732: Debunking the Blue Zones With Dr. Steven Gundry

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Debunking the Blue Zones with Dr. Steven Gundry
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732: Debunking the Blue Zones With Dr. Steven Gundry

I’m back today for part two with return guest Dr. Steven Gundry. If you’re not familiar with his work, Dr. Gundry has written many bestsellers and published over 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He sees clients at his popular clinic where he focuses on a nutritional approach to healing disease, specifically autoimmune disease.

The last time I had Dr. Gundry on the podcast we discussed some eye-opening facts from his new book, Gut Check. This time we’re delving into the Blue Zones and what their data are really telling us.

You’ve probably heard of the Blue Zones before and why people in these areas live longer, more vibrant lives. Unfortunately, a lot of this data is cherry-picked and twisted to support certain diets and health agendas, even if that’s not what the data is actually showing. Dr. Gundry goes deep into the facts on Blue Zones, and what we can learn from their foods, movement patterns, and daily lifestyle habits.

Dr. Gundry also shares his personal non-negotiables and how he maintains his health and energy for an active career in his 70s. I learned some new things in our chat today and some things that really surprised me. So let’s dive in!

Episode Highlights With Dr. Gundry

  • The biggest misconceptions when it comes to Blue Zones and what we can learn
  • Where the word Blue Zones comes from 
  • What people actually eat and what we can learn from the Blue Zones
  • Data from Sardinia that highlights actual lessons from the Blue Zones 
  • A shocking statistic: the nicotine consumption in some Blue Zone areas might be contributing to longevity!
  • Is there a time and a place for healthy nicotine consumption for longevity?
  • Actual key takeaways from the data of the Blue Zones
  • Vitamin C is essential for knitting collagen back together
  • The mineral and micronutrient theories of food consumption and why getting more nutrients and minerals might also help combat overeating
  • A fascinating study of a two-week water fasting group that added in prebiotics 
  • His personal daily habits and non-negotiables 
  • Why he eats in a shorter eating window each day for gut health and longevity 
  • Why you need downtime for your gut wall to repair itself 

Resources We Mention

More From Wellness Mama

Read Transcript

Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.

Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and I am back today with return guest, Dr. Steven Gundry. And in this episode, we break down and debunk the myths of the Blue Zones. And I love this topic because Blue Zones, I feel like, are often quoted and cherry-picked for their data to try to promote different plans or supplements or products that people have. And I love that we got to go deep on what the data actually says about Blue Zones. And it might not be what you think. I certainly learned some things about this that I did not know, including some shocking statistics. I know one of these will absolutely shock you about one of the factors that might be contributing to longevity in certain Blue Zones. And it’s definitely not gonna be what you think.

And Dr. Gundry breaks down how, while Blue Zones are often used to promote vegetarian or vegan or high grain diets, that’s not what the data actually says. And there’s some unique other things that stand out, including consumption of certain unusual foods that are not as common in the US but available now in the US. We talk about their movement patterns and their daily lifestyle habits, as well as factors and data around nutrient consumption and mineral consumption and why these are such important factors.

And at the end, he also shares his personal non-negotiables and 80-20 of what he does every day to maintain his health and energy and vitality while he still maintains a very active career, working with patients, writing books, and doing research as well. And you’ve probably heard of him, but Dr. Gundry is the founder and director of the International Heart and Lung Institute, as well as the Center for Restorative Medicine. He’s written many bestselling books, including The Plant Paradox and the companions to that, The Longevity Paradox, The Energy Paradox, his new Gut Check book, and many others. He has over 300 articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and he focuses on a nutritional approach to reducing disease and reversing things like autoimmune disease. In fact, his statistic for doing that with his patients is over 94%. He’s been doing this work for decades, and he’s one of the really strong voices in this space. I’m very excited to share him with you today, so let’s jump into the episode. Dr. Gundry, welcome back. I’m so excited to have you back again.

Dr. Gundry: Hey, it’s great to be here, thanks.

Katie: Well, I am super excited to jump into a topic that the title might be a little shocking to people at first glance, but I know that you have a lot of data and experience to support this, and I’m super excited to learn from you today. We’re gonna talk about debunking Blue Zones. So to start broad and give some background, I would love for you to explain what are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to Blue Zones because I’ve been watching this data now for over a decade, and it seems like lots of people cherry-pick the data from Blue Zones to try to prove their own point or sell their own product. And I know you’re a very first principles driven person and you really go to the root of things. So what are those misconceptions when it comes to Blue Zones?

