One of the most well-known Blue Zone diets comes to us from the Mediterranean. Blue Zones are those five areas on our luscious, green Earth where citizens routinely live into their 80s, 90s, and beyond; where the people are considerably healthier than most of their US counterparts with lower rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Blue Zones are those areas that were discovered by researchers on a global map where there was more longevity than in our country. They circled those areas in blue pens for further study and hence they became “The Blue Zones.”
Ikaria, Greece is a rather remote island where modern habits and attitudes have not become entrenched. They chop, grind, simmer, and stew without the so-called modern conveniences, except perhaps a pressure cooker. They bake in outdoor wood-fired ovens with wood that is scavenged locally. And due to the nature of being an island, most everything is gathered, grown, and produced locally.
In 2009 the study of Ikaria, Greece was begun with 1,420 of their population. Almost 675 of them were over 65 years old, and 80 of them were over 90 years old! Not a bad record to start with. Clearly, they are doing something right. But what is it; and can we learn from them? In addition to less cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, they have better digestion, better sleep, and less depression and stress than we have in the US. With a diet consisting of over 65% beans, vegetables, and fruit, and very little grains (1-5%), meats (5%), and sugar (4%) daily, they’ve got it down, as we are beginning to discover.
One study showed a 50% decrease in mortality with only four tablespoons of olive oil per day! Olive oil provides 50% of daily calories while being only 6% of the daily diet.
Years ago I read that Sicily has the lowest rate of heart disease in the world and the highest consumption of olive oil. Greens (17% of the diet) are fresh and locally grown or foraged, almost no dairy (except for Feta cheese made from goats’ milk) and fish once or twice a week. Hmmm…
Local sourdough bread is baked in those outdoor, wood-fired ovens using Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis, the same bacterium found in San Francisco sourdough bread, which was originally scraped off the walls of San Francisco bakeries where it presumably arrived with the immigrating Mediterranean people. It is now known that this good bacterium, when eaten with a regular meal, helps to decrease the glycemic index of that meal. Soured dough takes longer to digest which is why the sugar spike is spread out over time. It is why so many people who are gluten sensitive can eat bread in the European Union without distress.
Greens are virtually always harvested fresh from the backyard, not picked up days to weeks old from a grocery store. Wild greens are used extensively, including wild arugula (very easy to grow), dandelions, and purslane, considered “weeds” in our country, to be attacked with carcinogenic (cancer-causing) glysphote, also known as RoundUp. Many herbs are grown in backyards, especially oregano, sage, and thyme, and then hung from ceilings in open-air kitchens—not only picturesque, but healthful and convenient.
Small amounts of red wine are consumed but herb teas, both cultivated and wild are drunk daily–mint, rosemary, sage, and thyme. They are used daily as beverages, not just “medicinally.” No more than two to three cups of coffee are consumed if desired, which has been shown, in those amounts, to be protective of diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. And the elder members of this society often take one or two teaspoons of honey per day in their coffee or tea.
Like other areas of the Mediterranean, lemons are incredibly important in the diet with the juice going onto or into almost everything. Preserved in salt and water or olive oil they are eaten, skins and all, on chicken, fish, or vegetables. Eating the peel of lemons has an effect on blood glucose which helps to prevent or control diabetes.
Beans, peas, and legumes (the pulses) constitute more than 12% of the diet. Black-eyed pears (that are really a bean) contain some of the strongest anti-cancer, anti-diabetes, and heart protective substances found naturally in plants. When was the last time you cooked up a mess of black-eyed peas, the traditional “good luck” dish of the New Year? It’s April.
Maybe it’s time.
By far the favorite bean of Mediterranean countries is the chickpea, also known as the garbanzo bean. Though they are higher in fat than most beans almost all of the fat is unsaturated. I’m hoping you know that fats, the good fats, are necessary to keep our brains and other parts of our bodies healthy. With brains that are composed of 80-90% fat, perhaps the low-fat craze has caused the increase in dementia, at least partially.
Potatoes may have high carbohydrate content but so do bananas, which many US people eat daily. The riper the banana, the higher it is on the glycemic index. Most people eat them for their potassium content but potatoes have more potassium than bananas! Ikarians in Greece eat potatoes almost daily, unlike the pasta consumed by some other Mediterranean countries. But recent studies have shown that the lowly potato fights diabetes, lowers blood pressure, and decreases inflammation. Of course, I’m not talking French fries here.
Mediterranean people in general tend to eat slowly, instead of the American fast-food style. Most meals in Greece are eaten with family and friends, not speeding along on the highway (they don’t have highways) or working through lunch at a desk. If we could just slow down a little we might live a little longer. Take time to forage, pick, and cook your food. Then savor it as you eat it. We are now out of what used to be called “the hunger months” (January through March) as when food was stored to the winter it was mostly used up by then. Now we are blessed with the fresh Spring green things coming our way.