The Ikarian Diet – The Secret of Longevity?
Nestled in the tranquil waters of the Aegean sea is the tiny Greek island of Ikaria or Icaria where life is not just sweet but extremely long. Like the Italian island of Sardinia and the Japanese island of Okinawa, the inhabitants of Ikaria are far more likely to reach a ripe old age in better health than their American counterparts.
This beautiful island, one of hundreds that make up the Greek islands, is under 100 square miles in size and is home to some 9,000 people. While it may not be as well known as some of the more famous Greek islands, its notoriety is growing. Increasingly popular with tourists for its incredible natural beauty, Ikaria is also gaining a reputation for the extraordinary health of its lucky inhabitants.
Ikaria is one of the very few Blue Zones in the world. One of only five places recognized for the longevity of its population, Ikeria joins Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda in California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica on the list.
In order to be recognized as a Blue Zone, one in three members of the population have to survive into their 90s. While that in itself is a remarkable statistic, I have a few more for you.
Ikarian Longevity Facts
If you live in ikeria, you are far more likely to live longer than a person born in the US. More than twice the percentage of Ikarians reach their 90s compared to the American population. Unlike Okinawa, where women tend to live longer, it is the Ikerian men that seem to benefit most from longevity. A whopping 4 times the percentage of men are still alive in their 90s compared to their male American counterparts.
While reaching a grand old age may seem attractive, it can only be a good thing if you get there in good health. And that is another significant point. The Ikerians who do reach their 90s typically do so in better health than American men with far less need of expensive medical care.
Ikarians typically develop killer diseases like heart disease and cancer some 8 to 10 years later in life than Americans. While the risk of dementia in old age is high throughout the world, it is considerably less common in Ikeria. In fact, Ikerians are nearly 40% less likely to develop dementia than an American citizen. Similar figures also apply to depression.
Why do Ikerians Live Longer?
So what exactly is it about Ikeria that means its inhabitants can enjoy such a long and healthy life?
We will get onto the typical Ikerian diet soon but there are several other potential factors that should not be ignored.
First of all, the island is very isolated lying some 10 hours boat trip away from the capital city, Athens. Because of its isolation, Ikaria has managed to remain pretty much untouched by today’s stressful lifestyles.
It has also remained untouched by the modern consumer driven lifestyle that most of us experience in the West. This of course includes fast food chains and convenient processed snacks and foods.
Unlike many other Greek islands, Ikaria does not have natural harbors. Being exposed to strong winds, the shipping industry has largely excluded it. This in turn forced its inhabitants to become more self sufficient and largely immune to many of the detrimental effects of industrialization.
Exercise is another factor. While many of us find it hard to fit it into our lives, the Ikerians embrace it fully. Most exercise on the island takes place in the fresh air of the great outdoors. Gardening is an integral part of life which can also burn up more calories than you may imagine and being devoid of city sprawl, most people walk wherever they want to go.
Ikarians also enjoy getting their exercise through late night dancing. For anybody that has always been told that getting an early night and waking up early the following morning is a route to health and happiness, then the Ikarian routine may be a little bit of a surprise.
They typically stay up very late into the night and sleep in late the next morning. But like many of their Mediterranean counterparts, they also indulge in plenty of afternoon siestas.
The island and inhabitants enjoy a genuinely, unspoiled slow pace of life immune in many ways to the needs of alarms, watches and clocks. Their sleep patterns instead rely mostly on cicadian rhythms and their body’s own internal clock.
The Ikarian Diet
So now that you have a feel for their way of life, you may already be feeling a little envious. I know that I am. But what of their diet? What is it about the food they eat that helps the inhabitants of this island live far longer and in more robust health that the rest of us?
For starters, the Ikarian diet is almost completely devoid of the processed foods and sugars so prevalent in the Western diet. They eat plenty of wild caught fish and local, organic fruit and vegetables.
They also limit the amount of meat they eat and make use of plenty of healthy olive oil.
When they finally arise at around 10.00 in the morning, the typical resident of the island will take a late breakfast. This usually includes yogurt made with goat’s milk, a few cups of coffee or herbal tea and some healthy whole grain bread with locally produced organic honey.
For those inhabitants that prefer a drop of wine to their tea or coffee, the time of day is irrelevant and plenty of islanders enjoy taking a few glasses of wine with their breakfast.
Lunch is usually eaten later than we would eat it in most of the West. The meal is then followed by a much needed mid afternoon nap…. Oh to be an Ikarian.
Ikarians eat plenty of fresh, healthy beans and legumes to go along with a range of organic garden vegetables. These fresh produce comprise the bulk of their meal which is prepared with a liberal amount of delicious local olive oil.
To accompany their vegetables and grains, the Ikarians eat plenty of wild caught fishes. Meat dishes are more rare and the Ikarians who often raise a pig or a goat in the garden make use of them as food rather sparingly.
Families typically slaughter only a single animal each year and then ration out the meat in very small portions over the coming weeks and months. This means that the saturated fats in their diet is kept very low.
The afternoon naps which follow lunch are demonstrably good for the body and mind. Statistics show that people who nap at least 3 days a week are far less likely to develop heart disease.
The Ikarian dinner is usually very light. It may include more fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, goat’s milk and a few glasses of wine or beer.
How does the Ikarian diet Compare with the Typical American Diet?
Apart from eating significantly less sugar and processed food than the average American, Ikarians also eat around 6 times the amount of legumes and beans. They also consume at least twice the amount of fish each week.
Unlike Americans and the people of most other western countries, Ikarians eat meat on average only 5 times each month.
Ikarians drink wine and beer in moderation but surprisingly theur consumption is not overly moderate. The inhabitants of the island average between 2 and 4 glasses of wine a day while they also drink between 2 and 3 cups of coffee.
While we tend to visit the local supermarket for our food, the majority of Ikarians are keen gardeners who produce plenty of their own fresh vegetables and herbs. This fresh produce makes up a large portion of the Ikarian diet.
Ikarians understand the benefits of fresh herbs and cultivate plenty of healthy herbs including sage, mint, marjoram, dandelion and rosemary which they use to make teas and other drinks. These herbal teas are packed to the rafters with antioxidant value and other medicinal properties such as natural diuretics and anti-inflammatory compounds.
The lesson here is not groundbreaking and appears fairly obvious. Nonetheless, few of us in the western world take much heed. If you want to live a long and healthy and want to ensure that your children grow up in the best possible health, there are plenty of lessons to learn from the people of this tiny island.