Dr. Gundry: Well, as I talk about in that chapter in the, in the new book, Gut Check, the chapter is basically entitled, Cigarettes, Cheese, and Meat: New thoughts from the Blue Zones. Simon & Garfunkel used to say that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. And first of all, the Blue Zones, everybody wonders, well, where the word Blue Zones come from? We’re talking about a lot of these places where in the water or islands or in the Mediterranean, and maybe it’s the ocean.

Now the Blue Zones, there was a meeting in Montpellier, France, which is in the south of France, a number of years ago, and a researcher got a blue-tip felt-markering pen and went to a map of the world and drew some circles around five places that he thought, he thought had the best longevity in the world. And who would be in the audience but Dan Buettner, who actually has trademarked the term Blue Zone. So I have to be careful when I say it or use it. And so Dan is a vegetarian, almost vegan. And so he wanted, I think, to pick out those parts of the Blue Zone cultures that support his belief system. And, unfortunately, when you actually look at what people eat in these regions, that doesn’t support his belief system one bit.

We could use Okinawa for an example. The Okinawans, the only detailed description of the Okinawan diet was done by the US military in 1947 as an occupying country. We took over Okinawa. And the only description of what Okinawans ate back then was by the US military, number one. The Okinawans, 85% of their diet is a purple sweet potato. The soy that they eat is miso. They hardly eat any rice, and they certainly don’t eat any other grain products. The other thing that’s unique about the Okinawans is they actually eat a huge amount of bitter, spicy green leaves and spices. In fact, in Japan, they’re called the spice eaters. So there’s nothing in their diet that supports the idea that beans and rice is what makes them great. It’s a sweet potato. Sorry about that. The other thing that’s unique about Okinawa, in fact, as I talk about in the book, the Okinawans can’t grow rice because their climate doesn’t support rice growing. So, oh well.

Now maybe the most impressive factual data comes out of Sardinia. So Sardinia is an Italian island. It’s basically got two populations, bunch of people who live down by the sea, they’re fishermen, and a bunch of people who live up in the mountains, and they’re goat and sheep herders. The only people who have longevity live in the mountains. The people who live down by the sea don’t have longevity, interesting enough. Uh, yeah. And the people who live in the mountains, what makes them have more longevity is actually the men live as long as the women. Now, most people know that men in general live about seven years shorter lives than women. You guys are the stronger sex, we got to admit it. But in that island, the men actually exceed the women’s longevity. Why is that? Well, about 95% of the men smoke, and only about 25% of the women smoke. And we see this repeated in multiple other Blue Zones, like Ikaria, Greece, like at Ciroli in the south of Italy. The men are smokers, and the women aren’t so much. And it’s actually the nicotine in smoke that is one of the best mitochondrial and couplers, longevity agents known to mankind. Now, I do not smoke. I don’t recommend smoking. The problem with nicotine, it’s addictive. But it’s really great for longevity. And in fact, all of these longevity compounds that everybody’s talking about, nicotinamide, riboside, NMN, niacinamide, nicotinic acid, that’s a cousin of nicotine and that’s actually why they live so much longer. Sorry about that Dan.

Now the other thing that’s interesting, they are sheep and goat herders. So every day they’re eating sheep and goat yogurt, sheep and goat cheeses, and as I’ve talked about in my last two books, these cheeses have two health-promoting properties. Number one, they’re loaded with medium-chain triglycerides. A third of the fat in cheese and goat milk and cheeses are MCTs. Secondly, they have these compounds that I write about called polyamines, which once again are incredibly lifespan-promoting compound. So, so much for the main grain and bean theory there.

Well, let’s talk about a place that does eat grains and beans, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. Now, all of Costa Rica eat beans and eat corn, and that’s their state. And the Nicoya Peninsula does eat beans and corn. But what’s unique about this little part is that they are sheep and goat herders, and they eat a lot of sheep and goat cheese and goat yogurt, unlike any other part of Costa Rica. And there’s a really interesting paper that I reference that the people in that region credit the goat and sheep with their longevity, and they think that the beans and corn are a negative aspect to their diet that they have to tolerate just for calories. Oh well, and we could go on and on.

Katie: Well, that’s certainly a far cry from the US where those things are just tolerated for calories and simply getting enough calories to exist. That’s a huge difference than the breakdown of nutritionally what most people eat, certainly in the US. That is absolutely fascinating to me that you said smoking might actually be a factor in longevity for these people because I’ve seen some of this data as well about nicotine itself, especially if we can isolate it from smoking and the harmful parts that come with that. Would you say there might be a time and a place for nicotine consumption that’s not from smoking for longevity perspective?

