In the October 28, 2012 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Dan Buettner discusses "The Blue Zones": places in the world where an unexpectedly high percentage of people live to be over 100 years old (or close). Dan has a newly updated book out on this topic, but the focus of the New York Times article is the story of a Greek-born war veteran who moved to the U.S. and, in his 60s, developed lung cancer (presumed terminal). Expecting to die very soon, he returned to his native island, Ikaria, a Greek island 30 miles off the west coast of Turkey. Now, 35 years later and approximately 100 years old, he is cancer free and living an active life on Ikaria.
The question is why?
To come up with an answer, Dan Buettner has zeroed in on a "Blue Zone," which is a cluster of villages high in the mountains of Nuoro province in Sardinia, which contains the highest concentration of men over age 100 anywhere in the world.
He has recruited a team of experts, including Dr. Gianni Pes (University of Sassari in Italy) and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer, to help assess and validate if "Blue Zone" residents are really living longer than expected and why. So it is possible to compare and contrast the diet and lifestyle of residents of Ikaria, including Stamatis Moraitis, the long-lived cancer survivor, with centenarians from Sardinia and the other "Blue Zone" regions.
A key common feature is the local variations on the "Mediterranean type diet." The residents of Ikaria drink a popular "mountain tea" made from dried herbs such as marjoram, sage, mint (fliskouni), rosemary and dandelion. Local honey is widely used, and old people start their day with a spoonful of honey.
The menu in Ikaria include goat's milk, two-to-four glasses of local red wine daily, lentils, garbanzos, potatoes, fennel and seasonal vegetables from the garden. Residents also enjoy fish three times each week and small portions of larded pork from the family pig. There is generous use of olive oil with meals, plus local sourdough bread made with stone-ground wheat.
So there you have it, "Mediterranean Real Food": but there is also what they do not eat! Very little refined sugar and white flour; no sodas. All of this is remarkably like the "Real Food" approach we have been discussing in recent weeks.
Asked why she lived past 90 years, an old lady on Ikaria said it was the clean air and wine. A 101-year-old woman just shrugged and said, "We just forget to die."
There may be a lot of truth in this. The island residents do not track time (no clocks), work in their gardens, socialize, drink wine, have naps and are happy to wake up each day. So, although food is definitely important, the impact of the whole lifestyle cannot be ignored.
I have the impression that rushing to the gym eating an energy bar is not going to replicate the long life on Ikaria no matter how much "Real Food" we add in. We need true lifestyle changes, plus every effort to eat as best we can!