deliciousness, and I’m absolutely thrilled because it’s beating out the meaty, cheesy foods that are right next to it.
It fulfills the sort of core mission of mine, which is getting people to eat more plant-based and like it. 

There’s also talk of a second series on Netflix, and I just signed a contract to do three more books with National Geographic on longevity, one of which will be a sort of pursuit of this Blue Zones 2.0 concept. I’m also trying to find that sweet spot between being useful and productive and also savoring life.

As Travel Editor of Minnesota Monthly, Amy creates impactful, surprising, timely and insightful content that reflects the Spirit of Minnesota. An award-winning newspaper and magazine editor based in the Twin Cities, Amy has decades of experience guiding coverage of luxury living, arts and culture, style and travel topics across multiple platforms. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Prince to Roger Goodell and has stories to tell.