There’s a good reason why the Greek island of Ikaria, located in the far east of the Mediterranean, has been called “the island where people forget to die”.
On this tiny island exists a culture that’s rich in social traditions, age-old Greek food customs and valuable lessons on how to live a healthy and long life.
The unassuming island has been identified as a ‘Blue Zone’ – an area where its inhabitants are recognised for their longevity. The average age at death from natural causes in Ikaria is nearly 10 years higher than in other parts of the world, including Greece.
“A combination of factors explain it, including geography, culture, diet, lifestyle and outlook,” reads the Blue Zones website, detailing the dietary and lifestyle factors behind Ikaria's health-related fame. “[Locals] enjoy strong red wine, late-night domino games and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks.”
According to the Ikaria Study, a small-scale survey from the University of Athens in 2009, one-in-three Ikarians make it to their ninetieth birthday. The island’s locals have low rates of dementia, obesity and hypertension.
The study also unlocked a few of the island’s secrets to long life. The research found that the island’s inhabitants had high adherence to a Mediterranean diet.
“[Locals] enjoy strong red wine, late-night domino games and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks.”
“Additionally, healthy dietary habits seem to mediate the adverse effect of diabetes mellitus on aortic elastic properties in elderly individuals…,” the study reads.
Locals ate a diet rich in olive oil, fish, coffee, herbal tea, honey, beans legumes, fruits and vegetables. Although they did eat meat, sugar and most dairy products, they ate limited amounts.
The older people living on the island also did habitual physical activity, had a noon siesta and engaged in lots of social activities.
What you can learn about life and eating from Ikaria
Spiri Tsintziras, an Australian-Greek author and freelance journalist, visited the island in 2017 to learn the dietary and lifestyle principles of the island’s elderly peoples and employ the lessons learned, here in Australia.
During her two weeks on the island, Tsintziras immersed herself into Ikarian life and visited many older locals. In doing so, Tsintziras tells SBS, she noticed that the Ikarian lifestyle mentioned in the 10-year-old study is still prevalent. However, there are now signs of western advancement on the island.
“Things are changing on the island – there’s no doubt about it,” Tsintziras, who wrote the book My Ikaria explains. “There are now more Western influences on the island, like restaurants and some take-away food shops.”
Tsintziras says it’s not clear if the island’s longevity trend will continue long into the future, or if tourism and Western foods will increase.
“But, there’s something about the traditional way the island’s older people currently live and the way they still eat that’s helping them to live a long life. Many of the [older people I met] still grow their own food and have livestock on their land.”
Most of the food eaten in the village is what is often referred to as “peasant cuisine” in that it is unprocessed, uncomplicated, authentic and inexpensive cuisine.
“One of the classic summer meals is called soufiko,” Tsintziras says, explaining that the dish is like an Ikarian ratatouille. “It’s basically layered seasonal vegetables, cooked in the frypan, with olive oil and garlic.
“Another dish that belonged to a man I met who was living on the island and aged well into his 90s was fava or split pea soup. It had garlic, onions, lemon juice and olive oil, and could be served hot or cold. This dish is a traditional peasant dish in many parts of Greece but I had it in Ikaria.”
Simplicity is best
Although there’s a lot to be said for the simple Ikarian lifestyle and 'peasant' or village dishes, the point of learning about the island is not to encourage Western city-dwellers to go and farm their own vegetables.
“I certainly don’t think the idea behind the Ikarian lifestyle is to go back to village basics and live off the land, frugally. Most of us probably wouldn’t want to do that anyway. Most of us have jobs to go to and enjoy our access to lots of different foods and cuisines.”
For Tsintziras, learning about the Ikarian way of life and eating was a reminder that the secret to good health could be cheap and easy.
“Just move more, eat more plant-based foods, prioritise your social connections and live as well as you can each day. These are the rituals that you can build into your life, inspired by the Ikarians, that can help you live a more satisfying. Hopefully, they may be able to help you live a longer life too.”