Ikarian Food - Healthy Diet

To Ikarians "food is life" and their eating habits follow roughly the well-known "Mediterranean diet", which emphasizes plant-based ingredients in combination with exercise and a healthy social life. The traditional Ikarian diet is characterized by simplicity, moderation, variation, seasonality and the sparing use of meat. Ikarians’ diet has always been home-grown, foraged, seasonal, fresh and “everything in moderation”. The fact that Ikaria historically was isolated and underdeveloped created a heritage whereby the population learned to sustain itself on its own and with limited food resources. This meant people relied almost exclusively on what they could grow and harvest locally. Excess in general, meat and other less-healthy foods were limited to special occasions. The resulting culture of food awareness, respect and self-sufficiency continues to apply even today to what the healthy and long-lived Ikarians eat and has contributed significantly to the island’s "Blue Zone" status.

Not surprisingly, the majority of Ikarian households have year-round gardens which provide them with a constant stream of fresh and seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, beans and nuts. In addition to their local gardens, many Ikarians also raise livestock on a small scale. Pigs, goats, lamb, chickens, rabbits and hens make their way to the “Ikarian table” only occasionally and on holidays or special events. A typical family will slaughter perhaps one or two animals per year and consume the meat slowly and spread out over the year. This keeps the amount of saturated fat in their diets to a minimum. It goes without saying that their farming and animal husbandry methods are organic and non-invasive. Growing some of their own food also provides Ikarians with a sense of pride, self-sufficiency, purpose and dignity, not to mention exercise, sense of community and economic savings.

Eating Habits of Ikarians The people of Ikaria seem to have found the answer to a healthy diet even as fast and processed food has entered the daily reality of local life in the modern age. They still base much of their diet on wild greens, beans, fruits and vegetables picked in season, fish just plucked from the sea, pigs raised in the backyard, goats that graze wild in the mountains, and chickens that also eat leftovers from family meals. Family and locally produced olive oil, honey, wine, goat’s milk and cheese and mountain teas are all used and consumed in abundance. Many people still forage for wild foods, from nutritionally dense edible greens and weeds, berries and herbs to mushrooms. Ikarians are also experienced fisherman both professional and amateur, with families often catching on their own the seafood they consume.

Because Ikarians traditionally do not eat significant amounts of meat, they consume above average quantities of fish, vegetables, beans and pulses, many of which are grown locally. Beans, including lentils, chick and black-eyed peas, are all healthy and low-fat cholesterol-free sources of protein and thus a meat substitute in Ikaria. They figure prominently in Ikarian dishes and provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also simple to cook, versatile, inexpensive and filling. Also popular on Ikaria, and throughout Greece, is "horta" an edible wild leafy green weed like plant. It is served raw with lemon and olive oil or in cooked warm salads, soups, savory pies, and other recipes that can be either vegetarian or combined with meat and fish.

Ikarians have also developed a rich herbal tradition and herbs hold an important place in the local culture, as both food and folk medicine. 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.

In terms of meals Ikarians typically have a late morning breakfast comprised of goat’s milk, yogurt and or cheese, fruits, herbal tea or coffee, whole grain bread and local honey. At lunch, salads made of beans, legumes and potatoes, along with cooked fresh garden vegetables are standard fare and prepared with generous amounts of olive oil. Locally-caught fish may also be served and Ikarian red wine typically accompanies the meal. Meat, often a goat or pig raised by the family or neighbors is eaten only about 5 times per month. One exception to the measured use of meat in Ikarian meals are the traditional Saints’ and village feast days, or "Panagiria", where large quantities of meat, mostly goat, are cooked and served during the celebrations that take place throughout the summer.

Ikarians typically have a late lunch and it is usually followed by an afternoon nap, a practice that many Ikarians still follow and which results in a restful and stress free after work time. These quiet leisurely late afternoons, a heart-healthy routine also enjoyed by long-lived cultures and creatures throughout the world, greatly reduces the risk for heart disease. A light dinner of bread, olives, vegetables and wine is followed by evening visits with neighbors and a bedtime of around midnight.

Ikaria’s historic isolation helped create a living proof of the Mediterranean Diet in all its aspects including the ways in which locally produced fresh, seasonal, home-cooked food and community are interrelated in ways that support physical, emotional and mental health, relationships and interaction, and the environment. The result is that many Ikarians live long and healthy, with less instance of cancer and heart disease than other races and very few cases of dementia or depression. They cook, garden, walk, drink wine, enjoy sex, and socializing well into their later years and are 10 times more likely to live past 90 or even 100 than people in most other countries. Even in the modern age, Ikaria is still an example of true Mediterranean living. The basis of Ikaria’s good for life and soul diet and food habits are evidenced in its simple, natural foods, which are still eaten regularly. Their food gathering and preparation, cooking methods, eating habits and ingredients aim at strengthening the body and ensuring a healthy way of life by eliminating food-related health issues.

