The people of Ikaria, Greece live more traditionally than much of the rest of the world. What contributes to the Ikarians’ longevity and considerably low incidence of heart disease, dementia, and other diseases?
Ikarians do not eat unless they’re sitting down, relaxing, and spending time in conversation with one another.
- Vegetables and Beans: The Ikarian diet is largely plant-based, rich in vegetables and beans (like garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils) and low in meat. Seasonal vegetables are natural, unprocessed, and largely organic, free of pesticides and herbicides. Vegetables include wild mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, wild greens, pumpkins, squashes, and taro root.
- Wild Greens: Ikarians grow almost everything they eat and they eat a lot of wild greens. They eat a lot of fennel, dandelion greens, and horta (something like spinach), and anything their gardens produce seasonally.
- Nuts: Plentiful nuts on the island of Ikaria include almonds, walnuts, and chestnuts.
- Fruit in Season: Ikarians eat a lot of kalamata olives, stone fruits, apples, pears, oranges, grapes, figs, and blackberries in season.
- Low Sugar: Sugar is primarily added to morning coffee and is largely absent anywhere else in their diet.
- Olive Oil: Ikarians drizzle olive oil over almost everything they eat. They consume most of their olive oil unheated.
- Raw Goat’s Milk: Goat’s milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk and high in tryptophan, which reduces stress hormones and lowers the risk of heart disease. You could argue that goat’s milk is healthy, but I believe it’s not just that; it’s the fact that Ikarians drink raw goat’s milk. Remember, whenever milk of any kind is pasteurized, the beneficial probiotic, lactobacillus acidophilus, is destroyed. This probiotic helps to synthesize B vitamins in the colon and build healthy bacteria in the gut. The reason yogurt in most developed countries (like the U.S., Canada, and most of Europe) contains probiotics is because they were added back into the pasteurized yogurt after those probiotics were removed. Goat’s milk, goat cheeses, and goat yogurt in Ikaria, Greece is not pasteurized.
- Herbs and Herbal Teas: Ikarians drink a lot of herbal teas. These teas contain compounds that lower blood pressure, lower the risk of heart attacks, and lower the risk of dementia. One of the most popular teas is leriadis, a mountain herb tea drunk in the evenings. There are also teas made from wild marjoram, artemisia, sage, a type of mint called fliskouni, rosemary, and dandelion leaves with lemon. Many Ikarian teas contain mild diuretics. Other common herbs include fennel, savory, oregano, chamomile, and sage.
- Wine: Would you believe the Ikarian diet includes a little wine at every meal, even breakfast? They usually drink between two and four glasses of wine per day.
- Honey: Raw, unpasteurized honey is a staple in the Ikarian diet and is viewed as a general tonic. They start their day with a spoonful, use it to cure hangovers, take it to treat influenza, and apply it topically to heal wounds. Pine honey is unique to the island.
- Fish and Meat: Fish is eaten approximately twice a week. Other meats (usually goat or pork with lard) are eaten only about five times per month.
Typical Breakfast: A typical day might begin with a spoonful of honey. It is seen as a tonic. After that comes a breakfast of one optional glass of wine, goat’s milk or goat yogurt, sage tea or coffee, honey, and heavy naturally-soured sourdough bread made with whole grains.
Typical Lunch: A late afternoon lunch is usually a large meal consisting of perhaps another glass of wine, some kalamata olives, wild greens, plenty of potatoes, beans, or lentils, more heavy sourdough bread, and perhaps some hummus.
Typical Snack: A sunset snack with friends for Ikarians is a cup of herbal tea and one glass of wine.
Typical Dinner: Dinners consist primarily of only whole grain sourdough bread, goat’s milk, and a glass of wine. If they add anything else to this meal, it is merely some fish twice a week, or a bit of goat or pork five times a month. After a dinner with friends, a dance to traditional Greek music is not uncommon.
Video Montage of Ikaria, Greece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekcGMimmIZs
Lifestyle and Exercise
- Walking and Hiking: Ikaria, Greece is a mountainous region. The people spend a lot of time outdoors. Many are goatherds. Ikarians walk or hike the hilly island daily. Even people well into their nineties hike up and down mountains without a second thought.
- Daily Naps: Ikarians take a daily thirty-minute nap every day. Some say napping reduces the risk of heart attack and stress, and makes people look younger. Since one study indicates that men between the ages of 65 and 100 have sex regularly and with “good duration” and “achievement,” I suspect Ikarians’ daily naps offer health benefits beyond rejuvenating sleep.
- Sleep and Daily Schedule: Ikarians wake up naturally, without alarm clocks. Because they tend to stay up late, they usually wake up late. Many Ikarians will work in their gardens for awhile before and/or after breakfast. Shops might open for business at 11:00 AM, close at 3:00 PM while workers head home for lunch and a nap. Sunset is a time for visiting with friends and neighbors. Ikarians may or may not return to work after their social outing. Many Ikarians reopen their shops as late as 9:00 PM and work until long after midnight.