Dr. Gundry: Well, again, I think my buddy Dave Asprey uses nicotine drops all the time. He argues, perhaps correctly, that all great ideas came about in a cafe with smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and having a glass of wine. And he might not be far off. But interestingly enough, an island in Papua New Guinea, the Katawans, the Katawans smoke like fiends. They have never been known to have cancer. There has never been a case of a stroke or heart attack in these people. And they eat a diet with a lot of tubers. They do eat a lot of coconut. But here’s another example where the smoking does not seem to have the negative impact that we find.

And I go into the book, and I’ve talked about it before, one of the things that probably gets these people away with the bad effects of smoking: Smoking causes oxidative stress, and oxidative stress uses up a very important antioxidant called vitamin C. And we’re one of the few animals that don’t make our own vitamin C. We have to ingest it. Vitamin C is essential for knitting collagen back together. Collagen breaks all the time, and smokers have more wrinkles because their collagen has broken because the damage of sunlight and they don’t have any vitamin C to put it back together, interestingly enough. Same way smokers have very distinct patterns of coronary artery disease that would be prevented by vitamin C. So I think the smokers in these long-lived areas have a diet that’s incredibly rich in antioxidants in vitamin C. And there’s a very famous study in rats. There’s five genes that make enzymes that take glucose and convert it into vitamin C. So there’s five enzymatic steps. We have four of those genes, but the fifth gene is called a ghost gene. It doesn’t work. And that’s why we don’t make vitamin C. If you take rats and give them the human gene sequence, rats make vitamin C, those rats will only live half as long as a normal rat. But if you put vitamin C in their drinking water, so that they’re drinking vitamin C all day, they’ll equal how long a rat would normally live, giving you an idea of just how important kind of a continuous supply of vitamin C is.

Katie: Wow, that’s fascinating as well. I would love to hear from your perspective what the data actually says in what our key takeaways should be when it comes to Blue Zones. It sounds like certainly not grain and bean consumption in high amounts, potentially root vegetables and tubers having a higher place, especially ones that are rich in things like polyphenols are like brightly colored. I would guess also things like even though they drink wine in many of these places, wine may be not necessary for longevity by any means.

And I know people also talk about factors like often they move more, like people like goat and sheep herders probably get much more movement than the average American. It seems like they often have great community and/or areas with good mineral, more minerals in the soil or the drinking water. But what from your perspective are the key takeaways that we can actually learn when we look at the data with an accurate lens that we can all learn from?

Dr. Gundry: Well, I think you’ve hit on a lot of them. Most of these live in hilly areas. Loma Linda, where I was professor for much of my career, which is the only Blue Zone in the United States. Loma Linda means beautiful hill, interestingly enough. And Loma Linda, the Adventist community, has the longevity. The rest of Loma Linda doesn’t, interestingly enough. One thing I might add, in Okinawa, all of the medical records, birth certificates were destroyed during the war. And one of the theories of why Okinawans were so long-lived is that when people were asked how old they were, they made wild guesses, and there’s actually no records. The other thing, particularly in Europe, is that pensions are based on living people, and a lot of times, you need that pension to survive, and so you don’t declare deaths of people who have actually died, so you just keep getting their pension. So, there’s all sorts of other things.

I might add, one of the things that surprised me when I was doing the research for Gut Check, is that people with the longest lifespan of any country in the world is a little tiny country between France and Spain called Andorra. And it’s only 150,000 inhabitants. And it’s way up in the Pyrenees Mountains. And the Andorrans have a very, so they actually have a lifespan of about 90 years, both men and women. Pretty good. The Andorrans are sheepherders, and they eat sheep cheese and sheep yogurts, and they eat sausages every day. And you go, well, wait a minute, that seems like, wait a minute, cheese and sausage is the key to longevity? Well, as I propose in Gut Check, yes. It turns out that sausages, traditionally prepared sausages, have polyamines and the really nasty sugar molecule in beef, lamb, and pork, and milk called NU5GC, is eaten by the bacteria during fermentation of sausages. So that explains why you can kind of have your cake and eat it too. So you can have cheese and sausages like charcuterie and maybe live a really long time.

Katie: That’s really exciting as well, because certainly you also hear them say, you know, in these areas they don’t eat meat, they don’t eat animal products, and it seems like that is also some cherry-picking of data and not an accurate representation. And especially, I know it’s harder to find in the US, but it seems like there might be something to adding more sheep and goat dairy products to our diet, which certainly are very minimal in American diet consumption from my understanding.

