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What a Tiny Greek Island Can Teach Us About Living Long

Here we are with our sixth article about the Blue Zones.

Today we are going to talk about Ikaria, Greece: ‘the island where people forget to die.’

Those who inhabit this tiny Aegean island live 8 years longer (on average) than Americans. They experience 20 percent less cancer, 50 percent lower rate of heart disease, and relatively no dementia.

In other words, Ikaria boasts a population that is almost completely free of many chronic diseases and, as a result, a whopping 30 percent of people make it to their 90s!


Let’s find out together.

More About Ikaria

The tiny Aegean island of Ikaria has a rich, if embattled, history.

Because of repeated invasions over the years from the Persians, Romans, and Turks, the Ikarians fled from the coast and moved inland where they were safer. By doing so, they created an isolated culture steeped in tradition, family values, and healthful living.

Longevity is woven into the Ikarian lifestyle.

Here are some of their habits (not unlike many of the other Blue Zones) that encourage healthy, long lives:

  • Lots of Physical Activity: The Ikarians garden, walk, and simply move a lot on a daily basis.
  • A Frugal Diet: Like Sardinia, the island residents of Ikaria have traditionally eaten a low-calorie diet. As loyal Greek Orthodox Christians, they also tend to fast for religious events.
  • A Veggie-Rich Diet: Their diet has been based on fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and potatoes. (However, later on, we will discuss how this has changed in recent years.)
  • Regular Naps: Studies show that people who nap regularly have 35 percent lower chance of dying from heart disease. This may be because napping lowers stress hormones or simply because it rests the heart.
  • No Cigarettes: There is little smoking in Ikaria (or any of the Blue Zones).
  • An Active Social Life: Nurturing connections with family and friends makes people feel happy and supported. Putting a premium on relationships benefits overall health…and longevity!

But when all is said and done, diet continues to be one of the biggest contributors to a long and healthy life.

Therefore, once again we will dive into the subject of the Mediterranean diet, covering the following two topics:

  1. Why the traditional Mediterranean diet no longer exists
  2. What in the Mediterranean diet really contributes to health and longevity

Why the Traditional Mediterranean Diet No Longer Exists

To discuss the traditional Mediterranean diet, we must introduce a scientist named Ancel Keys, an American physiologist who studied the influence of diet on health and was the first to believe that saturated fat intake is linked to heart disease.

He was also a steadfast proponent of the traditional Mediterranean diet.

Keys is perhaps best known for his Seven Countries Study, which began in 1958 and lasted decades. The study, which analyzed 12,000 healthy middle-aged men living in Italy, the Greek Islands, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the US, suggests that saturated fats cause arterial blockages, which result in heart attacks.

By making the link, Keys also proposed that heart attacks are preventable, governed by lifestyle choice rather than genetics.

The Seven Countries study was inspired by the Greek government, which, after World War II, was eager to improve the economic, social, and health conditions of its country. In order to better understand how to raise the island’s standard of living, they invited the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct a major epidemiologic study on the island of Crete.

It was during this time that Keys visited the island and was immediately impressed by its low rates of heart disease relative to those of the US. He was also intrigued by the fact that a country of such limited financial means could enjoy a far lower rate of cardiovascular disease.

Eager to learn more, Keys decided to launch a study to compare the Crete lifestyle with that of the US. Over time, he added more countries to the study.

At the time of the initial study (the 1950s and 60s), the Mediterranean diet was 90 percent plant-based, consisting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, very little meat, and scant fish. Only 7 percent of the diet’s energy came from animal origins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products.

As we have seen over and over again, a largely plant-based diet lowers the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, inflammation, depression, cognitive impairment, and death overall.

The problem?

Today—60 years later—the Mediterranean diet bears little resemblance to the traditional diet that Keys first observed.

As far back as 1995, Ancel Keys himself noted that “We must consider what the Mediterranean diet is now, what it used to be, and how it is changing.”

Simply put, the traditional Mediterranean diet is a thing of the past.

Problems With the Modern Day Mediterranean Diet?

The modern Cretan ‘Mediterranean diet’ is a far cry from the 90 percent plant-based Mediterranean diet that Keys so loved.

Today’s version is much more diluted and contains:

  1. Too Many Animal Foods: Meat and cheese consumption has greatly increased over the past few decades at the expense of plant food. And not surprisingly, the increase has been accompanied by a corresponding dramatic rise in cardiovascular disease.
  2. Too Much Alcohol: In our article about the Blue Zone in Sardinia, we shared research regarding the association between alcohol and a higher risk for breast cancer.
  3. Too Much Olive Oil: We have already discussed olive oil at great length in our article Why You Should Opt Out of Olive Oil.
  4. Too Much Salt: Another huge problem with the modern Mediterranean diet is that it is high in sodium. Salt intake increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes.
  5. Refined Foods: The modern diet has a lot of white bread and pasta and few whole grains. While whole grains are associated with a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, refined grains do the exact opposite, increasing the risk of all three.

How Does the Mediterranean Diet Really Contribute to Health and Longevity?

The changes in the modern day Mediterranean diet are even more troubling when we consider what it is in the diet that actually delivers health and longevity benefits.

We know what those components are, thanks to the Greek EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition), designed to understand what exactly in the Mediterranean diet contributes to better health and lowers mortality rates.

Here is a breakdown of the EPIC findings:

  • A high consumption of plant foods accounted for 37.2 percent of the reduction of mortality.  The 37.2 percent can be further divided into vegetables (16.2 percent), fruits and nuts (11.2 percent) and legumes (9.7 percent).
  • Reduction of meat intake contributed 16.6 percent to the reduction of mortality. Importantly, this shows that lowering meat intake is not enough—the addition of plant foods is just as (if not more) important.
  • Consumption of olive oil comes in at 10.6 percent. It is essential to point out here that the ‘health benefit’ of olive oil is related to the fact that olive oil tends to replace other oils that are higher in saturated fats. Therefore, olive oil is a better alternative to these oils, but it does not actually promote health in and of itself.
  • Fish had no effect. This is because the intake of fish and seafood is low in Greece (undermining the popular belief that fish is a common ingredient in the Mediterranean diet).

According to the EPIC study, reduction of meat intake and consumption of vegetables contribute a large chunk of the Mediterranean diet’s health and longevity benefits.

However, today’s modern version, with its higher amounts of meat, cheese and oil and lower content of green leafy and other vegetables, effectively erases out those benefits.

The traditional Mediterranean diet might indeed hold the ‘secret sauce’ to longevity, but its modern day counterpart does not.

We have officially come to the conclusion of our Blue Zones series.

These interesting geographic locations have taught us important lessons about longevity, and one thing is crystal clear.

By implementing some simple lifestyle changes and adopting a whole food plant-based diet, we may all live in our very own Blue Zone!

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.