How to live to 100: eat no sugar

Posted on August 15th, 2012

I’ve been sharing a few posts on why the people in Ikaria, Greece, live so long. Why it’s a “Blue Zone”. You can catch up here and here on the gist (and there’s more to come). The really big question that dangled during my stay here, however, is where’s the sugar issue sit in all of this?

In his bestseller The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner really doesn’t tick off the issue, but he was pretty keen to hear about my thoughts on sugar and longevity while we were in Ikaria and we debated it – robustly – over the week. I outline things in these two videos that Dan’s National Geographic team shot with me:

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In short, the people here do eat sugar.

Today many put 1-2 teaspoons of sugar or local honey in their coffee or frappes. And they can drink several of these a day.

They also eat honey. They advise a teaspoon of their thyme honey in the morning on an empty stomach. You then eat something a good hour after that. They also eat yoghurt with honey, as well as “sweet fruits” – whole fruit jams made from sour cherries.

But several things:

  • Traditionally, sugar has been a treat, consciously eaten and honey was a delicacy, consumed in small amounts.

  • Coca Cola only arrived here just 20 years ago. Mars Bars haven’t made it yet. It’s actually hard to find junky food here – it’s not screaming at you at chemists, petrol stations etc – though the young people do consume way too much of it. This is another story. For now, we’re having to confine things to the secrets of the oldies and what they’ve done to live so long. This is what we’re to learn from (and hopefully the younger generation will, too).
  • Dessert is not an everyday thing. Yes, they eat sweet things…but at celebrations. I was not once offered a desert menu at a restaurant. They don’t exist.
  • Hidden sugars are super rare. The Ikarians don’t eat skim milk yoghurt. They don’t drink juice (only whole fruit). There are no pasta sauces from a jar, no bread from a packet. This is where real sugar consumption sits, as we all know.

So the upshot is that any sugar they’re eating is consciously eaten. They add it themselves. They’ve always added very little and my guess would be that it would equate to less than the sugar contained in an individual serve of “no added sugar” skim milk yoghurt…perhaps 6-8 teaspoons a day.

As an aside, here’s some information David Gillespie posted on the link between sugar and aging.

As another aside, I didn’t crave sugar once in Ikaria. I ate a little honey…mostly to experience the beautiful flavour, but also because my diet was so clean while I was there that I knew my body was happy to eat it. The clean diet – absolutely no chemicals or additives in over three weeks – had a big part to play, I feel. And the fat! I was never left hungry. What do you make of all this? Think sugar has a part to play?

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  • Christa

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for another great post, am slowly switching over to a cleaner way of eating. Gently doing it is working out well, small changes to ease into it (and a shard of Almond Butter Bark when the urge hits, delicious!).

    You drank wine while in Ikaria, how do they create it with no chemicals or additives, is it about being close to the source?
    Is it possible to get that kind of product in Australia?

    Sugar free makes you feel amazing, I had a slip yesterday and ate a few Oreos, then immediately craved white flour… today I have a sugar hangover, lesson learned!

    Thanks for being a source of great information and inspiration.

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  • Rose

    Personally I think its a combination of things you’ve mentioned like loads of veg and olive oil, a little meat and really low (to no) sugar consumption. like you say its the clean diet. on the subject of wines i imagine there are a few in oz that make it without preservatives. organic wines are more likely not to have any. There a few in WA that we like and the taste isreally much nicer.

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  • Nicole

    I still dream about the beautiful thick yoghurt with attiki (thyme) honey and crushed walnuts from my travels in Greece. Definitely my choice for ‘last meal before dying’.

    Loving all this info Sarah. Hope the rest of your travels are as edifying for you as Greece was.

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    Lisa Ingram Reply:

    Me too Nicole. And I was there age 16, 30 years ago! Always looking to capture that yumminess with Chris’ greek yog and beechworth box honey with my mother-in=law’s walnuts. Bring on sunshine.

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  • Mia Bluegirl

    I LOVE this Blue Zone stuff! Longevity in different cultures is fascinating, I feel like I am learning a lot.

