The Blue Zones Diet: How to eat your way to a longer life
Ikaria is considered to be one of the five regions that Dan Buttner has identified as the Blue Zones. Researchers discovered that these regions have the highest concentration of centenarians globally. These five populations all follow a similar way of life: they move more, they are part of social circles that encourage healthy behaviours, they take time to de-stress, they live as part of a community (often religious) and they dedicate time to their families. Another significant factor is their diet.
The Ikarian Diet has a large focus on vegetables and pulses, it is plant based for the most part. They eat meat and dairy sparingly. The local diet in Ikaria has a big focus on beans, legumes and wild greens. There are nine foods in particular that Dan Buettner considers as staples of the Ikarian Diet.
1. WILD GREENS
“Most of the food eaten in Ikaria is harvested from seasonal gardens, which provide the purest form of the Mediterranean diet in the world,” says Buettner. There are many wild greens local to Greece that grow throughout the year and are often referred to under the name ‘Xorta’. Wild greens tend to have a richer nutrient composition than their cultivated equivalents and for the most part are free of any pesticides.
Wild greens are usually cooked and served with olive oil and lemon and can be eaten with feta and bread. Another popular use is to make ‘xortopita’, a savoury pie made with phyllo pastry. You don’t have to live in Greece to enjoy Xorta, you can use almost any leafy green vegetable available: endive, dandelion, spinach, purslane, beetroot leaves, chicory or amaranth to name a few.
2. OLIVE OIL
You can’t have a longevity food list without Olive Oil! Olive oil has numerous benefits ranging from anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant properties and serving to protect the body against harmful free radicals, there is no wonder it is referred to as liquid gold. Worldwide studies have linked olive oil consumption with many health benefits from heightened immune system to protection against Alzheimer’s. Greek olive oil tends to have much lower acidity than most others on the market.
Ikarians use olive oil to cook with and to dress salads and vegetables.
This may surprise some. Potatoes are often seen as the root of the obesity crisis in the US, largely due to how they are prepared – fried, covered in cheese, bacon etc. However, in Ikaria they are revered as a life-giving food source. They are high in fibre, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B6, which combined with their lack of cholesterol makes them a healthy food source. Eating the skins also ups your fibre intake.
Ikarians use their potatoes for baking, or they boil them and put them in salads and soups.
4. BLACK-EYED PEAS
Ikarians tend to not eat significant amounts of meat, they eat above average amounts of vegetables, beans and pulses which are usually locally sourced. Beans serve as a nutritious, low fat source of protein and are often served as a meat substitute. The flavonoids in beans may help to decrease risks of heart disease and cancer. Black-eyed peas are a great source of a number of nutrients, are high in fibre and very versatile.
Ikarians eat black eyed peas in salads, soups and stews.
5. MEDITERRANEAN HERBS
Wild seasonally harvested herbs such as marjoram, sage, mint, chamomile, rosemary and dandelion are infused into flavorful hot and cold teas. With their powerful antioxidants and health-restorative and protective compounds, these delicious herbal drinks add a medicinal component to Ikarians’ already healthy mostly vegetarian diet.
Many of the herbs also have mild diuretic effects, which help keep Ikarians’ blood pressure low and relieve hypertension, thus leading to very low instance of heart disease on the island. Greece’s mountains are also rich in Oregano and thyme. Both of these add flavour and health benefits to many Ikarian dishes.
Add lemon to your drinks or use it to spruce up your meals! Lemon has been proven to boost metabolism and aid with digestion. It is high in calcium, potassium, and vitamin C. Squeezing a little lemon juice on food can actually lower its glycemic index. The juice works to slow down the rate of sugar absorption.
Ikarians use lemon everywhere from their water to salad dressings, as a dressing on meat and fish, it is considered to be one of their little tricks!
As a rich source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, chickpeas are a great addition to any diet. Consuming chickpeas can help to improve digestion, balance weight management and even decrease the risk of some diseases. Chickpeas, like black-eyed peas are high in protein and serve as a brilliant replacement for meat in plant-based diets.
Ikarians eat chickpeas in salads, stews and soups.
Greek coffee is a big part of local culture but is also increasingly being viewed as a drink that is beneficial for our health. Boiled Greek coffee (Elliniko Café) is relatively low in caffeine and has high levels of polyphenols and antioxidants. Extensive research has discovered that the occurrence of these potent antioxidant ingredients found in Greek coffee are connected to healthy heart function, protection from type ll Diabetes and much more.
Honey has been used holistically for hundreds of years to treat sore throats, coughs, minor burns, cuts and even bacterial infections. Greek honey is extremely nutritious and is filled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Honey is also very easy to digest and is recognized for its cancer-fighting properties. In Ikaria many people start their day with a spoonful of raw local honey.
Local honey in Ikaria totally pure, natural, unpasteurized and free of any chemicals or pesticides/herbicides. It tends to be a mix of honey from pine trees, herbs (including Thyme), and a variety of flora species native to the island.
Ikaria is a prime example of the Mediterranean Diet and lifestyle in all elements. This ranges from the ways in which the locally grown, seasonal food and community are connected in a manner that supports both physical and emotional health. The result of this is that many people on the island of Ikaria live a long and healthy life, with less incidence of cancer and heart disease than most other societies.
Locals cook, tend to their gardens, walk, enjoy wine and socializing well into their later years. Ikaria remains a solid example of true Mediterranean living. As in much of traditional Greece, preparing and eating food remains a very social activity. People take time over their food and allow themselves to truly enjoy it.
The fantastic thing about this list of foods is that everything on it is widely available. You don’t have to live on an isolated island in the Aegean to add these things into your diet.