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Greece, The Blue Zones & The Mediterranean Diet- Factors for Health & Longevity

Featured Greece, The Blue Zones & The Mediterranean Diet- Factors for Health & Longevity

By: Yanna Darilis, ND, PhD  “Inspiring Wellness”

Greece is recognized as a Blue Zone, a term coined by journalist and researcher, Dan Buettner, from a study conducted by scientific researchers who were circling areas where centenarians were found on a map with a blue marker. These regions describe countries and areas where people enjoy remarkable longevity and overall health and well-being.

The longevity observed in Greek Blue Zones, such as the island of Ikaria, which was specifically chosen for research due to the abundance of centenarians, has been attributed to a combination of lifestyle factors, social connections, and dietary habits, with the Mediterranean diet playing a major role. However, it is important to note that in general, Greece has many other regions and places where people live over 100 years old. In this article I will explore why Greece is a Blue Zone, and how the Mediterranean diet contributes to health and longevity.

Why the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed as a gold standard for promoting health and longevity. Originating from the traditional dietary patterns of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, this eating plan is passed down from antiquity and characterized by its emphasis on fresh, whole foods and a balanced lifestyle. Let’s delve into why the Mediterranean diet is considered superior and the scientific evidence supporting its health benefits, including its potential for promoting longevity.

The Mediterranean diet is a rich blend of plant-based foods that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds that form the cornerstone of daily meals, providing a diverse array of essential nutrients, antioxidants, and dietary fiber.

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One of the main features of the Mediterranean diet is also its reliance on healthy fats. Olive oil, a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, contains monounsaturated fats that may contribute to improved heart health and reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. Additionally, the inclusion of fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, provides omega-3 fatty acids, known for their anti-inflammatory properties and potential benefits for cognitive function.

The Mediterranean diet promotes lean protein sources, favoring fish and poultry over red meat. Studies have suggested that this choice of protein may contribute to lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of heart disease. The moderation of red meat aligns with dietary recommendations associated with better health outcomes.

The abundance of fruits and vegetables in the Mediterranean diet ensures a high intake of antioxidants. These compounds play a crucial role in combating oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which are implicated in the aging process and various chronic diseases. The colorful array of produce in this diet provides an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals with potential health benefits.

Moderate consumption of red wine, typically enjoyed with meals, is a cultural aspect of the Mediterranean diet. Red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that has been studied for its potential cardiovascular benefits.

The Mediterranean diet extends beyond food choices; it encompasses a lifestyle that values social connections and physical activity, another major factor for Blue Zones. Regular physical exercise and strong community ties are integral components of the Mediterranean way of life, contributing to overall well-being and mental health.

Numerous studies support the positive impact of the Mediterranean diet on health and longevity. A comprehensive meta-analysis published in the "British Medical Journal" in 2008 found a significant association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and reduced overall mortality, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer (Sofi et al., BMJ. 2008). Another landmark study published in "The New England Journal of Medicine" in 2013 demonstrated a lowered incidence of major cardiovascular events among individuals following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts (Estruch et al., N Engl J Med. 2013).

While genetics also play a role in longevity, lifestyle factors, including diet, have been shown to influence gene expression. The combination of a favorable genetic predisposition and a health-promoting environment contributes to the longevity observed in Blue Zones like Ikaria in Greece.

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Greece is deeply rooted, and one of the leading countries promoting the Mediterranean diet:

Greece has been consistently following the same dietary regimen since antiquity and shared it with the world throughout the ages, influencing all who have experienced the cuisine. Greece also has a rich heritage of cultivating specific crops that are staples in the Mediterranean diet. Olive trees, for example, thrive in the Greek climate and provide nutrient-dense olives and olive oil. Similarly, herbs such as oregano, thyme, and rosemary are native to the region and are commonly used in Greek cuisine, offering an array of health benefits. Hippocrates knew this all too well with his statement “you are what you eat” and “Let food be thy medicine”.

The key pillars of the Greek dietary regimen and overall Mediterranean diet include;

  • Plant-Based Focus: The traditional Greek diet emphasizes on a plant-based approach with abundant fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods are rich in essential nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. These compounds help combat oxidative stress and inflammation, contributing to better health and potentially slowing the aging process.
  • Healthy Fats: Olive oil, a staple in Greek cuisine, is a primary source of monounsaturated fats. These fats have been associated with cardiovascular health and are considered a key component of the Mediterranean diet.
  • Lean Proteins: The Greek diet often includes moderate amounts of fish and poultry, while red meat consumption is limited. This preference for lean protein sources aligns with dietary patterns associated with better heart health.
  • Wine: Moderate consumption of red wine, particularly during meals, is a cultural aspect of the Mediterranean diet in Greece. Red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that may have cardiovascular benefits when consumed in moderation.
  • Nutrient and Mineral Dense products: The nutrient density of Greek produce and herbs is a result of a combination of favorable environmental factors, traditional farming practices, and a commitment to preserving the integrity of the food supply. The soil in many parts of Greece is rich in minerals and nutrients, and enhances the quality of the crops grown, providing essential vitamins and minerals that contribute to the nutritional density of the produce.
  • Micronutrients & Phytochemical rich: Greece has a tradition of foraging for wild edible plants, adding to the diversity of the diet. Wild greens, herbs, and other plants are often incorporated into meals, providing additional micronutrients and phytochemicals.
  • Less Processed Food

The diet minimizes the intake of processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats, which are linked to various health issues, including obesity and chronic diseases. The emphasis on fresh, local, and minimally processed foods in the Mediterranean diet contributes not only to the exceptional flavors of Greek cuisine but also to the health-promoting properties of the diet.

  • Minimal white bread and pasta: Greek people generally eat less refined white flour and pasta. Greece’s staple foods are based more on whole grains, fish, legumes and vegetables.

Important to note; Greek people are also becoming mindful of organic produce, choosing organic over the chemically grown and GMO produce, fostering a trend for organic farming practices and bio-supermarkets popping up all over Greece.

Way of Life plays a significant role in health and longevity:

The Greek way of life often includes a relaxed pace, with long meals shared with family and friends. The emphasis on enjoying meals and savoring the dining experience aligns with a lower-stress lifestyle, which can have positive effects on digestion and overall health.

Physical Activity: Many residents of Greek Blue Zones engage in regular physical activity as part of their daily lives. Physical activities such as walking, gardening, and traditional dances contribute to overall physical fitness and well-being.

Strong Social Connections and Community Support: Social bonds and community ties are deeply ingrained in the Greek culture. The emphasis on family, friendships, and community support contributes to a sense of purpose, mental well-being, and resilience, which are associated with longevity.

Greece's status as a Blue Zone can be attributed to a holistic combination of dietary choices, lifestyle factors, and strong social connections. By embracing the principles of the Mediterranean lifestyle, individuals may find inspiration for nurturing well-being and increasing their chances of living a longer, healthier life. In addition, the Mediterranean diet stands out as a superior dietary pattern associated with numerous health benefits. Its emphasis on whole, nutrient-dense foods, healthy fats, and a balanced lifestyle aligns with scientific evidence supporting its positive impact on cardiovascular health, cognitive function, and overall well-being.

Adopting the Mediterranean diet may not only be a culinary delight for your palate, but also a pathway to a healthier, longer life. It's important to keep in mind that individual health needs always vary, therefore a balanced and varied diet is generally recommended for overall well-being. Planning a trip to Greece or other Mediterranean regions will surely get you inspired to adopting lifestyle changes and healthier eating habits!