    I love the idea of sugar around ceremonies only. I’ve started doing a similar thing myself, with dessert on Sunday night – gluten-free, home made with love and shared with special family, of course – and an otherwise very low sugar diet. I don’t feel deprived at all, and I don’t tend to crave sugar during the week either. Even during my “cheat” meal I don’t find I can eat much of it.

    These days, my cravings/ comfort foods are usually super garlicky roast vegetables with a glass of wine, or some red meat. I find this works so much better to cure the blues or cheer me up when Im down! No sugar hangover, which is a bonus. I never thought I’d be the kind of person to crave vegetables, but here I am.

    Love the videos Sarah! Can’t wait to hear of your future adventures in Blue Zones, I’m enjoying them.

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  • Sarah

    I just finished Sweet Poison and have been eating fructose free for a few months now, I have never felt better. My skin is glowing, my hair is healthier and I just feel amazing in general. I’ve gotten one of my friends onto it and we support each other.

    It must be refreshing to travel somewhere where they are so genuinely healthy, unlike here in Melbourne where people seem to find it offensive that I don’t eat sugar.

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  • sanja

    Hi Sarah, love your postings and love what Gala recently wrote about you. You are both awesome women.

    I am trying to ‘recognise what I eat’ and sugar free for health reasons. I took myself off my hypertension and cholesterol medication 2 weeks ago because I was ‘over’ the side effects. I have totally rejiggered my lifestyle and eating. Tough and tempting, but I am determined. You are an inspiration on so many levels. Many thanks.

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  • Andrew

    I find your adventures fascinating and always interesting to read but think the headline is misleading. It is not “do not eat sugar” but eat small amounts of sugar and be aware when you do it.

    I still do not have a full picture of the Icarian diet. How much bread do they eat, pasta, how much fat? How much meat a week? It seems their diet is reasonably different to the paleo one.

    From what I am reading it seems they tend to fit the Michael Pollan thesis of eating mostly plants and avoiding processed foods.

    Looking forward to hearing more about it.

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    MsBetterhome Reply:

    My money would be on the Mediterranean diet, Andrew. I have a Greek vegetarian cookbook that contains lots of traditional ‘fasting’ meals (for the numerous Greek Orthodox religious holidays when meat is avoided). The meals are mostly based on veggies, beans, grains, eggs, cheese, yogurt, fruit and lots of olive oil. I gather meat was traditionally eaten for feasts, on special occasions.

    Most people in the Greek Islands are not well-off, and never have been, so meat is eaten sparingly, and fish and seafood is eaten when available. People certainly eat plenty of bread in Greece, and some pasta. But I’m sure Sarah can shed more light on the specifics!

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    Mia Bluegirl Reply:

    Sarah mentioned in another post that bread and pasta are rarely eaten in Icaria. Which seems to back up my family’s stories of food on the Greek islands, and the food I ate as a child – lots of vegetables, dairy, olive oil, a little seafood and small amounts of meat, and legumes. I think it’s hard to tell, as over the years dishes have been interchanged from Turkish and Italian cuisine – the Turkish burek has inspired the Greek spanakopita and tiropita, and Italian lasagna become the basis for the moussaka. Generally though, the pastry-based dishes are a thin layer of pastry with mostly meat and vegetables. Unlike what you might see in a Greek restuarant in a Western city, for example. It’s something I would really love to know more about!

    I agree as well with the idea that grains were more relied upon during times of poverty, as they were more drought-resistant, easier to store and much cheaper. Though apparently during times of poverty my ancestors went goat-raiding on neighbouring islands with a rowboat in the middle of the night, which I find kind of funny. Goat in a boat – how do you like your Dr Seuss? :)

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    Esta Reply:

    Bread in a Greek kitchen is eaten consciously. That is, it is consumed in small amounts with a meal usually with olive oil and some cheese. It isn’t eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The bread I ate in the village last year was rustic, home made, sourdough style. Very different to the mass manufactured stuff around in supermarkets. Grains are eaten in moderation, usually rice and a little bit of spaghetti or flat noodles called hilopites. Traditionally the Greek diet was seasonal. Meat was eaten when in season (generally spring and summer – hence lent is usually a time of fast as they come out of winter and break their fast at Easter which coincides in the northern hemisphere with spring). My mother and father tell of eating lots of legumes and grains and stews made with older cuts of meat and salted fish during winter and then their diet changed dramatically once spring and summer rolled around. My father has been in Australia for more than 40 years. He has type 2 diabetes. I think he needs to go back to the diet of his childhood.