- Life Purpose: Ikarians may not get to work early in the morning, but their work gives them purpose and meaning in their lives clear into their hundreds. They do not believe in retirement. There is evidence that a clear definition of your life adds to one’s life expectancy.
- Relaxed Sense of Time: Ikarians do not wear watches. Being fashionably late is an accepted part of their culture. No one feels the least bit guilty about state of continuous relaxation. Consequently, they have less stress and fewer wrinkles.
- Community, Communalism and Communism: Ikarians have a strong community and tight-knit family and neighborly support. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and they like it that way. Everyone has a sense of belonging and acceptance. Such strong social connections have been shown to lower depression and body weight. They spend a lot of time together in groups of all sizes, singing and dancing, going to church, and celebrating numerous religious festivals. In fact, from May to October, they host between two and four Greek Orthodox festivals per week. Partying is an integral part of their lifestyle. A few pagan, Greek mythology-based festivals are celebrated, as well. Communal sharing is also part of their lifestyle. They pool their money to buy food and wine for parties, and any money left over is given to the poor. Some of this mentality may stem from the Greek Civil War in the 1940s when many political radicals and communists were exiled to Ikaria. Even today, a surprising number of Ikarians vote for the Communist Party.
- Family: Family is important to Ikarians. Sometimes three generations will live in one house, but even if they don’t all live together, grandparents tend to spend time with grandchildren on a daily basis. This type of social arrangement improves the health and well-being of both younger and older generations.
- Hot Springs: There are famous hot springs located on the island of Ikarus. Just how many locals actually immerse themselves in the spring’s healing waters I do not know.
- Clean Air and Sea: Ikarians attribute their health and longevity to the clean air and the sea all around them. However, other Greeks on surrounding islands breathe the same clean air and are surrounded by the same sea, yet they do not have the same levels of health and longevity as Ikarians.
- Gardening: Every Ikarian spends time outdoors in the sunshine each day, tending their gardens. It’s an Ikarian tradition. Everyone does it.
In conclusion, it is extremely difficult to look at the Greek diet and lifestyle and pinpoint precisely what features attribute directly to the health and longevity of the Ikarian people. Some have concluded that the above lists are a complete recipe for success. Removal of any one element could result in failure, but of course, no one really knows for sure.
Ikarian recipes are hard to find on the internet, but I’ll continue to add more as I find them. I think I need to visit Ikaria to collect recipes. If you know of any, please feel free to post a recipe in a comment.
Taro and Kidney Bean Stew
½ pound kidney beans, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf, cracked
½ cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
2 large red onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large taro root, peeled and cut into ½-inch thick half moons. Cut it down the middle lengthwise then slice.
½ cup chopped canned tomatoes or 1 tablespoon of sundried, tomato paste
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper
Lemon juice, verjuice, or a little red wine vinegar to taste
- Drain the beans and place in a large pot with enough water to cover by two inches. Bring to a boil, skim any foam off the top, add the bay leaf, lower the heat and continue cooking for about 35 minutes.
- While the beans are cooking, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy nonstick skillet and sauté the onions and garlic until soft and lightly colored, about 8 minutes over medium heat.
- Add the taro root slices and sauté for a few minutes, stirring. Local cooks do this to rid the taro of its mucousy texture. Set aside.
- Add the taro, onions and garlic to the simmering beans.
- Pour in another 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and simmer for about 1 hour until the stew is densely textured and the taro and beans soft.
- Stir in the parsley and adjust the seasoning with additional salt and pepper and either lemon juice, verjuice, or red wine vinegar.
Taro Root Salad with Skordalia
Serves 6 to 8
1 large taro root, peeled
1 red onion, halved and chopped
1 celery stalk, trimmed and chopped
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill
½ cup olive or more, as needed
3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice or red wine vinegar, to taste
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Peel the taro root and place in a pot with ample cold water (to cover by 2 inches). Salt the water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer the taro for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until fork tender.
- Remove with a slotted spoon and stand upright on a cutting board. Cut away the muddy remains of the taro’s peel and discard. Cut the taro in half lengthwise and then into chunks about 1½ inches in size. Place in a large serving bowl.
- Add the onion, celery, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Toss carefully.
- Serve warm or at room temperature, with classic Greek skordalia (recipe follows).
Skordalia (Garlicky Bread Dip)
4 to 5 2-inch thick slices of sourdough country-style bread,
5 to 7 garlic cloves, peeled
½ to 1 cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
¼ to ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
Salt to taste
- Dampen the bread under the tap and squeeze out the excess moisture.
- Place half the garlic and half the bread in a large mortar. Using the pestle, start pounding the mixture, adding salt and olive oil in small amounts, then more bread and garlic, and, again, salt, then olive oil and vinegar, alternating between each in slow, steady streams, until the mixture emulsifies and is a textured paste.
More Greek recipes can be found Diane Kochilas’ cooking website at dianekochilas.com. Not all recipes are necessarily Ikarian, however.