    Ikaria’s Staple Foods and Native Herbs and Their Health Benefits

  • Olive oil: Olive oil is the most representative source of monounsaturated fat acids and is rich in antioxidants. It has been proved to have cardioprotective properties and significantly contributing to the increase of “good” HDL cholesterol. Furthermore, olive oil exhibits protective properties against breast cancer. Because it displays higher thermal resistance during cooking, its use is recommended as the main source of fat in the Ikarian and Mediterranean diets. Olive oil provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fats as well as antioxidants like vitamin E, and it has anti-inflammatory benefits.
  • Ikarian Goat milk and cheese is antioxidant-rich and high in tryptophan, easy to digest. It is consumed raw and unhomogenized which preserves enzymes and certain nutrients.
  • Ikarian Red Wine which contains high levels of antioxidants, has been shown to increase absorption of antioxidants from other foods in the diet and lowers blood pressure when consumed in moderation.
  • Greek Coffee: has been found to be beneficial for circulation and protect against Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia and to promote blood vessel dilation and inhibit arteriosclerosis.
  • Antioxidants: Food sources rich in antioxidants help people live longer because they block free radicals produced by the human body and responsible for stress and aging. The antioxidants include various vitamins such as C, E, Q10, the B-carotene, lycopene and selenium, and are found in all fruits and vegetables with bright colors, such as citrus, tomato, kiwi, pomegranate, watermelon, berries etc.
  • Pulses: Lentils are one of the oldest pulses in the Eastern Mediterranean and one of the most important on Ikaria. Mostly people cook them up in simple soups.
  • Vegetables: This group of edibles helps the bowel function. Vegetables are rich in water and hydrate the body, while they are also a source of vitamins and minerals needed to boost the immune system. For example, carrots are rich in vitamin D, which protects your eyes and skin, tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which reduces the risk of certain types of cancer and chronic diseases, potatoes are rich in potassium, which regulates blood pressure, and broccoli is a source of calcium for strong bones. Vegetables additionally contain large amounts of folic acid (especially dark green leafy vegetables which Ikarian eat large amounts of, which has been found to protect from cardiovascular problems and pregnancy defects. Wild leafy vegetables found al over Ikaria contain high amounts of flavonoids.
  • Garlic: protects both the heart and brain cells. Garlic detoxifies and strengthens the immune system, can lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and deter blood clotting. Another property of garlic is that it combats bacteria and fungi, and therefore reduces the risk of infections and food poisoning.
  • Berries: Are an exceptionally good source of antioxidants protecting against various degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
  • Fish: Sardines, salmon, herring, trout are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and are cardioprotective, help lower triglyceride levels in the blood and are very essential to the operation and development of the nervous system, preventing the development of degenerative dementia.
  • Nuts: Like almonds and walnuts, are rich in gamma-tocopherol and vitamin E, which help monitor the levels of lipids, lowering levels of LDL cholesterol so as to prevent clogging of the arteries with plaque formation.
  • Wholegrain cereals and breads: have a low glycemic index and are healthier because they have undergone less processing, thus retaining more of their nutritional value. They exert a protective effect against various types of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and aid greatly the digestive process.
  • Mountain Herbal teas: Sage tea with honey was “our childhood antibiotic,” as my Ikarians still drink this when they feel a cold coming on, chamomile for insomnia, fliskouni pennyroyal tea - nature’s antibiotic
  • Honey: on Ikarian thyme honey , said to be a key part of the local’s recipe for longevity.
  • Mint: has among the highest antioxidant values of any food. It’s anti-inflammatory effects help alleviate allergies and colds. It calms the digestive tract and improves digestion and may help treat or prevent irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Rosemary: stimulates immune function and improves circulation, particularly to the brain, and digestion. Its anti-inflammatory benefits have been used to ward off asthma attacks.
  • Artemisia:, also known as wormwood, is one of nature’s most potent antiparasitic herbs
  • Sage: helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels and also preserves memory and cognitive function. Infused in tea with honey creates a natural antibiotic drink that wards off colds/flu.
  • Dandelion: is well known for its liver-cleansing benefits. It also builds bone strength, stimulates insulin production and helps flush the kidneys.

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