Ikaria,greece photo

Feeding Our Brains: The Ikarian Way

Spring is a great time, if ever there is one, to take stock of your diet and work on both eliminating bad habits and establishing good habits. We all know that a breakfast habit of a chocolate chip muffin and large mocha is hardly going to win any accolades in the nutrition department, but finding a sustainable alternative is a daunting process. We are fortunate that there is a veritable mountain of information available about what constitutes a healthy diet. But too much of a good thing can cause even the most dedicated health warrior’s head to swim.

Rather than piling all “best nutrition practices” into one giant maelstrom of good intentions, it helps to pick one or two cuisines that excite you the most. Then, pick the healthiest ingredients and recipes from there. We will borrow from the five original Blue Zones of the world, those areas with the longest life expectancies and lowest incidence of chronic disease to illustrate a nutrient-dense, well-balanced diet that is attainable for all of us. And we’ll start first with Ikaria, Greece.

“The Island Where People Forget to Die”

We previously explored the importance of good nutrition in language learning success; your brain depends on a balanced diet to function at maximum capacity. Sugar-laden breakfast foods and nutritionally-devoid white carbs do no favors when trying to focus and learn. However, those tend to be the most convenient – not to mention cheapest – options. With a little thought and advance preparation, however, you can boost your brainpower with a diet that sharpens your memory, extends your attention span, and hones your ability to focus. To start, take cues from Ikaria, Greece, known as “The Island Where People Forget to Die”. Build a grocery list based on the much-lauded Mediterranean diet; in Ikaria, adhering to this diet isn’t a choice – Ikarians simply must grow their own vegetables, and meat is not always a readily available or affordable option. For most people in the US, procuring fresh veggies is a conscious choice, not a foregone conclusion, so build your Ikarian grocery list ahead of time and incorporate plant-based recipes into your daily diet.

Key Foods

Try incorporating the below ingredients into your meals this week.

  • Legumes – any and all beans, but Ikarians are partial to garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Greens, greens, and more greens
  • Olive oil as the main source of added fat
  • Potatoes – any variety
  • Tea or coffee in the morning
  • Honey – add to your herbal tea
  • Goat’s milk cheese and yogurt
  • Fish once every week or two
  • Fresh fruit for dessert
  • Whole grain bread
  • Herbs…and more herbs! Rosemary, garlic, sage, oregano, chamomile, etc.

These foods are all readily available at your average American grocery store, and none of these ingredients are especially difficult to cook with. Still unsure what to eat for breakfast before heading to class? How about whole-grain bread with honey, fruit, and a cup of black coffee or tea? Or sprinkle some nuts on your yogurt – if you can’t stomach goat’s milk yogurt (or can’t find it), go with plain Greek yogurt for added protein and less sugar.

Learning anything new is tough, especially as we get older. Any advantage you can give yourself is one well worth pursuing, and the Mediterranean diet is consistently named the best diet of the year by nutritionists. So go ahead – give yourself an energy boost and sharpen your focus by trying an Ikarian-style diet. Who knows – you may find you’re motivated to learn Greek next.

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