Diet? I'll Have What He's Having!

04/07/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

The new book by my friend, Dan Buettner, founder of the Blue Zones is officially available today. Yes, I definitely recommend you get it -- and while you're at it, tell a friend. I'll tell you why in a minute.

But first, let's establish a bit of context. The subtitle for The Blue Zones Solution is: "eating and living like the world's healthiest people." For those who don't know, that's really what the whole Blue Zones idea is about: a characterization of the lifestyle, behaviors, culture and environment of those populations around the world that live the longest and the best. They have the most vitality and the least chronic disease. They live long, and whatever the state of their bank accounts, they prosper in terms of all the currencies that matter most. And when it's time to go into that good night, often after age 100, they are far more likely than the rest of us to go gentle -- going to sleep one night, and just not waking up.

So being in a Blue Zone, or somehow managing to be a Blue Zone unto ourselves is, for sure, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Then, there is the other implication of that subtitle: The Blue Zones Solution is a prescription for healthy living, with an emphasis on "eating." That, arguably, makes this a diet book of sorts. But it's a diet book like no other.

In anticipation of Dan's book release today, I have been reflecting on the varieties of "diet books" currently available. Up until today, I believe there were three:

1. Eureka! These are the books in the "I know the truth, and everyone else is a moron" section, whatever that translates to in the Dewey decimal system. This is the variety of "diet" book that prevails and the category I hate the most. This seemingly endless catalogue of books perennially makes up new "truths" about the right way to eat for weight loss and health (if health is even addressed). The problem, of course, is that there is no new "truth" about how to eat well, so such books are all about pretense, profiteering and pixie dust. They work wonderfully for the authors, publishers and morning show producers -- but are a bonafide disaster for public health, because they cultivate confusion and propagate procrastination. We have had an uninterrupted parade of such books for several decades, each the vehicle for its particular brand of renegade genius and epiphany. If any of these had really been the "aha moment" we were waiting for -- where are all the healthy, thin people? The next time you see one of these come down the pike, step away from your credit card and maybe nobody will get hurt.

2. What's what. These books provide us a view from altitude. They are, generally, less a prescription for how to eat, and more an overview of some aspect of our nutritional environment or culture. Books in this category can go badly awry, too, such as when evidence is cited very selectively to justify a position held from the start. Seeking, finding and citing only the opinions that match your own does not qualify as scholarly work, to put it mildly. When they do it properly, however, authors in this category provide great insights about our food system. My short list of favorites, and it's only illustrative, includes works by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, John Robbins, David Kessler, Melanie Warner, and Michael Moss. There are many others. Generally, the good reads in this category won't directly fix your food; they are more about food for thought, expertly prepared.

3. There, from here. Responsible "diet" book authors do not try to reinvent the fundamentals of healthful eating; they acknowledge that these are not subject to reinvention with every news cycle. They concede that we weren't clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens in the first place, and weren't waiting for them to come along and tell us all where "there" really is. Rather, the responsible and genuinely valuable contribution experts can make is less about "what," and more about "how;" less about where "there" is, and more about how to get there, from here. Expert guidance on how to practice a given dietary pattern well goes here. So too, do all the great cookbooks that blend nutritious with delicious. Brian Wansink's insights about environmental cues belong here. My own efforts, focusing on the skill power for eating well in a modern world that makes it hard, are directed here as well. There are many others, of course.

And then there is The Blue Zones Solution, which may require a category all its own.

As a National Geographic fellow, Dan Buettner has traveled the world, engaging in exploration. In his particular case, what he has been exploring for years is the intimate details of lifestyle that account for the longest, best lives on the planet.

Unlike even the greatest of dietary intervention studies, therefore, Dan's "solution" is informed by the experience of entire populations. The beauty, and empowering novelty of The Blue Zones Solution, is that there is nothing theoretical about it. This really is how real people, in the real world, really live to be 100, still mentally sharp and full of gumption.

Because The Blue Zones Solution is about careful observation and detailed description, it is immune to the overheated rhetoric and misguided ideologies that so often wag our dietary dogma. This is a dogma free zone; it's all about epidemiology, not ideology. As a result, we learn here not about one, very specific "right" way to eat. Rather, we learn about variations on a theme of healthful eating that produce comparably stellar results among diverse populations across the globe. Dan puts on clear, uncluttered display the salient features of those diets around the world associated with the most years in life, and the most life in years- and invites us to pull up a chair.

This is a pretty special and unique invitation, and I heartily recommend you accept.

What comes to mind, in fact, is that iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally when Estelle Reiner sees the obvious "pleasure" Meg Ryan derives from her sandwich, and says: "I'll have what she's having."

The Blue Zones Solution is decidedly less salacious than that clip in the delicatessen, but it is all about pleasure just the same: the pleasure of a long, vital life. The pleasure of loving food that loves us back, food we can share with the people we love, and enjoy for a lifetime. Dan tells us what's for dinner among the healthiest, happiest, longest-lived peoples around the world. Using sense and science, keen observation, and the most reliable, real-world evidence, Dan is the consummate guide to the ultimate prize: more years in life, more life in years.

There's really just one response to that: I'll have what he's having. I encourage you to do the same.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity