True Blue Zones: Ikaria, Greece

Tourism in the Greek island of Ikaria got a big boost when scientists determined that Ikaria was a blue zone—an area with a large number of long-lived inhabitants

Ikaria Lamb Shanks

According to an Ikarian tour guide website,  “After extensive research on the island, acclaimed New York Times Best Seller author of Blue Zones, Dan Buettner and his team, discovered the secrets of longevity on Ikaria and declared it as one of only 5 other Blue Zones worldwide. A Blue Zone is defined as a place where the environment is conducive to old age and in Ikaria it was found that residents are several times more likely to reach the age of 90+ compared to normal.  It’s also notable that on Ikaria instances of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are significantly lower, and dementia is rare.”

The usual factors get credit for Ikaria’s longevity: “Little or no stress, maintaining a home vegetable garden, looking out over the bright blue Aegean Sea, walking in nature, picking and eating fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, drinking wine with your friends and family, sleeping well and taking a siesta (short afternoon nap) and eating according to the Ikarian Diet.”

The Ikarian longevity diet is described as “rich in olive oil and vegetables, low in dairy (except goat’s milk) and meat products, and also included moderate amounts of alcohol. It emphasized homegrown potatoes, beans (garbanzo, black-eyed peas and lentils), wild greens and locally produced goat milk and honey.” Ikarians also drink a lot of coffee and wine, have low sugar consumption and consume an herbal mountain tea as a panacea for a variety of ailments. Overall, Buettner describes the Ikarian diet as plant-based with a “low intake of saturated fats from meat and dairy.”

Learn more about what our traditional ancestors really ate in Sally’s latest book Nourishing Diets

This description is similar to descriptions applied to other blue zones: Sardinia, Okinawa and Costa Rica.  But as we have seen, the common factor in all these diets is generous consumption of lard and pork, and higher consumption of animal foods among those who reach great old age. And as with our other three examples, Buettner’s descriptions of the meals he eats and the foods consumed are inconsistent with his low-fat conclusions.

For example, goat milk. Inconvenient fact: goat milk is a dairy food. The Ikarians consume a lot of goat milk and goat milk products, such as cheese and yogurt. This is not a diet that is low in dairy foods; it is a diet where dairy foods are consumed with almost every meal.  And goat milk is higher in fat and higher in saturated fat than cows milk. And remember this is raw goat milk (Buettner never mentions the R word), with all its nutritional components intact—nature’s perfect food, especially for the elderly.

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Buettner notes that “everyone has access to a family garden and livestock.” What is the livestock lurking in those family gardens?  Pigs, sheep, goats, geese, ducks, chickens? Buettner doesn’t say.

Buettner visits a couple named Thanasis and Eirini. “At Christmas and Easter,” he says “they would slaughter the family pig and enjoy small portions of larded pork for the next several months.” That sounds like at least six months of the year. But wait, the couple seems to have several pigs: “During a tour of their property, Thanasis and Eirini introduced their pigs to me by name.” So maybe they kill pigs on other occasions, not just for Christmas and Easter. And what is “larded pork?”  Could that be homemade salami, speckled with hard white fat?  This is one of those many details we wish he had supplied.

When articles about Ikaria appeared in the press—this blue zone was not included in Buettner’s book—I was puzzled that there was no mention of lamb—after all, Ikaria is in Greece. I emailed Buettner asking details about lamb consumption, but never got a reply.  A quick survey of the internet creates the impression that the Ikarians keep goats, rather than sheep.

However, I did find a YouTube video of sheep in an Ikarian garden, which begins with the statement, “This is where the blue zone team is staying. . .”  Of the sheep shown in the enclosure the narrator says “Sheep milk is strong and fatty.”  If the lamb shown in the video is male, he will soon end up on a platter for the Sunday roast. So the inn where Buettner was staying had sheep in the garden. . . . Hmmm. . .

Since Ikaria has been declared a blue zone, naturally there has been a study about it, this one carried out by the First Cardiology Clinic, School of Medicine, University of Athens: “Determinants of All-Cause Mortality and Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease (2009 to 2013) in Older Adults: The Ikaria Study of the Blue Zones.” In the study, the researchers subjected 673 individuals older than 65 to a variety of tests and assessed dietary habits using a diet score called MedDiet Score, “which assesses the level of adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern.”  The MedDietScore determines through a single dietary survey adherence to the so-called Mediterranean diet, namely “the weekly consumption of 9 food groups: non-refined cereals (whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice, etc.), fruit, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, fish, meat and meat products, poultry, full fat dairy products (like cheese, yoghurt, milk) as well as olive oil and alcohol intake.” Here’s how it works: for the consumption of items presumed to be close to the pattern (non-refined cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish and potatoes), scores 0 are assigned when someone reports no consumption and scores 1 to 5 are assigned for rare to daily consumption.  For the “bad” items (meat and meat products, poultry and full-fat dairy products), scores are assigned on a reverse scale.  So if you eat full-fat dairy every day you get a zero, and if you never eat it you get a five.  Talk about bias!

