“Success leaves clues” is a saying for a reason: One of the easiest ways to improve our well-being is to observe what others with good health have done and understand how they accomplished it so that we can adapt their successful habits to our own lives. As we learn their secrets, we can start making changes that successfully restore our bodies and minds.
And the people from the Longevity Blue Zones (LBZ), five areas with the highest life expectancy rates worldwide, seem to have discovered the secret. One of those areas is on the Greek island of Ikaria, where people experience the lowest rates of dementia and middle-aged mortality. Not only do they live 10 years longer than most Americans and Europeans, but 1 in 3 Ikarians also live well into their 90s.
Naturally, everyone wants to know what they’re doing differently. Is it the beautiful backdrop of the Aegean Sea and olive groves? Or is there something larger at play?
The answer lies in their traditional way of life, emphasizing good nutrition and an active lifestyle. Therefore, there’s plenty of good advice here for maintaining your health. Here are some specific Ikarian traditions and how they may help:
Ikarian Secrets for a Healthful Diet and Lifestyle
1. Drinking Herbal Tea and Moderate Amounts of Wine
Made from wild marjoram, sage, mint, rosemary, and dandelion, these comforting drinks double as remedies. Research suggests that when enjoyed regularly, the natural diuretic properties in some of these herbs may help protect the body against high blood pressure, assist in fending off heart disease, aid in alleviating hypertension, and possibly decrease the risk of dementia.
Additionally, Ikarians drink one to two glasses of red wine every day, preferably with food and friends. Some studies show red wine may help support the heart, primarily through the action of antioxidants such as resveratrol.
2. Focusing on Veggies and Healthy Fats
Unlike people in most contemporary cultures, Ikarians focus their meals around seasonal, homegrown vegetables rather than making meat the star. This means loads of nutritional benefits: fiber, antioxidants, essential minerals, and a whole lot more. As such, residents of this island experience less diabetes, dementia, cancer, strokes, and heart attacks than Americans of similar age.
Also, Ikarians enjoy high amounts of olive oil, shown to lower cholesterol, control insulin levels, and satiate the appetite. They’ll often drizzle the organic, unheated oil over prepared food before serving to enrich the meal’s flavor.
3. Limiting Red Meat
Ikarians tend to eat lamb or goat only a few times a month. And, when they do, it’s often high-quality, grass-fed, hormone-free, and locally sourced. While studying more than 100,000 people, researchers found that those individuals who ate greater amounts of unprocessed and processed red meat had a higher mortality rate than other participants.
Ikarians also place great importance on incorporating beans into their diets, with black-eyed peas and garbanzo being two favorites. The vitamin-, mineral-, and antioxidant-filled legumes are great sources of fiber and protein.
4. Fasting Occasionally
With a strong tradition of Greek Orthodox practice, the islanders observe four fasting periods each year in addition to their weekly Wednesdays and Fridays. During these times, they abstain from products of red-blooded animals, dairy, and sometimes wine and olive oil. This leaves mainly plant-based foods, with cephalopods like squid and octopus added to the mix. Studies show that such caloric restriction may be associated with slowing the aging process.
5. Eating Larger Lunches and Smaller Dinners
On the island, dinner tends to take place early in the evening, often consisting of only a light salad or some bread and goat milk. Eating a large breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a smaller dinner may help with weight management and lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol, according to a 2013 study conducted at Tel Aviv University.
6. Limiting Sugar and Carbs
Foods high on the glycemic index are extremely low on the priority list here. Meals rarely include added sugar, and most treats enjoyed come in the form of wine or fruit. This could be why the island enjoys lower rates of diabetes than other parts of the world.
Sadly, sugar- and carbohydrate-laden foods, such as soda, potato chips, and processed foods, have started making their way to the island, but most residents keep their diets free of refined carbs and artificial flavors. Without all of that in their diets, many Ikarians are able to avoid chronic inflammation and insulin resistance — key drivers in heavy-hitting diseases.
7. Foraging for Wild Greens
Foraging for home-grown ingredients continues to be trendy in swank restaurants, but locals on Ikaria have been searching for dandelions, nettles, thistles, and wild asparagus their whole lives. Adding these to stews, salads, and teas ensures they get as much as 10 times more antioxidants than a glass of wine.
8. Moving A Lot
Ikarians rarely sit still. They’re constantly moving, often walking up to six miles a day, working in their gardens, and doing manual labor. By building movement into their daily lives, they are able to reduce inflammation, improve heart health and stress resilience, and maintain bone and muscular health.
9. Staying Social
Family and friends are paramount in Ikaria, playing a central role in all areas of life. In addition to committing to a life partner, most of the islanders have parents living at home. The grandparents help raise their grandchildren, which gives them an active social role.
Also, Ikarians make spending time with friends a daily activity. It’s not uncommon for them to meet at the local bar or café for games and conversation in the evenings. Prioritizing familiar and social interactions, as you can imagine, may readily result in lower depression, chronic stress, and even body weight. Studies show that after the age of 65, cognitive decline increases in the absence of social interaction
10. Keeping It Laid Back
There’s a general attitude on Ikaria that nothing happens fast. Most residents don’t even wear watches and enjoy a nonchalant relationship with time. No one is stressing about meetings or dinner dates. People stay up late, wake up late, and take daily naps in between. In fact, at 3 p.m., the stores close for an afternoon of rest and casually re-open in the evening. Having a more laid-back approach to life has been linked with a host of body and mind benefits.
Though you probably can’t drop what you’re doing and move to Greece, if you’re looking for ways to make your life a little less hectic, take some cues from the Ikarian people: eat great food, socialize well, and move your body. Ultimately, make your life its own blue zone!
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