Diane Kochilas, Icaria is a paradigm for healthy living

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I knew I was in Paradise the first time I set foot on Icaria, the Greek island where my father was born that was catapulted a few years ago to unexpected fame as a Blue Zone, one of the world’s pockets of longevity.

It was 1972. After a 14-hour ride, the ferry let us off mid-sea in the middle of the night, where we were tossed, young and old, canes, carriages, and suitcases, into the fishing boats that sidled up to the stern, the norm back then since the ports were too shallow for ferries to dock. There were no tourists, roads that belied definition, and an almost otherworldly sense of being very, very far away and yet, somehow, right at the center. It took me, a New York kid then, decades to fully appreciate exactly what that meant.

Icaria’s remoteness helped shape a culture of solidarity, self-reliance, and, to use a catchphrase of the day, mindfulness. Icarians — even many of us who live far from the island — are tuned in to our own unique, honeyed pace, neither wound nor bound by the clock, sometimes much to the frustration of our non-Icarian friends.

Icaria’s isolation helped create a living testament to the Mediterranean Diet in its most holistic sense, one in which fresh, seasonal, home-cooked food and community are interwoven in ways that sustain physical and emotional health, human relationships, and the environment. Many Icarians live long and well, with less cancer and heart disease than Americans, and virtually no dementia, or depression, drinking wine, enjoying sex, walking, gardening, and socializing into their sunset years. They are 10 times more likely to live to 90 or even 100 than Americans, a statistic that embraces men and women almost equally.

Although the island is definitely more accessible than it was 40 years ago, it is still a paradigm of mindful Mediterranean living. The essence of Icaria’s good-for-life Mediterranean diet is evinced in its simple, pure foods, which are still popular. Most families have year-round gardens, traditionally planted in relatively shady places near streams because water management is an inherent part of life. Gardens provide a source of nourishment, pride, self-sufficiency, and, most important, dignity, irrespective of income, which tends to be on the low end of the scale anyway.

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