Dr. Gundry: Yeah, I mean, luckily, we’re beginning to see like plain goat yogurt. It’s a Trader Joe’s. There are sheep yogurt products now. Uh, it’s, in a way, easy to find, uh, sheep cheeses, Manchego. You can get at Costco or Trader Joe’s. You can find pecorino cheese, which is a sheep cheese. Goat cheeses are a little harder to find, but even Trader Joe’s has goat brie. Several companies are now making goat mozzarella, goat cheddar. So people should look for these. They will make a difference.

Katie: That’s great to know. I’m curious if you saw any data, and maybe not, this is just a research topic for me right now of mineral consumption in these areas or if their environment naturally has more of the minerals that we’re not getting in our diet, especially if we’re eating processed foods.

Dr. Gundry: Yeah, one of the problems that I do a lot of YouTube videos about this, our soil is so depleted here in the United States of minerals. In fact, there’s a Senate document from 1939 that I’ve written about in previous books that basically says, our soil is so depleted, this was 1939, that we would have to eat continuously and still could not make up for the lack of minerals in our diet, eating continuously.

The other thing that’s happened in our soil, is glyphosate is an antibiotic, and it’s killed off the microbiome of the soil. And the microbiome of the soil was actually responsible for taking these organic compounds and minerals and putting them into the soil, number one, and then aiding the root system of the plant to take up these minerals into the plant. So, you know, corn may look like corn now, but it bears no relationship to what corn was 50 years ago. A piece of broccoli may look like broccoli now, but it really has a third of the minerals of 50 years ago. So yeah, we’re profoundly mineral-depleted. And luckily, these Blue Zones, or these long-lived people that aren’t, quote, official Blue Zones, they live in remote areas, glyphosate has never come near them. They farm the land or pick the land. They’re eating vegetables and leaves that are growing in eight feet of loam soil. And so they’re getting these nutrients that have long been missing in our diet.

Katie: Well, and based on that statistic of we’d have to eat continuously and we still wouldn’t get enough minerals, it seems like there’s two keys there to highlight. One is, of course, avoiding glyphosate however possible. And the second, it would seem like this is also a theme in podcast guests that I’ve had is we are pretty much at a point in the modern world where we do have to supplement with certain things to reach those minimal amounts. Like, unfortunately, we are no longer at a point where we can get everything from food, even if, like you said, we ate all day long.

Dr. Gundry: Yeah, and one of the theories that’s actually come out of animal studies is that animals, if they’re deprived of a particular nutrient, will continuously eat of what’s available to them to get to this critical nutrient amount in their body. Things that they would never consider eating or an animal that doesn’t eat a lot of carbohydrates, but the carbohydrate that’s provided in the diet has these essential minerals, the animal will go and eat this stuff until it gets what it’s looking for. I mean, I always follow my dogs in the spring. They’re eating young shoots of grass. And I’m going, yeah, that’s interesting. What are you guys doing that for? They’re not throwing up. They’re looking for young shoots of grass. Well, and that’s where all the newest little bits of polyphenols and minerals are coming from. Dogs are pretty smart, too.

Katie: I think that highlights something really important because I’ve wondered this for a long time. We hear often that Americans especially are overfed and undernourished. A few years ago, I switched from thinking about calories and macros at all and looked at nutrient density in food, especially micronutrients. I consciously started upping my mineral consumption, and I noticed that I was far less hungry and that my body seemed to be much more in tune with what it wanted to eat. I’ve wondered if many of these problems we’re having in the US, of course, are multifaceted, but it’s because we are so deficient in some of these micronutrients that our bodies are craving extra food like dogs would to try to hit those minimums for survival and if we could actually benefit ourselves by being a lot more conscious in our mineral consumption and our nutrient consumption.

Dr. Gundry: Yeah, absolutely. One of the studies that I alluded to in previous book was they took some, well, let me preface that. We know that our microbiome determines a lot of what we are looking for in terms of calories and the sorts of calories we’re looking for. And one of the themes of the book, Gut Check, is we’ve number one, starved our microbiome because we don’t eat any soluble fiber. And we’ve, you know, genocided our microbiome because we actively eat glyphosate, we actively eat antibiotics, almost all the meats that we eat are loaded with antibiotics, a new study out two weeks ago confirmed that all fast food meals have antibiotics in them. And glyphosate.

