The real Mediterranean diet
Food clearly plays a large role in the Ikarians' longevity: The Mediterranean diet they follow has been linked to lower rates of cancer, obesity, Alzheimer's disease, and—most recently—heart disease. And although we can't adopt all aspects of the Greek-island lifestyle, we can incorporate some of the eating patterns and dietary traditions practiced there. The best part? Eating like a Greek is not only healthy; it's also delicious.
A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. Ikarians regularly dine on potatoes, greens, olives, and seasonal vegetables harvested from their own gardens, for example.
Vegetables are a big part of every meal, and they are prepared in a healthy way—served raw in a salad or roasted with olive oil, rather than fried.
Greek yogurt, that is. This creamy treat packs about twice as much protein as regular yogurt, and it's also high in bone-building calcium and stomach-soothing probiotics.
By adding vegetables or fruit (like spinach and olives), you can increase the nutrient and fiber content of your everyday pie.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends getting at least half of your grains from whole grains—something the residents of Ikaria have been practicing for years.
Rather than live on white bread and pasta alone, the Greeks are known to mix it up with healthy, high-fiber alternatives like bulgur.
Legumes are a super power food in terms of getting more protein and fiber into your diet. Adding beans and lentils to snacks and side dishes will help fill you up faster and prevent overeating later on.
Yes, the Greeks eat a lot of pasta, but they balance it out with plenty of vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein—not to mention smaller portion sizes than what we're used to being served in America.
This tangy cheese “Feta” is a staple in Greek cuisine: Its semi-hard texture is great for both topping salads and baking into savory dishes, and it's slightly lower in fat than some other cheeses.
The Mediterranean diet encourages eating plenty of fish and seafood, which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, in place of red meat.
Greek salads are light, refreshing, and healthy—thanks in part to their simple and easy-to-make dressings. To make your own (and avoid the added sugars and preservatives found in many store-bought brands), simply combine heart-healthy olive oil with vinegar or lemon juice and a touch of honey.
Spinach and feta cheese is a classic Greek combo, often baked together into savory egg dishes and pastries, such as frittata and spanakopita. The versatile green can also be served raw in a salad.
Packed with lutein, calcium, folate, potassium, and fiber, spinach can help protect your vision, your bones and your heart—plus, it's at least 90% water, which means it may also help you lose weight, too.
Potatoes may get a bad rap based on their high carbohydrate content and the ways we tend to prepare them in America (chips, fries, or covered in cheese), but on the island of Ikaria, they're just part of a balanced diet.
Roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper, potatoes are a filling, nutrient-rich side dish. Plus, they're high in Resistant Starch, which can help burn body fat.
In a traditional Mediterranean diet, red meat isn't an everyday thing; rather, local pork or lamb may be served, in small portions, at special events and holidays.
Tired of chicken? Change up your go-to dinner dish by using shrimp instead. The low-fat, protein-rich shellfish, abundant in Mediterranean cuisine, goes great over pasta with lemon and olive oil, or in a souvlaki-style flatbread wrap with veggies.
Instead of chips and store-bought dips (which are usually loaded with saturated fat and empty calories) Ikarians tide themselves over between meals with smarter snacks—like raw vegetables and protein-rich dips made from Greek yogurt, beans, or lentils.
You've seen phyllo dough in your freezer aisle—and if you've ever cooked with it, you know it bakes up into paper-thin, flaky deliciousness. For a quick and easy Greek-inspired appetizer, try filling a pack of pre-shaped phyllo shells with fig jam and goat cheese.
Greek cooking wouldn't be Greek cooking without olives: These tiny fruits add an explosion of flavor to any dish, or can be enjoyed as a snack all by themselves.
In addition to their heart-healthy fat, olives (and olive oil, the main cooking oil in Mediterranean countries) are a good source of iron and vitamin E. Plus, an Italian study found that women whose diets included a lot of olive oil had a 30% lower risk of ovarian cancer.
Mediterranean dishes are rich in flavor, thanks to herbs like basil, parsley, and oregano. These ingredients add more than just taste, however: In an analysis of more than 1,000 foods in the U.S. food supply, these three herbs ranked among the top 50 most concentrated antioxidant powerhouses.
It's not just the food that makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy; it's also the way that Mediterraneans eat. Traditionally, they tend to gather around the table at meal time, spending quality time socializing and enjoying food together.
Create this environment in your own home by making a double or triple batch of lentil soup and bringing the whole family together. Savor the food, the conversation, and, of course, the wine!
The secret to Ikarians' famous longevity may lie in what they drink, not just what they eat. A March 2013 study of elderly Ikarians found that higher coffee consumption was associated with better blood-vessel function, a key factor in heart health.
And it wasn't just any type of coffee. The vast majority of study participants favored traditional Greek coffee, which is boiled in a small brass or copper pot known as a briki. Greek coffee is antioxidant-rich and may offer more health benefits than conventional brewed coffee, the study authors said in a statement.
by Amanda MacMillan