The main things they learned in the study: 1) the older you were, the more likely you were to die and 2) the participants didn’t adhere very well to the “Mediterranean diet.” Out of a total of 55 points, adherence was about 38.  According to the report, “None of the food groups or macronutrients intake was associated with the outcome.” Surprisingly, “energy intake was inversely associated with mortality,” meaning that those who ate the most calories lived the longest.  Could it be that full-fat dairy and red meat—which add a lot of calories—are associated with a longer life?

Indeed, with all the hype about the amazing Ikarian plant-based diet, it has been difficult to determine just exactly how our garden-tending Greek nonagenarians actually eat. Fortunately, a letter from George Voryas to the Weston A. Price Foundation provides us with important details.  I can do no better than quote the letter in full:

“Regarding . . . an NPR-aired report by Dan Buettner on longevity on the Greek island of Ikaria, it seems Buettner failed to take into account the demographics of the island, or was fed inaccurate information by locals, perhaps only intended for tourist consumption.

“According to various sources, in the early 20th century, Ikaria had a population of about twenty to twenty-five thousand, which declined steadily to the current level of six to eight thousand, due to emigration to mainland Greece, the US and other destinations in the world. So, the one-third of today’s residents on the island said to have reached 90 years of age, is about twenty-two hundred to twenty-seven hundred people. That’s not one-third of the population of which they were part at the time they were born. Today’s super-annuated Ikarians on the island are at best only 2-2.7 percent of their generation. Is that an amazing longevity feat? I don’t think it is much different from longevity figures for other parts of Greece and, probably, many other parts of the world.

“Some of that generation have emigrated to the Greek mainland or abroad, some may still be alive elsewhere, and some may have died elsewhere, but there is no reliable, verifiable, comprehensive information about their longevity or about some identical lifestyle or a uniform nutrition regimen they maintained, regardless of where in the world they had moved. Was the nutrition of their generation better or worse than that of subsequent generations? It’s hard to say, but there are historical and cultural indications that show it was not what the cholesterol-mythology ‘science’ in the West has inventively defined in modern times as ‘The Mediterranean Diet.’

“First of all, it’s important to note that there never was one Mediterranean diet anywhere in the Mediterranean. Nutrition was always dependent on local production and local consumption for numerous reasons, and it varied according to proximity to food sources. Some seaside villages ate more seafood, if isolated from pastures by topography. Mountain villages consumed more meat, because they had more grazing land and raised more livestock, so they also supplied some seaside areas, wherever accessible.

“However, both mountain and seaside villages consumed healthy amounts of game in the fall and spring. There was much less shipping of perishable, fresh foodstuffs, because there was no refrigeration and because transportation was costly, time consuming and limited to only few road-accessible locations.

“Different areas had different sources for their essential nutritional cholesterol intake. Mountainous areas sustained flocks of a variety of free-grazing, fat sheep and goats. In fact, the Maltese goats were famous everywhere in the basin for producing the most and the fattest milk, while Anatolia sheep were prized for their plentiful storage of fat on their tails.

“Without refrigeration, meat was preserved by cooking it well in kebab-size pieces and storing it in lightly salted, melted fat, which acted as a healthy, edible preservative. The meat was kept in big, wax-sealed, earthen jars in basements for at least several months at a time. The practice continued in many areas in the country even after the end of World War II. Mountain villagers also provided the nearby plains and seaside populations with dairy products and mountain game, such as wild boar in the mainland, lots of rabbits traditionally cooked with onions in wine flavored with bay leaves, and an occasional dorkada, a small antelope in northern Greece, or a wild goat or kri-kri on Crete.

“Seaside villages had more poultry roaming freely in their backyards and plenty of wild fowl. They trapped whole flocks of quail with big fishing nets spread on the ground or anchored on tree trunks; they caught smaller birds with home-made adhesive pads or xoverges, tied to tree branches, and used individual snares, called thilies, and shotguns for the large number of wild geese moving south from the Balkan peninsula and Asia Minor towards the big islands like Cyprus and Crete and to North Africa.

“In many islands and some mainland residential areas, people also raised flocks of pigeons and still do, not only for communications and competitions, but also for food. Much of the folk architecture of many Aegean islands traditionally includes highly decorative multiple pigeon pens on top of residences. Old Greek cookbooks have various recipes for cooking these delicacies in wine and olive oil, thyme or oregano, or even salting them for year-round consumption, just like fish. Most of the salt was washed off with lemon juice or vinegar before eating. The salt used, of course, was not processed, and it contained the normal amount of magnesium and other minerals of sea-water, so it did not affect blood-pressure as precipitously as modern, ‘free-running’ industrial salt.

