Ikaria is not just another Greek island – it is a hidden gem in the Eastern Aegean Sea that boasts pristine beaches and unspoiled nature as well as a unique cultural heritage. But what makes Ikaria stand out the most is its incredible longevity rate, with the island belonging to regions called Blue Zones – places where people live up to 100 years and longer.
Despite its low socioeconomic status and isolation, the inhabitants have managed to maintain their traditional activities and manual occupations, producing most of their food locally. This, combined with the relaxed lifestyle and well-established healthy diet culture, has resulted in a population that lives on average eight years longer than Americans, with half the rate of heart disease and almost no dementia.
In short, Ikaria offers something that many of us crave: long, healthy lives with vitality until the very end. Let’s dive into the nutrition and lifestyle habits of Ikarians that may help you to live a longer life.
Mediterranean diet – a key to Ikarians’ longevity
The Mediterranean diet has gained popularity in recent years and for good reason – it has held the title of the best diet since 2019 by the U.S. News & World Report. But it’s not just a passing trend. The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle that focuses on real food, sustainability, and longevity.
It’s not a strict diet that requires restrictions or sacrifices, but rather a balanced approach to eating that emphasizes plant-based foods while fish, seafood, dairy, and poultry are included in moderation, and red meat and sweets are consumed only occasionally.
This approach to eating has serious scientific backing and has been linked to increased lifespan, with women being able to add just over 10 years and men adding 13 years to their lives if they adopt the diet from the age of 20. The Mediterranean diet is not only a way to achieve nutritional satisfaction but also a way to improve overall health and longevity.
The Ikarians follow a unique and extreme version of the Mediterranean diet, which explains their long life expectancy. Islanders prioritise vegetables, whole grains, fruits, fish, olive oil, goat’s milk and cheese, and wine when it comes to their nutrition.
Furthermore, they consume a higher amount of legumes, potatoes, coffee, herbal teas, wild greens, and fish only sporadically, with meat eaten only once or twice a week. Healthy fats derived from olive oil contribute to the island’s renowned longevity, and the diet has been associated with positive health outcomes.
Nine key features of the Mediterranean diet for living a long life like the Blue Zoners in Ikaria
In 2009, a survey of 1,420 Ikarians was conducted by representatives of Harokopio University, which was named The Ikaria Study. To gather information on the subjects’ diets, the research teams spread out across the island and collected more than 300 data points. Scientists confirmed that Ikarians had adopted a distinct and exceptional version of the Mediterranean diet.
Scientists surmise that it is the diet that makes Ikarians live into their 90s and longer. Here are the 10 most prominent features of the Mediterranean diet Ikarian version that anyone can try to adopt in order to live a longer life.
1Olive oil lowers mortality and heart disease risks
The best extra-virgin olive oil in Greece is often cloudy, thick, and deep golden green. The consumption of at least four tablespoons of olive oil per day, as is typical for the people of Ikaria, may reduce the risk of heart disease by 30%. In Ikaria, individuals who consume at least 100 grams of good olive oil per day have a 50% lower mortality rate.
2Greens provide the body with needed minerals and vitamins
Leafy greens have a renowned reputation for being an excellent source of vitamins and minerals as well as their ability to ward off cancers and other chronic diseases.
There are over 150 types of wild greens found in Ikaria, including dandelion, purslane, and arugula, which are rich in minerals like iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and carotenoids that the body converts to Vitamin A. Eating a cup of greens daily is considered essential for longer life in Ikaria.
3Potatoes offer significant health benefits if prepared correctly
Even though potato is usually criticised for its high carb content, this vegetable can offer various health benefits such as reducing blood pressure, preventing inflammation, and combating diabetes. Ikarians take advantage of potatoes by consuming them almost daily.
However, these healthful gains can be only received if the potato is not fried and overpacked with butter or other dairy products. One of the best ways to cook potatoes is to steam or boil them. Boiled potatoes have the lowest glycemic index compared to other ways of cooking them. This is beneficial because foods with a low glycemic index do not spike insulin levels and cause your blood sugar levels to rise and fall slowly. Such food prolongs your feeling of fullness and helps you to control your appetite, both of which may be beneficial if you are trying to lose weight.
The Ikarians make a protein-rich probiotic by fermenting goat’s milk with rennin, which is known as Bioactive Ikarian feta cheese. This cheese is high in gut-friendly bacteria that possess anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. It is commonly used in Greek salads, as well as vegetable stews and other dishes by the Ikarians.
Feta cheese is easy to incorporate into the diet and versatile. It can be added to any salad to enrich it with protein, spread on sourdough bread, or even used to prepare a paste sauce.
5Legumes hold a strong anti-disease power
Legumes occupy an important place in the Mediterranean diet due to their high protein content as well as fibre, carbohydrate, B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorous.
Ikarians have a special liking for black-eyed and chickpeas in their daily diet. Black-eyed peas contain powerful natural substances that are anticancer, anti-diabetes, and heart-protective. Bean consumption of 60 grams a day reduced recurrence of precancerous polyps by 65% according to researchers at the National Cancer Institute.
Chickpeas are also a popular ingredient in Ikarian stews and soups and are consumed as a snack when dried and salted, making them a healthier alternative to sugary snacks due to their unsaturated fat content.
6Lemon helps to regulate blood sugar levels
Ikarians have a habit of adding lemon juice to almost everything, including the peel. Lemon peels are highly acidic, which may help regulate blood glucose levels, thus aiding in the prevention or control of diabetes. They add lemon juice to salads, fish, soups, beans, and even drinking water, resulting in a reduced glycemic load for the entire meal. You could say that Ikarians have found the ‘zest’ way to maintain healthy blood sugar levels!
