Ikaria Island off the coast of Greece, close to Samos, where Pythagoras and Epicurus lived, is today called “the island where people forget to die” because of the high proportion of 100-year-olds.
Dan Buettner, National Geographic explorer and author of the book Blue Zones, says that the island’s population lives about eight years longer than average, with just a fraction of the average rate of dementia.
However, it is not just Ikaria. In his book, Buettner focuses on five regions in Europe, Latin America and Asia that the US researchers have identified as having the world’s highest concentrations of centenarians. And to qualify as a Blue Zone, these communities also have to be largely free of afflictions like heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. So clearly they’re doing something right.
Buettner in 2004 rounded up a bunch of anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists and other researchers to travel around the world to study communities with surprisingly high percentages of centenarians. He and the scientists interviewed hundreds of people who’d made it to age 100 about how they lived, then did a lot of number crunching to figure out what they had in common. Apart from food, there are some patterns including: sex, wine, napping and physical activity into daily life.
A year after that book was published, the team announced they’d narrowed it down to five places that met all their criteria. They gave them official Blue Zone status: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. In his book Buettner distills the researchers’ findings on what all the Blue Zones share when it comes to their diet. Here’s a taste:
Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full to avoid weight gain.
Eat the smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or evening.
Eat mostly plants, especially beans. And eat meat rarely, in small portions of 3 to 4 ounces. Blue Zoners eat portions this size just five times a month, on average.
Drink alcohol moderately and regularly, i.e. 1-2 glasses a day.
Buettner’s books are about the living model of “the world’s healthiest people”. Longevity is not just about food, but it is worth a close look, according to Buettner, who struck out on a quest in 2000 to find the lifestyle secrets to longevity and wrote a follow up to his original book on the subject. His second book, called The Blue Zones Solution, is aimed at Americans, and is mostly about eating.
Health researchers have long praised the Mediterranean diet for promoting brain and physical health and keeping chronic diseases at bay. So what makes the diet of the people on Ikaria, a small island in the Aegean Sea, so special?
“Their tradition of preparing the right foods, in the right way, I believe, has a lot to do with the island’s longevity,” writes Buettner.
And “what set it apart from other places in the region was its emphasis on potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, legumes (especially garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils), wild greens, some fruit and relatively small amounts of fish.”
Ikaria has a few more “top longevity foods:” feta cheese, lemons and herbs like sage and marjoram that Ikarians use in their daily tea. What’s missing that we usually associate with Greece? Lamb. The Ikarians do eat some goat meat, but not often.
So, do you think you can do it like the islanders of Ikaria?