The longevity diet
by Amanda MacMillan
Before it became known as a "Blue Zone"—a region of the world where people tend to live unusually long and healthy lives—the
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.
Eat unprocessed produce
A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. Ikarians regularly dine onpotatoes, 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, says Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, RD, associate professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, and a panelist for U.S. News & World Report's Best Diets 2013 rankings. (The Mediterranean Diet took first place in the "plant-based diets" category.)
Say yes to yogurt
Greek yogurt, that is. This creamy treat packs about twice as much protein as regular yogurt, and it's also high in bone-building calciumand stomach-soothing probiotics.
Choose fat-free, plain Greek yogurt over full-fat or sugar-heavy flavored varieties, and sweeten it up with honey, maple syrup, or fresh fruit. Nuts, ground flaxseed, and puffed rice cereal can also add a savory and satisfying crunch.
Get creative with toppings
In order for a diet to be successful, says Mossavar-Rahmani, it has to be relatively easy to adopt and follow—meaning you should enjoy what you're eating, and chances are your family should, too. So what better way to introduce them to the
By adding vegetables or fruit (like spinach and olives), you can increase the nutrient and fiber content of your everyday pie. Don't forget: Tomato sauce is considered a vegetable serving, too!
Try new grains
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends getting at least half of your grains fromwhole grains—something the residents of
Rather than live on white bread and pasta alone, the Greeks are known to mix it up with healthy, high-fiber alternatives like bulgur. This nutty-tasting grain, along with tomatoes and feta cheese, is often used to make traditional tabbouleh salad.
"Legumes are a super power food in terms of getting more protein and fiber into your diet," says Mossavar-Rahmani. Adding beans and lentils to snacks and side dishes will help fill you up faster and prevent overeating later on, she adds.
When it comes to beans, your possibilities are endless: Choose from soy beans, lima beans, or string beans, for example, or combine them all into a tasty salad.
Pack a healthier picnic
Adopting a Mediterranean diet isn't just about adding in more good-for-you foods, says Mossavar-Rahmani; it's also about getting rid of high-fat and high-sugar processed foods—like potato chips, French fries, cookies, and pastries.
Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are another great legume that can add texture and taste to salads. Paired with rice, veggies, pine nuts, and oregano, they make a satisfying—and all-natural—afternoon snack.
Choose whole-wheat pasta
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
You can make your own noodle dishes healthier by choosing whole-wheat pasta, which is higher in fiber and will help you feel full while eating less. Round out your meal with sliced chicken breast, chopped red onion and yellow bell pepper.
Flavor your dishes with feta
This tangy cheese 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.
In general, says Mossavar-Rahmani, it's best to choose low-fat dairy products and use cheese sparingly, as a topping rather than as the main ingredient.
Try a salmon burger
Instead of a traditional hamburger, whip up a batch of heart-healthier salmon patties. The Mediterranean diet encourages eating plenty of fish and seafood, which are rich inheart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, in place of red meat.
Crumbled feta cheese and cucumber slices add flavor and a Greek flair to salmon burgers, without a ton of extra calories.
Make your own salad dressing
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.
Toss your dressing with a mix of romaine lettuce, fresh mint, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, feta cheese, and sliced chicken breast, for an authentic Mediterranean lunch or dinner.
Sneak in spinach
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.
Serve a side of potatoes
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.
Eat red meat sparingly
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.
When you do eat red meat, opt for healthy cooking techniques like grilling and roasting, says Mossavar-Rahmani. And don't keep meat over an open flame for too long; those charred bits around the edges have been shown to contain carcinogenic compounds.
Swap in shellfish
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.
Snack on real foods
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.
"The key thing with the Mediterranean diet is eliminating processed foods and limiting sugar intake," says Mossavar-Rahmani. For a healthy snack with loads of flavor, whip up a Greek-inspired garlic and herb dip made with low-fat yogurt, dill, chives, and lemon juice.
Have fun with phyllo
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.
Eat more olives
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 Italianstudy found that women whose diets included a lot of olive oil had a 30% lower risk of ovarian cancer.
Dip into homemade hummus
Hummus, traditionally made with chickpeas, is rich and creamy without the saturated fat of dairy-based dips. Plus, it's naturally high in fiber and protein—and delicious on a whole-grain pita or when served with crudités.
There are plenty of variations on hummus; it can be made with peas or black beans, and mixed with everything from red peppers to (for the truly adventurous) chocolate. For a true Mediterranean experience, however, try a traditional chickpea recipe flavored with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes.
Eat food on a stick
Kabobs are a fun way to add some variety to your meals. Let your family members thread their own skewers with olives, vegetables, and meat or seafood, grilling them to perfection—or serve meatless skewers of olives, cheese, and tomatoes as an appetizer.
Season with spices
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.
Using more herbs and spices in your cooking also means you can go easy on the salt, says Mossavar-Rahmani—another important part of any well-balanced diet.
Make a big batch
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!
Drink more coffee
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.