A recent article in the New York Times “the Island where People Forget to Die” by Dan Buettner really got my attention. I am a registered dietitian and yes it is a good goal to lose weight if you need to, and to lower your cholesterol, blood sugar and triglycerides if you are on medications for these conditions. I suggest a full examination not of your body, or weight but your total lifestyle. Coincidentally I am writing this article during the recent “Franken storm”. My “normal lifestyle” has changed to a much simpler one. This situation has given me reason to pause.
This article is a must read. It identifies a man in his mid-60’s diagnosed with lung cancer and given nine months to live. He chooses to return to his ancestral roots in Ikaria Greece. What occurred was astonishing. He adopted the local ways of living and his strength started returning. The years passed and his health continued to improve. Today, at 97 years old, three decades later he is cancer-free! He never received chemo therapy, took drugs or sought therapy of any sort.
So what happens on this island that improved this man’s health? Geographically the air and water have been identified as being responsible for extending life. There have been other communities with centenarians. There are similarities within all these communities that can be helpful for all of us to heed.
The residents of this island choose to have a simple life. Their day starts late morning with a breakfast of goat’s milk, wine, sage tea or coffee with bread and honey. Lunch includes beans, potatoes, greens and whatever home grown seasonal vegetables are available. Often dinner is small with bread and honey. Meals and social times extend late into the evening sharing stories, wine and or teas. The Ikarians farm their own vegetables, raise their own animals, and enjoy drinks made from locally grown herbs. Their focus is not on monetary success, multitasking and watching the clock; instead they choose to enjoy an enormous sense of community and time for daily naps.
As an RD I counsel patients and together we create goals. My initial assessment includes information for genetics, lab values, as well as diet and exercise habits. Very often it comes to light that my patients are under stress or don’t have a social network, in addition to other weight and health issues. The Ikarians don’t seem to have these stressors and they certainly seem to enjoy socializing with a close community of friends. Could these differences make so much difference with health? Research has indicated that dementia, cardiovascular disease in addition to cancer have been delayed or totally avoided.
The Times article has brought more of my attention to the importance of “way of life”. So let’s examine this way of life that seems to be so beneficial. Our cultural ways of multitasking, rushing and watching the clock are not included in Ikarian residents thought processes. Focus on taking naps, enjoying the social aspect of eating and having a lifestyle that naturally includes being active as opposed to gym time seem to reap impressive health advantages. Everyday life includes daily walking, gardening, and heavy manual labor. Another topic that I found extremely relevant was not particularly what these residents eat but what they do not eat such as sugar and soda. Their diets are based on the Mediterrean diet, a plant based format for Ikarians consisting of goats milk, wine, teas, coffee, whole grains, honey, beans, and home grown vegetables. The Mediterrean diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This diet includes moderate amounts of alcohol but limited dairy and meat products.
Low intake of saturated fat is associated with lower risk of heart disease and olive oil has been found to reduce bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. Tryptophan found in nuts, seeds, legumes, soybeans and other soy products, tuna, shellfish and turkey is one of ten essential amino acids. The body uses tryptophan to synthesize serotonin which is helpful in regulating appetite, as well as elevating moods and increasing the ability to enjoy beneficial sleep. Coffee, also included in Ikarian diets, has been controversial but of late research credits it with lower rates of diabetes, and heart disease. Basically to summarize, the additional benefits of the Ikarian diet include fewer pesticides, more foods in their natural form and choices that are loaded with beneficial vitamins and minerals. There is no mention of packaged and processed foods or beverages.
This wonderful article really got my attention. It ended by the cancer victim showing no further signs of cancer, and returning to the US to ask his doctors if they could explain what happened. When the interviewer asked “What happened?”this former cancer victim replied “My doctors were all dead.”