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Dan Buettner’s New Documentary Is Already Changing Lives. He Sat Down With The Sunday Paper to Tell Us How to Change Ours

Dan Buettner’s New Documentary Is Already Changing Lives. He Sat Down With The Sunday Paper to Tell Us How to Change Ours

By Meghan Rabbitt
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It’s a hot day in Minnesota when Dan Buettner logs in to our Zoom meeting. He’s sitting on his porch and turns his computer so I can see his view: a beautiful lake, which he says he’s looking forward to getting into later that afternoon on his stand-up paddle board. Buettner spent the morning playing pickleball with friends, and like always, he started his day with a big bowl of Sardinian Minestrone—a three-bean soup filled with protein, fiber, and all kinds of other nutrients to fuel his active day.

I’m two minutes into talking to 63-year-old Buettner and feel seriously inspired.

Buettner, a National Geographic Explorer and best-selling author, has spent the last 20 years traveling the world to uncover the places where people live remarkably long, full lives—a.k.a. the Blue Zones. Over the years, he’s unearthed the simple truths about what people in the Blue Zones do to live as many as 10 extra years than most of us. Even better, he knows how to distil their secrets into practical, actionable steps. (You’ll find those in his new book, The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer: Lessons From the Healthiest Places on Earth, as well as his new Netflix documentary, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.)

I talked to Buettner for The Sunday Paper about his new book and documentary, and to pick his brain about the things all of us can do to live longer, fuller lives.


For people who live in Blue Zones, the healthy choice is the easy choice. How do you personally set up your life so that the healthy choices are the easiest choices?

I live in a walking neighborhood, so I probably get 7,000 steps a day without thinking about it. I walk to get my coffee. I walk to the grocery store. I walk to friends’ houses. I also bought a great bike and take the time to bike to places I need to go rather than drive.

I’ve also been proactive in adding new, active friends in my life. I haven’t dumped my unhealthy, sedentary friends! But I’ve become a bit of a pickleball fanatic, and I’m deeply immersed in a pickleball social circle right now. What do we do when we get together? We’re active! We play pickleball.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve taken the time to learn how to make plant-based recipes that I love. I want to underscore love. I probably had to cook two dozen plant-based recipes until I found a few I really enjoy that have become my go-tos, which I now make all the time. These are healthy recipes I can make in 15 minutes on a Sunday and have food for the rest of the week.

After many years of researching the Blue Zones, you decided to manufacture Blue Zones here in the U.S.—and TV cameras trailed you so all of us could see what happened. Tell us about your new Netflix documentary…

Netflix crews followed me on the entire journey—from discovering the Blue Zones to distilling what they have to teach us and how we’ve gone about manufacturing Blue Zones.

How do you manufacture a Blue Zone?

You begin with the insight that if you’re trying to change people’s minds or change their behavior, you’re going to fail. So, we focus wholly on changing people’s environment or their surroundings.

When we come into a city, we hire a team of full-time people for five years, and we bring forth the policies that float to the top and meet two criteria: What changes can we make that will be effective? What changes can we make that will be feasible? Then somebody on our team is responsible to make sure the changes get implemented.

In the book, there’s a chapter called “Rules to Live Longer By,” which beautifully captures some of the things all of us can do to add years to our lives. Were there any rules that surprised you, or that you’re finding have a big impact quickly?

Robert Butler did a story for the National Institutes on Aging and found very clearly that people who could articulate their sense of purpose and live it lived eight years longer than people who couldn’t.

If you’re sedentary, and you commit to walking about 20 minutes a day, your mortality rate drops by about 11 percent. But remember, people in the Blue Zones don’t exercise—they use occasions, like going to work or meeting up with a friend—as an opportunity to walk.

Adding a couple servings of beans a day equates to about four years of life expectancy over no beans at all, or less healthy forms of protein. A handful of nuts, especially walnuts, is associated with about three extra years of life expectancy. We don’t know if it’s because of the healthy oils in nuts or because when you’re eating nuts you’re not eating Doritos. All these things have very deep evidence that underpin them, and they’re the habits of people in the Blue Zones.

You say it’s possible for all of us to create our own Blue Zone, and you show us how in your new book. Of all the tactics you suggest, what’s the one people can start doing right now?

This may sound trite, but it is so unbelievably important: If you’re eating a whole food, plant-based, Blue Zones type diet and you’re 20 years old, it’s worth about 10 extra years of life expectancy over eating the standard American diet. And by the way, if you’re 60, it’s still worth six years of additional life expectancy.

How do you do it? Diets? No. No diet in history of the world has worked. No supplement or superfood has worked. Instead, you get your hands on a good, whole food, plant-based cookbook and you find a dozen recipes that look delicious to you and your family. Cook three recipes a month until you find four or five that you really love. At the end of the day, the most important ingredient in any in any longevity recipe is taste, and taste varies from person to person. The only way you’re going to make plant-based food you like is to actually make it for your family and eat it.

I start every single day with Sardinian minestrone [keep reading for the recipe!], which has three beans and more than eight vegetables. Even if my eating falls apart a little bit during the day, I have the nutritional base I need in just one big bowl of soup.

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What are your top longevity hacks that you try to incorporate into your everyday life? What are some things you do daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly?

Well, napping is associated with lower rates of dementia and significantly lower rates of heart disease, so I nap every day. Mid-afternoon, I go upstairs to meditate—and meditation quickly turns into napping.

I intentionally live in walkable communities.

I never work past 5 o’clock anymore, because I know that socializing is as good for me as anything else and a great investment of my time.

My Blue Zone-influenced approach as it relates to physical activity is this: I do something every day that I love. I always look forward to it. The problem with Cross Fit and training for triathlons and things like that is that people tend to get excited about it, do it for a while, and then run out of gas.

A big lesson everyone should remember when it comes to longevity: There is no short-term fix. There’s nothing you can do today, this week, this month, or even this year that’ll add years to your life other than not dying. When you think about strategies to live longer, you have to think about things you’re going to do for decades. For a lifetime.

What does longevity mean to you?

My life expectancy right now is around 93. But every decade since about 1840, life expectancy for humans has been going up about two years. Since I’m in my early 60s, I should get another three bonus decades, which should get me to 100. My goal is to die on my 101st birthday after a great party.


1/3 pounds garbanzo beans
1/3 pounds white beans
1/3 pounds pinto or red beans
(Soak beans overnight)

1.5 cups 1-2” cubed potatoes
6-8 cups of water or vegetable stock (I use 1 tbs “Better than Bouillon” Vegetable Base)
1 medium onion, chopped
4-6 stalks celery, chopped
4-6 carrots, chopped (I buy the little organic ones)
4-8 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Bay leaf
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp red or black pepper (red makes it hotter)
1 tsp oregano
1 14 oz can of diced or stewed tomatoes
Salt to taste

Microwave soaked beans in a bowl of water as you chop the other ingredients into approximately 1/2-inch pieces

Sauté onions, carrots, celery, pepper flakes and garlic in olive oil over low heat until onions are translucent.

Add beans and can of tomatoes, potatoes, oregano, and bay leaf. Slow cook until beans are tender. (For quicker soup, pressure cook or use an InstantPot for 5 minutes and let cooker cool naturally.)

Finish with avocado and/or parmesan cheese.

Meghan Rabbitt

Meghan Rabbitt is a Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. Learn more at:

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