7Herbal tea keeps the brain and mind sharp
Ikarians are well-known for being an almost dementia-free nation and this can be attributed to their healthy and active lifestyle as well as their love of herbal teas. To follow the island’s ritual, Ikarians consume herbal tea made from the garden and wild herbs, which contain healthful properties.
One study found that the risk of cognitive impairment was reduced by 44% for those who drank tea occasionally or rarely, 55% for those who drank tea moderately, and 63% for those who drank tea regularly.
Tea made from rosemary, marjoram, sage, and mint also helps to protect against certain cancers, boost memory, and reduce inflammation.
8Coffee is one more Ikarians’ secret of longevity
Greek people love coffee and consume 5.4 kg per person annually. It is even more than is drunk by the French, English and Americans! A strong liking for coffee is also not an exception on the island of Ikaria and these long-livers use the very drink as one more secret of their longevity. Recent studies show that drinking two to three cups of Turkish-style Ikarian coffee daily reduces mortality rates for both men and women.
9Honey works as a natural remedy for various diseases
The people of Ikaria use their local honey, which is dark, thick, and flavorful, as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments, including colds, insomnia, and wound healing. They add it to their coffee or tea, and some older people take it directly from the spoon, both in the morning and before dinner.
Three curious facts about long-livers of Ikaria
Fact 1: The oldest Ikarian woman reached the age of 117.
According to the legend, an Ikarian lady Fani Gerali not only lived until the age of 117 but also remained youthful in appearance. It was reported that she had grown seven new teeth and a head of black hair.
Fact 2: Ikarians are not very keen on politics and this might add them three more years of life.
One interesting fact about Ikaria is its association with the communist party, leading to its nickname of ‘Red Island.’ Despite this, a study showed that less than half of the older Ikarians expressed an interest in the communist party and most never attended political events.
This may indicate that the people of Ikaria are not as interested in news and politics, which could contribute to their longer lifespan, as consuming news and politics can cause stress. Stress can shorten life expectancy by 2.8 years.
Fact 3: Temporary fasting may be one more longevity secret of Ikarians.
The inhabitants of Ikaria practice Orthodox Christianity and are recommended to follow three periods of fasting per year. Fasting has been linked to several positive health benefits, including heart health, better blood sugar control, and weight loss.
Four non-food habits that make Ikarians live into their 90s
While the diet plays a crucial role in Ikarians’ longevity, there are other non-nutritional factors that influence their long lifespan.
Ikarians tend to eat slowly, which is linked to various health benefits, such as better digestion and an enhanced feeling of satiation. Meanwhile, quick eating can result in poor digestion, lower satisfaction and lead to weight gain.
One helpful technique to slow down your eating is to pause between bites and put your utensils down, allowing you to fully chew and swallow before taking the next bite. By making a conscious effort to eat more slowly, you may find that you enjoy your food more and feel more in tune with your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
2Take regular naps
Greek people have a tradition of taking naps between 2 pm and 5 pm.
According to a study conducted by the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health in 2008, researchers discovered that individuals who engaged in regular napping, at least five days a week, experienced a 37% reduction in their risk of heart disease. The study followed a group of Greeks over several decades and provided valuable insights into the positive impact of regular napping on cardiovascular health.
3Engage in physical activities
Ikarians are highly physically active, even the older generation. A study interviewed 71 Ikarians who were 90+ years old. The physical activity levels were moderate or high for 71.8% of participants because the Ikarian lifestyle requires physical activity due to the island’s topography. These long-livers tend to walk a lot as well as work outside a lot by engaging in gardening, weeding, sowing and digging.
Regular physical activity has extensive benefits for older adults, including reducing the risk of various diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, as well as reducing the risk of falls, cognitive impairment, and disability.
4Communicate and have loved ones around
In Blue Zones, socialising is one of the key elements of achieving longevity. Family solidarity and high levels of social interaction contribute to increased well-being and reduced distress and cognitive impairments among the participants of the study in Ikaria. Social interaction has beneficial effects on health, improving the prognosis of cardiovascular and neurovascular diseases and reducing mortality risk.
One of the longest studies of adult lives which lasted over 80 years proved that embracing community helps us live longer and be happier. The study revealed that close relationships are more important than money or fame for people’s lifelong happiness, protecting them from life’s challenges, delaying mental and physical decline, and being better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or genes.
This may be one of the most rewarding and pleasing Blue Zone practices to incorporate into your life. By spending quality time with your significant ones you are boosting your health and life span.
Let’s sum up
Ikaria, the hidden gem in the Eastern Aegean Sea, holds the secrets to long and healthy lives. The island’s incredible longevity rate can be attributed to its unique combination of traditional activities, manual occupations, and well-established healthy diet culture. Incorporating the simple practices of the Ikarians, such as following the Mediterranean diet, consuming herbal teas, embracing the power of family solidarity, and engaging in regular physical activity, can lead to a longer, happier, and more fulfilling life. So why not take inspiration from Ikaria and start implementing these Blue Zone practices into your own life today? Remember, the key to longevity lies in nourishing relationships, wholesome nutrition, and a vibrant lifestyle.
Not enough? Here are some more
In this video, registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman breaks down the ins and outs of the Mediterranean diet, discussing the health benefits and potential pitfalls of this popular eating style. Learn what foods are included in the Mediterranean diet, how to follow it on a budget, and whether this lifestyle is right for you.
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