“What caused the population of Ikaria to dwindle? Domestic and foreign emigration has been a constant drain. The unpredictable availability and expense of transportation, as well as the allure of economic opportunity and modern amenities in the mainland and abroad played an important role. Local recreation and social interaction on the island was mostly limited to the numerous communal, open-air feasts linked to various religious holidays, when the consumption of sheep and goat meat cooked in public areas and accompanied by the strong local wine was the usual fare, supplemented by game, mostly from flocks of migratory birds. As to fish, however, it was the traditional fare in funeral wakes. It still is in many parts of Greece. Meat was for festive occasions.

“One wonders whether Ikaria residents and the mainland physicians they rarely visited ever imagined there would come a day when an atrocious, so-called ‘correct Mediterranean Diet’ would be invented abroad and falsely attributed to islanders.

“As to the documented, predominantly leftist political leanings of the island’s residents, they are, to some extent, connected with internal social issues. They include the common resentment of seafood catchers and eaters against meat eaters, perceived as social injustice because of the highly envied socio-economic status of livestock owners and consumers versus the ‘proletariat’ status of fishermen. Meat, particularly red meat, was a status symbol, an indication of financial success and prominence.

“The importance of these perceptions is reflected in centuries-old folk songs and poems, where, for example, a father urges his son not to become a revolutionary and risk losing his chances at the enviable local status of a sheep and goat owner. There is no popular folk song extolling the social status of a skillful fisherman or a productive producer of tomatoes and beans. It is clear that nutrition based on foods of animal origin was the most desirable one, and those who could afford it were usually the best looking and most envied individuals.

“It is also worth reminding researchers that Greece had rampant tuberculosis infection rates in the first half of the 20th century. The victims included some prominent members of the Communist Party, who were internally exiled by dictators and royalists to ‘desert island’ detention camps, including Ikaria in the 1930s to late 1950s. Some of them are known to have denounced their ideology and their comrades in exchange for hospitalization in state-operated sanatoria for tubercular patients, which were built and operated only on mountain areas—not by the seaside where a more affordable diet of grains, vegetables and fish was available.

“In the days before antibiotics the only cure for the dreaded disease was restful confinement, large quantities of locally produced fresh, full-fat milk, and lots of fresh meat and eggs. . . not low-fat, low-cholesterol ‘Mediterranean’ foods.”

So there is plenty of fat lamb on the island of Ikaria, festivals featuring lamb are frequent, and life on the island was so limited (might we say boring) that the young people left in droves, leaving a concentration of older folks eating mostly natural foods, some of whom lived long. These facts make it difficult to conclude that a low-fat diet is a longevity diet, or even that Ikarians enjoy remarkable longevity at all.

The Weston A. Price Foundation is your source of accurate information on traditional diets.  Your membership supports the work we do.

Learn more about what our traditional ancestors really ate in Sally’s latest book Nourishing Diets

Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

13 thoughts on “True Blue Zones: Ikaria, Greece”

    1. Google him. I have found someone living in Alexandria, Virginia, who has written a book, which is for sale on Amazon. He’s on LinkedIn and such.
      I’m not 100% sure it’s the same one, but it does seem so.

  1. your argument seems to be that pork and lamb feature to a large degree in traditional Ikarian diet. however, you fail to point out that very few pigs and lambs would be consumed by the people rearing them. indeed, sheep and goats were mainly kept to make cheese. when a few were killed, their meat was not eaten in one go, but most of it preserved to last for months, and shared amongst various family members, on special days like Sundays. it is not a case where meat was being consumed on a daily basis. thus, the argument still holds.

    1. The study on this blue zone showed that those who at the most meat and other animal foods, like milk and cheese, lived the longest. They may not have eaten as much meat as in the West, but since feast days were frequent and they preserved the meat through salting, etc, they definitely were able to eat meat every day . And of course they also had high-fat sheep and goat cheese (or milk) as a dietary staple. And one very important factor: They ate the organ meats, which are 10 to 100 times more nutritious than muscle meats. You can get the same nutrition from eating organ meats once a week as eating muscle meat every day.

    2. Also, in many of these societies, plant foods were traditionally cooked in animal fats, especially lard. A common feature of the Blue Zones seems to have been lard. The Greeks used lard the most. And it was only quite recently that there was a switch. Whether industrial or non-industrial, vegetable oil use was uncommon until the 20th century. That is partly because saturated fat doesn’t go rancid as quickly and so could be saved more easily for long periods. It’s unsurprising that as rancid vegetable oil has increased in the modern diet so has modern diseases of civilization.

    3. The dairy argument, however, does not. Greek peoples eat around 30 kg of cheese per year, about 30% of that being Feta. Most of this Feta in the rural areas is made daily by individuals milking their own livestock and consuming that dairy. Dan Beuttner wants to paint a pretty picture of a people healthier because of the supposed absence of animal protein in the diet. It is a fallacy, and one or two examples of centenarians who lived to 100 with very little meat consumption proves nothing. As for humans “eternal” love for beans? We have only been eating them for ten to twelve thousand years. A mere BLIP on our human timeline.

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