So if you take normal volunteers in China and put them on a two-week water-only fast, and half the group gets 100 calories of prebiotic fiber, indigestible by us, but the food for the gut microbiome. The group that got the prebiotic fiber on a water fast had absolutely no hunger for two weeks. The group that just got water were really hungry for about a week before they adjusted. And I think that confirms that basically the microbiome was being fed, then sends text messages, these are actually postbiotics, to the brain saying, hey! We’re good down here. You’ve done your job. We’re happy. Don’t need to go look for anything else. Thanks very much. Let’s have a good day. And I think that really does speak to the power that we used to have in a healthy microbiome that we fed what they needed, like a tuber for instance, great source of prebiotic fiber, and we didn’t try to kill our microbiome every day with what we ate.

Katie: Wow, that’s definitely a striking example. And I would love to hear in our last few minutes, actually, what your own daily habits and diet and foundational things that you do every day, your non-negotiables, your personal 80-20 because you are still a very prolific writer. You mentioned you’re still seeing patients. You seem to have this huge amount of internal energy and drive to improve the world. So I would love to hear what your personal life looks like for a minute and what your daily non-negotiables are.

Dr. Gundry: Well, let’s see. Daily non-negotiable is I have to take our dogs for a two-mile walk, hike in the hills. That’s non-negotiable according to the dogs. Then I don’t eat breakfast for the most part. During the winter months from January through June, I don’t eat lunch either. I eat all my calories in about a two-hour window from five to seven at night. Do I have to do that? No. I’ve been doing it now, I think, for 25 years, so it seems to be working. During the summer, I kind of back off from that.

There’s pretty good evidence, and I talked about it in Gut Check, and I have in the past, that probably if you really wanted to make peace with your gut and promote longevity, a six-hour eating window, is probably optimum. So that means an 18-hour fasting window. One of the things I go over and over and over again in Gut Check is you have to have downtime for your gut wall to repair itself. It cannot constantly be involved in digestion and absorption of food. It has to have repair. And you would do this to a car, you would do this to an airplane engine. The idea, the average American eats 16 hours a day from the second we get up to literally before we go to bed. And so there is virtually no repair time for our gut. And while there are a lot of very good reasons to do time-restricted eating, intermittent fasting, I think one of the reasons that’s missed by so many people is the need for repair of the wall of the gut.

Years ago, looking at, there’s a worm model of longevity. The worm is C. elegans. And the worm model of longevity, this model has worked for every longevity promoting polyphenol drug, et cetera, we always start with this worm model because whatever works in the worm model always works in higher organisms. So one of the fascinating things is the worm begins to die. As the wall of its gut, and it has a little tiny digestive system, but the wall of its gut is only one cell thick like ours. And as gaps appear in the wall of that worm’s gut, the worm begins to die. The more that wall gets destroyed, the faster the worm dies. And that has had, and Hippocrates said it 2,500 years ago, all disease begins in the gut, and all disease begins in a leaky gut. So the really gut check is we all need a gut check to promote the integrity of the wall of art. And all the tricks of how to do that that I’ve learned now in 25 years of working with my patients is in that book. And so that’s what I do. I take a lot of supplements. I’m a guy who a long time ago said supplements make expensive urine. They don’t. You’re right, our food, our soil is so depleted that you just can’t keep up with what we should be getting in our diet without supplementing.

Katie: And I know you mentioned that statistic, which seems so staggering to me as well, that people eat an average of it in a 16-hour window in the US. And I think I also read that the average, we think we just eat three meals a day, but from your gut’s perspective, any time calories enter the body and have to be handled, that’s an eating event. And I think the most recent one I saw was it was something like 17 times a day, something is entering your body that your gut has to deal with. So it’s truly like you said, we’re not getting any gut rest. We’re bombarding our guts, often with things that are harming it, certainly not often with things that are helping it. So maybe some of these shifts like focusing on those nutrient-density, adding in some sheep and goat cheeses. I know you have supplements that help with the recovery process if you have leaky gut. And I know you go super deep on this topic in Gut Check on how to really resolve the things at a gut level. But it seems like these simple strategies often get overlooked because they’re simple, and I see that pattern over and over. But the great news is that our bodies, when we can do these simple things, know how to heal and they want to, and they will. And so I love that you give people their power back by making that so accessible in this book and truly in all of your books, which I will make sure are linked in the show notes. But Dr. Gundry, I always learn so much from you. It is always an absolute joy to get to talk to you, and I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you for being here today.

Dr. Gundry: Well, Wellness Mama keep up the good work.

Katie: Well, thank you. And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

Thanks to Our Sponsors

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About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


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