Ikaria may look like many other Greek islands, but it’s one of the world’s five Blue Zones where a third of people live into their nineties. Their longevity is also characterized by better health with lower cardiovascular disease rates and a higher quality of life.
A daily afternoon nap and social connections seem to contribute to their longevity. Then there’s their diet, which includes grass-fed goat’s milk, rich in potassium and the stress-relieving hormone tryptophan.
1. The Ikarian Way of Life
Ikaria is one of the five Blue Zones, areas around the globe that have people who live longer and healthier lives than the local or global average. This is because they’ve found a way to keep their bodies in excellent working order, stay mentally sharp into their elder years and experience few health issues in the process.
One of the reasons for this is the slow and simple lifestyle that Ikarian’s embrace. They’re known for a nonchalant relationship to time, often sleeping in late and taking daily naps. They don’t wear watches and aren’t stressed out by work or dinner plans. In fact, most homes have year-round gardens that provide them with fruits, vegetables, herbs and legumes. They also raise livestock such as sheep, goats and rabbits but only slaughter a small number of animals each year, and they consume the meat slowly and in moderation.
The Ikarian diet is plant-based, but they also eat the occasional fish and some yogurt. They’re big on whole grains and eat a lot of local produce such as wild greens, beans, fruit, and potatoes. They drink a lot of mountain tea and use family-produced olive oil, honey, cheese and milk as staples. They often make soufico, a one-pot vegetarian stew that’s packed with healthy veggies such as onions, garlic, tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant.
2. Ikarian Food
Ikaria, like many Blue Zones, has long attracted attention because of its natural beauty and the fact that 1 in 3 people there live past 90. The lifestyle that Ikaria’s residents have cultivated, along with the quality of the food they eat and drink, appear to be key factors in their uncanny longevity, as well as their sense of joy and peace. Among other things, a minimal consumption of meat and dairy (along with a focus on beans), nuts, fresh, home-grown fruits, vegetables, herbs and thyme honey seem to make the difference.
Ikarians also rely on wild greens, leeks, oregano and chamomile that grow throughout the island, as well as a variety of other local produce, to build their diet. They typically eat a light lunch and dinner with the family, and drink herbal teas, including a traditional mix of thyme, rosemary, sage, dandelion, and fliskouni that provides a wide range of benefits, such as detoxifying, stimulating, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Buettner and her team have collected a wide variety of traditional recipes from the island that embody the best of this healthy Mediterranean diet, as well as helpful tips for growing your own garden, making homemade cheeses, and even preserving with traditional methods. The book includes plenty of photos and easy-to-follow recipes that are a perfect fit for any Blue Zone diet.
3. Ikarian Wine
In addition to a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, Ikarians are also wine lovers. The island’s vineyards are home to indigenous grape varieties such as Fokiano and Begleri. These are minimal intervention wines that use indigenous yeasts to create wine with a unique character that reflects the terroir of the region.
Wine has long played a significant role in Ikarian culture. It is served with meals and at local events and is consumed in moderation, as Ikarians believe that too much alcohol is not good for one’s health.
Despite the fact that Ikaria was occupied and influenced by a number of empires, conquerors and societies throughout its history, its people have managed to preserve many of their traditional customs and traits. Ikarians are down to earth, industrious, hospitable and independent. They are a proud and resilient people who do not seek out the limelight but rather take pleasure in living a simple life full of joy and laughter.
Researchers have tried to figure out what is it about Ikaria that makes it such a happy and long-lived place. It could be the nutrient-rich food that adheres to the Mediterranean diet, the stress-free lifestyle or the fact that Ikarians are surrounded by nature and their close community of family and friends. Or maybe it is a combination of these factors. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Ikarians live on average ten years longer than people in the majority of Europe and America and one in three islanders reach their 90s.
4. Ikarian Culture
Despite their reluctance to speak of their age, the islanders we meet in Ikaria make you believe they could live another century. They are friendly, relaxed and down to earth. It is impossible not to feel welcome on this special place.
Several factors have been speculated as the secret to the longevity of the Ikarian people. The daily walking exercise resulting from their rural lifestyle, the use of herbs and the fresh goat’s milk all contribute to physical health. The Mediterranean midday rest, which consists of a short nap, has been shown to improve cardiac function and the strong social connections among Ikarian people also increase longevity.
But it is the mental and emotional attachments Ikarians hold to their land, families and culture that are most striking. As Ikaria is a place of freedom, its inhabitants have no desire to keep up with the rat race of modern life and they choose instead to live their lives at a subdued pace that reflects nature.
Visiting Ikaria makes you realize that the key to longevity isn’t about diet and exercise, but a more holistic way of life. The local people have managed to maintain their sense of connection to their roots and traditions, while embracing modern technologies. In doing so, they are able to enjoy the best of both worlds: a healthy and happy life.