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  • Vasiliki

    I am very grateful for discovering this blog as it has changed my life in the last few weeks … each time I read a post I am all the more motivated to simplify my life from sugar and made big changes a few weeks ago purely because of Sarah. I have grown up on mediterranean thinking/diet but our family is guilty of doing what all Greeks in Melbourne have done – adding meat into our diet because it was so readily available and then the sweets etc so now we eat like any other westerner and wonder why we are fat or depressed etc. I have not succeeded in cutting out sugar all together but I sure hope to get there and this is like a comfort zone that reminds me what the goal is.

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  • David Driscoll

    Another line of evidence that eliminating sugar isn’t necessary, reduction is the message for people who overconsume (especially when mixed with inactivity)?

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  • Dominika

    Unbelievable how we have to rediscover things that used to be so simple. Food industry is criminal.

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  • http://realconstipationremedies.com/ Kris Cleary

    Brilliant Stuff Sarah.

    My take away is that 0 sugar intake isn’t necessary… a good reduction is very helpful.

    I really dont think that a small intake of fruit weekly is going to cause too much damage at all… in fact, i think it could be very helpful for our health.

    Kris

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  • Claudia

    How much honey would you recommend a day? And is soy milk bad?

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  • http://sugarinthediet.com/ Harvz

    I have been sugar free for several months now, and apart from losing 13 kilograms (almost 30 pounds) in weight in that time, I feel great. I have also found an all natural alternative to sugar called “Natvia” which just helps add a bit of sweetness back in. Natvia is all natural, has no virtually no calories, and absolutely no Fructose, and is a great natural alternative. I have more information about Natvia, and my sugar free journey here at http://sugarinthediet.com/.

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  • http://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/2013/04/weekly-science-project-idea-home-science-activity-spotlight-candy-chromatography.php#comments Jones sabo to be constructed from earthenware sili

    I actually like what you’ve acquired here, really like what you’re saying and the way in which you say it.

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  • Keryn

    This site intrigues me at present re my own health. I am 55, female, always pretty healthy but after a trip to Asia in feb/march, returned to discover I had a mystery virus which caused sudden ‘heart attack’ symptoms; but an angiogram showed it wasn’t. An MRI diagnosed it as Myocarditis (inflammation of the middle wall of heart). It’s more common than you realise and other than rest, rest, rest, there is no medication. It takes a very long time to go, if at all.
    I found a professional site in the US called MyocarditisFoundation.org and reading articles, stories and a forum has been both discouraging and encouraging. In it, I was made aware of an anti-inflammatory diet, hence I am on this site for the first time!
    The Ikarians certainly have answers and I was wondering what their health in general was like, specifically the heart, and other remedies utilised.
    I have flaxseed oil, krill tablets each day, eat walnuts, use virgin olive oil, eat plenty of veg but looking for other anti-inflammatory, cholesterol lowering sources and a relaxed, non-stressful lifestyle. I have just retired from teaching, so there’s a start!

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  • George

    I lived there for years…bread and pasta is eaten all the time.

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  • Denise Dragounova

    I trough that when i stop eating sugar i wouldn’t stick to it, its impossible and i couldnt imagine live without it. i cutted all sugar from wheat flour to chocolade and to my surprise i stopped craving it in couple of weeks, and today i wouldnt even find it tasty. in fact, simple sugary things like icecream tastes horrible and i can feel how toxic it is, starting in bad teeth, candida overgrowth, fungus, slow metabolism, malnutrition, civilized ilnesses, slower brain function etc etc etc doesn’t worth it. and when i do crave something sweet, thers plenty of substitute pure natural sugars like coconut sugar or stevia.

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