The Blue Zones Diet and Ikaria: How One Greek Island Offers a Recipe for Longevity
Ikaria, an island in Greece, is named after the mythological figure of Icarus, the impulsive young man who ignored his fathers’ instructions to not fly too close to the sun, which melted the wax in his wings, and resulted with him washing-up dead on its shores. Ancient folklore links Ikaria with youth and reckless behaviour, but, in modern times, it has been linked to the contrary: old age and wisdom.
Ikaria along with another four locations (Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica and Loma Linda in California) has been designated as a Blue Zones. These parts of the world which seemingly have little in common but ultimately share certain characteristics that result in their residents living significantly longer than average. According to studies, one in three Ikarians lives past the age of 90.
The Ikarian diet is believed to be one of the key factors contributing to the island's longevity. The diet is based on a traditional Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fish.
But it's not just what they eat that makes the people of Ikaria so healthy – it's also how they eat. Meals are often enjoyed with family and friends, and food is savoured slowly and with pleasure. The emphasis is on simple, whole foods, with minimal processing or additives.
In addition to their diet, the people of Ikaria also have a number of lifestyle habits that contribute to their health and longevity. These include regular physical activity, social engagement, and a strong sense of purpose and community.
What is the Blue Zones Diet?
The Blue Zones Diet is characterized by:
Plant Slant: In all the Blue Zones, people eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and little or no meat, dairy, or refined grains.
Whole foods: Instead of eating processed or packaged foods, people in the Blue Zones eat foods in their natural state, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Retreat from Meat: Generally people in the Blue Zones eat small amounts of meat, instead, they rely on plant sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, and soy, which are cheaper, more sustainable, and less harmful to the environment.
Social eating: People often eat with family, friends, or neighbours, and enjoy their meals as a social and cultural event. This way, they not only share food but also stories, traditions, and values, which strengthen their social bonds and sense of belonging.
Wine at 5: Living to 100 doesn’t have to mean a strict regimen. A healthy, balanced, and stress-free life includes happy hours, time spent with family and friends and the occasional glass of wine with your food.
The Ikarian Diet
The traditional diet on the island is primarily plant-based, consisting of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and whole grains. The Ikarian diet shares a lot of similarities with the Mediterranean Diet, however it has some things that set it apart. Typically, Ikarians eat more legumes, wild greens, and herbs, and less meat, dairy, and processed foods than other Greeks.
Some staples of the Ikarian diet:
Vegetables: Ikarians eat a wide variety of vegetables, including leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula, as well as tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and eggplant. Vegetables provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that protect against disease and promote gut health.
Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are a significant part of the Ikarian diet. They are high in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates that provide sustained energy and help control blood sugar levels.
Whole grains: Whole-grain bread, pasta, and rice are common in the Ikarian diet. They provide nutrients, fiber, and slow-burning carbs that keep you feeling full and satisfied.
Olive oil: Olive oil is the main source of fat in the Ikarian diet. It is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which are good for the heart, and antioxidants that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Wild greens and herbs: Ikarians forage for wild greens and herbs, such as dandelion greens, chicory, and mint, which are high in phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. These plants that grow naturally on the island are collected and eaten as a part of the local cuisine. They offer a great source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and are believed to be a significant contributor to the health and longevity of the Ikarian population.
Fruit: Ikarians eat a lot of fresh fruit, such as figs, grapes, apples, pears, and oranges. Fruit is a source of vitamins, fiber, and natural sugars that satisfy cravings and boost immune function.
Fish: Ikarians eat fish at least twice a week, usually grilled or baked. Fish is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for brain and heart health, as well as protein and other nutrients.
Honey: Ikarians use honey as a sweetener instead of sugar. Honey is a natural source of antioxidants and has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of Ikarian households have their own gardens which provide them with a constant stream of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Many people even raise their own livestock. Pigs, goats, lamb, chickens, rabbits and hens make their way to the “Ikarian table” typically for holidays or special events.
Ikaria’s historic isolation helped has created a living verification of the Mediterranean Diet in all its aspects. This includes the ways in which locally produced fresh, seasonal, home-cooked food and community are interconnected in ways that encourage physical, emotional and mental health, relationships, and the environment. Many Ikarians, as a result, live long and healthy, with less occurrence of cancer and heart disease and very few cases of dementia or depression. They cook, garden, walk, drink wine, enjoy sex, and socializing well into their older years and studies show are at least three times more likely to live past 90 or even 100 than people in most other countries.