Monday, 25 May 2009

The secret of Ikarian life

Can you imagine: being a hundred years old on a Greek island? No stress, to maintain a little vegetable garden, looking out over the bright blue sea, taking a stroll through the mountains, picking wild vegetables, figs, walnuts, drinking a glass with your friends in the cafenion, taking a nap each day and eating according to the Ikarian diet…

This is the secret of the Ikarian life, which, according to the American health guru Dan Buettner, gives you a better chance of a long and healthy life. Buettner has named four regions in the world he calls “blue zones” (, all of them places where the environment is conducive to old age. Besides the Greek island of Ikaria there are Nicoya in Costa Rica, Okinawa in Japan and Loma Linda in California, United States. Buettner published his findings last year in the book: The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest.

These regions all have their secrets, and on Ikaria it’s not only diet, but social life and exercise. The Ikarian diet is a variant different of the classic Mediterranean diet: lots of vegetables (amongst them plenty of wild vegetables and beans), a little sugar and meat, fewer grains and less fish and more potatoes, goat milk, with regular doses of honey, herb tea, a glass of home made red wine and, of course, olive oil.

And do no think that all people from a little Greek village exercise daily on a home trainer, or do gymnastics together in the village square like they use to do in Japan, or that they are all member of a football club.

Greeks are known for doing very little exercise: everything that can be done by car, even if it means a few dozen meters to the shops, is done on four wheels. Here on Lesvos, the locals are amazed that so many tourists come to the island just to walk. And there is many a Greek who will stop and offer walkers a lift – a generous habit that will only change if and when the Greeks realize walking is healthy.

The tourist part of Lesvos in the north might still be almost as healthy as on Ikaria, but not if more and more people decide to ‘walk by car’. Many Greeks in the villages here have heart diseases and will not reach the age of 60, whereas in the north of Ikaria a third of the population reaches the wonderful age of 90.

Although Molyvos is a village with steep slopes and plenty of steps, whenever and wherever you step outdoors on Ikaria you have to either climb or descend through the village streets. I am always full of admiration when I see the old people doing their daily shuffle up and down the stairs – while their younger neighbors do it by motor. (A former mayor of Molivos once said that he was against building a new road down from the town to the port because it was healthier for people to walk TB).

Keeping a garden is also a very healthy way of life. Not only for the homegrown vegetables, but because it means lots of exercise: digging, sowing, weeding, harvesting. Daily walks and gardening will keep you in shape.

Another factor of the good Ikarian lifestyle is the afternoon nap, the famous siesta. All Greeks used to take a nap in the afternoon but especially in the tourist areas, this is disappearing. When you walk around in Molyvos early afternoon, you will always see some life, but on Ikaria you will not meet a soul. It has to be said that the Greeks have their main meal of the day in the afternoon and after such a dinner a nap is more than welcome.

The curious factor of the Ikarian good life is the social side of it. Here in Greece the family ties are very important and houses are shared by more than two generations. Old people’s homes are practically unknown in Greece. Grandparents play a key role in the upbringing of their grand children and the household, so the old people have an active social role. According to the Ikarians, living alone is very unhealthy, and there’s an old Greek saying: if you go to church regularly you’ll live longer. Maybe it’s the walking as well as the prayers.

Concerning the food, the “blue zone” message is clear: eat fresh food, lots of different dishes and eat what’s in season. The Ikarian diet is full of home products — as it is on Lesvos — although here we eat more according to the usually Mediterranean diet — with more fish and grains. Lately, scientists have been alarmed by the impact modern life has on our diet as we move to frozen and fast food, especially in the tourist areas. (Last year it was revealed by the international Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that of all EU citizens, the Greeks now have the highest (and unhealthiest) body mass index (BMI) The reason? Because they have largely abandoned the traditional diet — and the Ikarian variant — in favor of food with too much fat, salt and sugar. Sad but true. TB)

Happily enough, though, the modern food style has not yet conquered Lesvos, and even the tourists tend to eat the real Greek food that is served in nearly all the restaurants. Maybe not so many Greeks here on the island reach the age of 90 as they do on Ikaria, but I am sure that in the Lesvorian mountain villages where the traditional life continues like in the old times, a third of the people will easily reach the age of 80. So, I bet Lesvos qualifies as a light Blue Zone…

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki, 2009


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